“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Pablo Picasso

In 1999, the late Kurt Vonnegut, one of America’s favorite novelists, inserted a brief series of rules for writing into his book Bagombo Snuff Box. Included in this, he lists the following, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This observation on human motivations bears equally as well upon daily life as it does in the fictional realm. For the kids enrolled in Cultural Connections Madison (CCM), that desire is often as simple as being given the opportunity to express the sentiment “I am.”

In 2014, prb.org (Population Reference Bureau) noted that sociologist Kristin Turney of the University of California, Irvine reported some very disturbing statistics about a particularly vulnerable segment of the American population. Paola Scommegna of prb.org wrote, “In particular, children with an incarcerated parent were more than three times more likely to have behavioral problems or depression than similar children without an imprisoned parent, and at least twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, and anxiety.”

Local artist and writer Pat Dillon was made aware of this phenomenon when she was faced with the challenge of raising her grandson whose father entered prison in 2012. She began by studying a report on racial achievement gaps and racial equity concerns in the Madison and Dane County area. A presidential commission under Obama found that children exposed to the arts do better in all facets of their lives. A conversation with a local judge resulted in the suggestion that “the best thing you can do is create access.” The consequence of her research and community outreach resulted in the creation of CCM with a clearly articulated and ambitious mission plan: “we aim to end the cycle of familial incarceration by connecting kids with a locked up loved one to opportunities in Madison’s larger cultural arts and academic communities through partnerships with culturally responsive artists and educators committed to nurturing in our youth a heightened sense of belonging.”

After engaging with a YWCA social services summit, Pat began her efforts by reaching out to public schools to help identify children in the target group of those affected by parental incarceration. With years of grant writing; establishing contacts in the art community, especially with artists identifying as “of color;” and creating partnerships with community centers and various entities at the University of Wisconsin, her work has achieved some truly remarkable results. At Madison Youth Arts (MYArts), a dedicated center for Madison arts for children in all venues of expression, including music, theater, and the visual arts, CCM has created an after-school opportunity for their kids to work in the arts with professional artists making unique personal and collective pieces that stand apart from the typical classroom experience they’re already exposed to in school.

Last January and February, CCM’s efforts resulted in an exhibition at Abel Contemporary Gallery, in Stoughton, entitled no. 5: Cultural Connections Club Express Kids: Safe Spaces. Gallery owner Theresa Abel wrote, “I loved this show. From the first time Pat Dillon, the show organizer, brought the kids to see the space and as they continued to come to the gallery while the show was on display, their energy and enthusiasm was contagious. The opening reception was extremely well attended, reflecting the support of the community for the young artists. A very busy opening reception can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned artists, but these emerging talents handled themselves with such grace.”

One of the artists Pat brought in to work with the kids was Diane Washa, a luminary painter on the local and regional scene. She noted that while it could be a challenge to get some of the young artists to focus on their efforts, they all exhibited a profound change of attitude and behavior at the opening. Noting that the exhibition, which coincided with a major exhibit of her own recent work, was a unique opportunity for the participating CCM artists to experience the business of art—for them to see how presenting, hanging, and even discussing the work with patrons was transformational. She felt that it was part of a longer and more sustained process of healing, one in which aspects of self-discipline and coping were addressed in a fresh manner.

For Pat, the MYArt project is only a part of her efforts. She’s also engaged with the Vera Court community working with younger kids. Her stated goal is not necessarily to try and create artists as it is to create opportunities for expressive experiences. She also works with the University of Wisconsin—Madison as part of the UW Odyssey Project. This twenty-year-old effort, partially supported by Pleasant Rowland and Diane Ballweg, seeks to take “a whole family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, giving adult and youth learners a voice and increasing confidence through reading, writing, and speaking.”

CCM assists in this effort by working with the Odyssey Junior program that provides the children of parents enrolled in Odyssey Behind Bars, as well as those enrolled in the regular Odyssey program, cultural opportunities they might not otherwise experience. For all of her endeavors working with these otherwise marginalized children, Pat reiterates and emphasizes that the real goal of CCM is to show the participants other avenues of expression and communities and to find new ways to set goals so that their lives will result in the firm belief that it matters when they say, “I am.”

Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.