Repaying society with art
Probation Department wants to bring community service art to public
Susie Bonds, manager of the 6th Judicial District Probation Dept., shows some of the art created by clients in her Useful Service Art Program. Since its inception a year and a half ago, the program has amassed about 65 pieces of art, and Bonds has run out of room to display it. She is considering an outreach program whereby the artwork would be displayed in the community./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Missy Votel

Behind a heavy, unmarked door in the La Plata County Courthouse, Susie Bonds reveals an unexpected find. In the makeshift storeroom across the hall from the district courts lies a veritable trove of artwork - paintings, collages, sketches -a total of about 35 pieces in all. Almost as many more line the halls of the courthouse's second floor, with a few even hanging in Judge Martha Minot's courtroom. All belong to the 6th Judicial District Probation Department, of which Bonds is the manager, as part of a unique program that allows people to work off community service hours by creating art. In exchange for one 2-foot-by-3-foot work depicting their experience going through the judicial system, as well as a paragraph or two explaining the work, Bonds' clients are able to write off 24 hours of community service.

In its year and a half of existence, Bonds said the program has proven to be successful therapy for her public service clients, about 80 percent of whom are DUI and DWAI cases. However, she and others now would like to see the artwork put to a use that could benefit the entire community.

Although the legalities are still being worked out, Bonds said she would like to use the artwork as a means of generating income, via auction. The money would then go into an offender services fund to help low-income people offset court expenses.

"You're looking at a minimum of $5,000 for DUI by the time you factor in court costs, alcohol classes and four to five years of increased insurance rates," she said. "This way, we'd be able to tell clients, 'Here's $10 for an alcohol class.'"

But even more so, Bonds envisions a program in which the artwork is used as an educational tool, warning people of the perils of drinking and driving, as well as the financial and emotional aftermath. The pieces would be displayed everywhere from local nonprofit offices to elementary schools.

"That's the point, to get it out there so people can see it," said Vanessa Maestas, volunteer coordinator and assistant manager at the Volunteers of America Thrift Store. Maestas became involved in the program after attending a meeting of the Useful Service Program's Advisory Council, overseen by Bonds. The meetings, which are held quarterly and open to the public, are a way of brainstorming for new ways in which people can work off community service hours.

"It's a way to give us ideas for new projects that aren't punitive," said Bonds.

It was at this meeting that Maestas heard of the art program and saw the dozens of pieces of art hidden behind closed doors. Maestas said she was blown away by the power of the works and the fact that they were going to waste.

"It lit a fire under me," she said. "I didn't really believe they belonged locked away."

Thus, Maestas began working with Bonds on ways to get the artwork out of the closet and into public view.

"That's the point: to get it out there where people can see it. No one thinks to go to the courthouse to see artwork," she said.

Maestas, who works with many community service clients through her job at the VOA, said she was surprised at the caliber of the art work and the long hours that likely went into them.

"After looking at them, it's evident that they took a lot longer than 24 hours," she said. "They're very thought provoking."

A painting by a young man depicting the emotions he went through during his DUI hangs in the County Courthouse. Since doing the painting, the young man has done several more./Photo by Todd Newcomer.
An anonymous painting hangs in the second floor hallway of the La Plata County Courthouse. About 35 pieces or art are displayed in the courthouse as part of a unique program that allows art to go toward community service sentences./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

"After looking at them, it's evident that they took a lot longer than 24 hours," she said. "They're very thought provoking."

According to Bonds, the pieces were done by artists and non-artists alike, ranging in age from a 16-year-old girl to a grandfather in his late 60s. Mediums include acrylics, water colors, collage and digital imagery and run the gamut from abstracts to self-portraiture. And while the works convey a series of emotions, from anger and humiliation to greed and denial, Maestas said many times it is the accompanying essay that really hits home.

"You look at the work and arrive at your own conclusions, and then you read what they wrote explaining it, and that's what really has the impact," she said.

The creation of the art has a cathartic effect on the artists, who become quite attached to their works when it comes time to give them up, Bonds said.

"When they first come in, they're angry and they want to remain anonymous," she said. "But by the time they sit down a few months later to start the project, their ideas have changed. And by the time they're finished, they have a hard time letting go of the art work, and they want to sign their names to it."

Bonds admits that when she started the program, she never dreamed it would have such a far-reaching impact. Rather, the idea came about as a way to fill some empty wall space in the probation department's waiting area.

"We talked about having probationary clients doing it, and a probation officer at the time said he had a client who could draw," Bonds recalled. However, the program did not come to full fruition until a few years later, when Bonds became supervisor of the probation department.

"When I became supervisor, I decided this would be an ideal opportunity," she said.

Of the 869 public service participants she had last year, Bonds said about 35 chose to work off hours with art. Although it is only a small fraction of the group, she said it has had a big impact on the participants as well as others.

"It can be an incredibly emotional thing," she said, citing the example of a young man whose family came in to view his work and was moved to tears. "Turns out, his whole house is filled with art work now. That's what it's all about: giving people a release outlet."

Bonds also said art programs similar to hers, which she believes to be the first of its kind, have branched out in districts in Boulder, Fort Collins and Archuleta County. She also said there is talk of incorporating an art program in Dallas, as well.

Although she has had to turn down a couple of pieces from people who were obviously trying to take advantage of the program, Bonds said overall it has been extremely rewarding.

"I really do love it," she said.

And it is this sense of fulfillment that Maestas believes can be shared with the rest of the community. "It's about finding the positive impact to a potentially negative situation and seeing if anyone can glean something from it."






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