Healing through art: Expressions of incarcerated youth on display at ZACC

ABBY LYNES For the Missoulian

In Chris La Tray’s classroom, every poem begins with a story.

“I was trying to engage them in conversation,” he said. “‘What’s your life like.’”

The Métis writer was part of a project funded by a grant awarded to Free Verse to bring BIPOC artists to the Missoula Juvenile Detention Center and the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility to teach virtual arts workshops. Rapper R’Know taught hip-hop songwriting; Blackfeet artist Valentina LaPier taught visual art with pastels, and La Tray taught poetry.

Founded by a group of University of Montana MFA students, Free Verse is a nonprofit that teaches arts and writing to incarcerated youth across Montana. Recent work from its students is on display at the ZACC and includes work from the three Montana-based BIPOC artists’ workshops as well as art and poetry from a zine put together during the initial lockdown of the pandemic.

The exhibit is titled “Shape of Us” and features art and writing about isolation, identity, family and more. La Tray said he tried to talk to them as a peer instead of an authority figure, and he focused on storytelling in teaching the students how to write poetry, rather than teaching form

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