New exhibition of art from incarcerated teens, underrepresented communities

“The Universal Human” is one of the artworks created by incarcerated youth across Utah that will be on display starting Dec. 6 as part of the Dissolving Controversies exhibit at the downtown Salt Lake City Main Library. (Molly Hosmer-Dillard)

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SALT LAKE CITY — One painting depicts a sunflower growing in a dark box. Another shows a person made up of puzzle pieces, with images such as a dog, a soccer ball and musical notes above them. A third shows a phoenix rising from flames.

These are just a few of the works created by incarcerated youth across Utah that will be on display starting Dec. 6 at the Salt Lake City Main Library.

The exhibit, called “Dissolving Controversies,” is the culmination of classes taught by artist Molly Hosmer-Dillard through Utah Tech’s Higher Education Program for Incarcerated Youth.

It also includes a large-scale painting called “Clouds,” created by more than 200 Salt Lake residents and made possible by a grant from the Salt Lake City Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. The “multivocal” piece was created over six weeks as Hosmer-Dillard held more than 35 workshops in the Salt Lake Valley at venues including the River’s Bend Senior Center, Road Home, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind and Specter Academy. At each location, participants were given a group of wooden laser-cut tiles, a selection of blue and white paint and asked to draw clouds.

“Each person has a different way of getting the paint onto the pieces,” Hosmer-Dillard said.

The artist behind the exhibit said she grew up in central Missouri and earned her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College before pursuing an art career in Berlin, Germany, and later in New York. After completing her master’s degree at Indiana University, she accepted a job teaching art at Utah Tech University.

Hosmer-Dillard said she got involved with Utah Tech’s Prison Youth Higher Education Program about a year ago and soon experienced a “pedagogical shift” that made her want to create something that used art as a communication tool.

With that in mind, she offered to organize an exhibition, and her most recent courses focused on creating artwork for “The Dissolution of Controversy,” she said.

Hosmer-Dillard said she travels to various correctional facilities across the state to conduct week-long intensive art classes for youth ages 14 to 24. Students learn about composition and surrealism, complete assignments, and receive college credit for completing the course. About 26 students participated in the Dissolving Controversies exhibit, she said.

“It was really striking to me (that) every student knew exactly what they wanted to draw,” Hosmer-Dillard said. “Almost no one hesitated.”

Hosmer-Dillard said these students have gone through some tough challenges, but creating art has helped them develop self-confidence and express their views.

When people have the tools to create art, “you feel empowered. You feel like an authority on your own creation,” she said. “So I really see some of them as valuable skills (acting) as a kind of metaphor for other skills in life.”

Hosmer-Dillard said the other part of the exhibit, “Clouds,” grew out of the thought that art often focuses on individuals, or on a single artist or a single subject in a painting. However, she said much of society is connected to gangs.

With that in mind, Hosmer-Dillard said she specifically reached out to people experiencing homelessness, children with autism, people in hospice and “as many types of people as I can” to create one painting.

“For me, the final image is really impactful because there are all these different perspectives on reality,” she said. “I invited them to draw clouds, but then each person does it in a completely different way. So when you see the last piece, you kind of start to understand how there’s no one right way to think about a cloud.”

Hosmer-Dillard said she wants people viewing the exhibit to feel an “empathetic connection” to a wide range of people. The name Dissolving Contradictions refers to how she hopes the art will “dissolve the ways we put people into different categories.”

“Every person is a full human being with incredible dignity and worth,” she said.

An opening reception for “Dissolving Controversies” will be held at the Salt Lake City Central Library on Dec. 6 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Hosmer-Dillard said the exhibit is free to the public and will run for a month. “Clouds” will then go on display at the Day-Riverside Library branch in early February, she said.

Additionally, anyone interested in donating or volunteering for the Higher Education Program for Incarcerated Youth can email [email protected] for more information.

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