Making art together builds relationship between police, inner-city youth

Winnipeg police officers and inner-city youth have come together in a collaborative art project in an effort to break down barriers and change perceptions of one another.

Project spearheaded by Graffiti Gallery and Studio 393

Rene Marriott, 23, painted several pieces as part of a collaborative project between Graffiti Art Programming and the Winnipeg Police Service. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Winnipeg police officers and inner-city youth have come together in a collaborative art project in an effort to break down barriers and change perceptions of one another.

Through Graffiti Gallery's satellite space Studio 393 in Portage Place, six officers and seven youth got together once a month starting in January to create art pieces that explore their identities and how they interact with their community.

"I was a little bit surprised, a little bit skeptical at the same time, 'cause its the police working with the Graffiti Gallery and, you know, how there's a stigma against graffiti being illegal," said Rene Marriott.

The 23-year-old artist says he's had good and bad experiences with police, who he said would often come to the Manitoba Housing project where he lived. He said he's often felt that police view youth at the gallery in a certain way.

"That we're criminals I suppose or that we're bad kids. Like just being rebellious, rebellious kids, but when they come there they realize that these kids are actually like practising their craft and working toward something better for themselves," Marriott said.

Det.-Sgt. Shaunna Neufeld has worked with exploited youth in the missing persons unit, and created a photography project to showcase different sides of her life and work, both the good and the bad.

"You're putting yourself out there, that's a little scary right? But I want people to understand that as police officers we care and we do see a lot of stuff and sometimes our job is really heavy and really sad and we have to deal with a lot of things along the way," she said.

Det.-Sgt. Shaunna Neufeld created a photo project to showcase the good and bad sides of her job. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

That vulnerability that comes with creating art together helped to break down some of the barriers that have built up between the youth and police, Studio 393 assistant manager Jean Borbidge said.

"I think art is such a vulnerable and-risk taking activity, and I think when people are vulnerable together it breaks down those barriers completely."

Osani Balkaran created a performance piece for the exhibit. He said he went in to the sessions with an open mind.

"We didn't get political but I think being inside a room with police officers and making art is maybe a good first step towards a bigger change," he said.

Osana Balkaran performs a rap that he wrote as part of the project. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Neufeld, who had no formal art experience, said being a police officer requires a lot of structure and rules, something she had to let go of to find her creativity.

"It was liberating in some ways just to get in there and start taking a paint brush and start doing something and not worrying about it, or not worrying if it's exactly the way it's supposed to be," she said.

Marriott said the process of making art built relationships in a way that talking couldn't.

"I feel like the visual art parts of it gets people to relax and you're not too worried about how we communicate with each other but rather how we work with each other through our art piece," he said.

The exhibition will be on display at Graffiti Gallery from June 29 to July 13.

The Graffiti Gallery's Studio 393 outreach program has off-duty officers creating art with youth between the ages of 14 and 23. 2:27

With files from Holly Caruk and Cameron MacLean