Everyone Shines Given the Right Lighting: Murals at Juvenile Hall

By Morgan Bricca March 21, 2016

Juvenile Hall Medical Clinic Lobby Mural

I said it before in this blog that my clients are the ones with the big ideas, they are the change makers and visionaries, and it is my privilege to play midwife in bringing their ideas to fruition.

This months featured instigator is Chia Chen. Chia manages the medical clinic at Juvenile Hall in Santa Clara. Up until a few weeks ago, the medical clinic was visually stark, similar to the rest of the Juvenile Hall. The focus of the facility is safety and legal considerations, and the logistics related to meeting those obligations. Aesthetics is not top of mind in these priorities.

However in the medical clinic, mental health becomes an important component with respect to safety of staff and students. A peaceful, comforting environment is conducive to feeling safe and promotes a frame of mind that is more receptive to healing. Chia thought nature murals would be transformative not only for the space, but also for a handful of creative kids who would be invited to participate.

One of the most subtle and, I realized later, profound benefits of creating the murals with the maximum security apprentices assigned to me, was the art therapy component. I started out nervous and chatty, but at some point on the first day, when everyone became absorbed in his or her painting task, things got quiet. We were settling into the work. The moment I stop talking about, thinking about, or organizing around making art and just startmaking is the beginning of a flow creative state for me. Every day of painting we shared that relaxed, creative space together.

Juvenile Hall Rainforest Mural

mural image

mural image

For the second mural, in the girl’s exam room, we painted a sunset at Lighthouse Beach in Santa Cruz. I could see the group’s confidence growing. By this time I had figured out that music was better than silence, that “Top 40” was better than my awkward euro chill, but that hip hop was king. By the time we got to the final mural in the waiting room, we had grown comfortable with each other, the smiles, banter, and laughter came easier. We were having fun. The feedback on what we had already completed was making them minor celebrities at “juvy”. The kids felt proud of their work and the transformation they were a part of.

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Susan Cain said, “Everyone shines, given the right lighting.” In this project, everyone got to shine. Chia’s progressive vision for the clinic was an absolute success. The nature scenes I love to paint are a perfect fit for the stark environment of juvenile hall. It turns out the security guard assigned to oversee the project was our best resource for design ideas. The five participants were given an opportunity to make a positive impact, and their contribution, and their pride in their work was beautiful to watch.

Chia wrote me a “keeper” note later:

Hi Morgan,

The murals greatly exceeded my expectations. Our entire staff enthusiastically appreciates the artistic transformation of our clinic.

Our kids here for medical services LOVE the murals as well. As I mentioned to you yesterday, one of our young patients returned from emergency psychiatric services for a self-harm issue and had a huge smile on her when she saw the mural! It is amazing to all of us how a depressed patient responded to mural.

[The attending nurse told me later it was the first smile they had seen from her since entering “juvy”.]

The pleasure is all ours to have you and we absolutely love your work and the positive environment and spirit you have instilled in our kids.

Never in my 20 plus years working for the county has any project so smoothly complete without any hiccup–government work.

Thank you so very much from bottom of my heart.


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One of my highlights came at the very end when a student asked his supervisor if he could come back after he was released, to show his friends and family what he had painted. Wow. I would venture a guess that the number of formerly incarcerated juveniles who come back “just to visit” is very low.

The most quiet and reserved of the five participants wrote a letter that afterwards that blew me away:

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Now the kids know how I feel after every project I finish: “Holy (obscenity), I did that?”

Thank you for letting me share my joy with you this month.

Warm regards,

Post Script

Juvenile Hall had me back for another project- to paint the new library with a reading theme. I painted this project with an all-women’s team, but the group I painted with on the first project was invited back for the last day of painting. Again, this project was designed with the kids and painted by the kids. I just mixed the paints, guided the crew, and helped with final touch ups:

mural image

mural image

Morgan Bricca

Morgan Bricca

Morgan Bricca is a mural artist living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her clients run the gamut from professional creatives, including architects and designers to building owners, school administrators and community advocates. When she is not making art, Morgan enjoys sipping boba tea with her kids and taking naps on the couch.