Teens’ jeans are used as canvas in exhibit at Strand exploring social issues

One of the sculpture pieces that will be on display in the “From Where I Stand” exhibition, which opens on Friday at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner.
Photos courtesy Saints & Scholars, Inc.

The Strand Theatre will host a new exhibit opening on Friday that explores Boston teenagers’ relationships with police and society through a unique art project using jeans taken from the teens’ own closets.

The exhibit — “From Where I Stand” — includes nine sculptures fashioned by 16 teens engaged in a program headed up by Boston Police officer Emmanuel “Manny” Dambreville.

Using denim as their canvas, the teens layered paint, tissue paper, photos, boxing gloves, and chains on top of the pants to reflect the themes explored in a project that began in the aftermath of the murder of George Flord in May 2020. 
Each sculpture highlights unique perspectives on a range of issues, including gentrification, poverty, addiction, abuse against women, crime, police brutality, trauma, and racial profiling.  

Sixteen teenagers from the BPD’s Heal Boston youth program participated in the art project run by Saints & Scholars, Inc.

“The youth that are part of Heal Boston are the experts on their own lives and have the opportunity to teach others through their created images,” said Heather Harris, founder and president of Saints & Scholars, Inc. The nonprofit uses art as a vehicle to give a voice to marginalized communities. “It’s really a powerful therapeutic process,” she said.

While most of the sculptures appear standing, coated in fabric stiffener to retain their shape and fastened onto platforms, one sculpture shows the jeans molded into a kneeling position, its ankles bound with yellow police tape. Designed by Ethan Coakley, the sculpture is a searing reflection on police brutality. 

Red tissue paper, symbolic of the fear and anger that one may experience during that moment of arrest, Harris said, shoots out of the waist of the jeans. A pair of handcuffs and additional police tape hold the sculpture captive, as if the “person is restrained,” she said.

“Ethan is a great kid,” Dambreville said, “... But he also is a person who is sensitive to the plight of his people, the plight of oppressed people, the plight of what’s right and what’s wrong.”

The exhibit has been in-the-works since last summer in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Harris approached the BPD with the idea of creating an art project that would involve police officers and teens. She connected with Dambreville, who invited youth ambassadors from Heal Boston to participate in the project.

“She explained to me what her vision was, which was to do an art project, and use art as a vehicle to bridge the community with the police, to bring these communities back together,” Dambreville said. 

At the time, Harris said, she wasn’t sure what kind of project would take shape, but, as an art therapist, she saw the partnership as an opportunity to build conversation and bring different communities together through art.

“I think of the kids in this project as ‘artivists’,” Harris said. “They’re kind of activists and artists at the same time.”

After months of discussing social issues, planning the exhibit, and compiling materials for the sculptures, over one week at the end of June, Harris, Dambreville, and the teens from Heal Boston came together to build their sculptures. 

“The essence of [the artwork] is that they embody their beliefs, their ideas, their lived experiences,” Harris said.

The exhibit will have its opening event this Friday (Sept. 24) from 5 p.m. o 8 p.m. at the Strand Theatre, 543 Columbia Rd., Dorchester. Along with the sculptures, there will be a documentary by FGXstudios that blends media coverage related to the exhibit’s themes and the making of the exhibit.

Flanked by their sculptures, the teens involved in the project will explain their artistic process and the topics that their pieces address.

“The kids had full rein to express themselves and that’s why it’s very pure,” Dambreville said. “They’re very powerful pieces.” 

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