LOGANSPORT — As one of 12 children, Emanuel Martinez was a tough kid who got tangled up in the Colorado juvenile detention system. He was on his way to adult prison by the age of 15 — until one man crossed his path and changed his life forever.
Nearly five decades later, Martinez is on a mission to be that man to other troubled youth.
“I was incarcerated myself at the age of 13,” Martinez said during a visit to the Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility. “I pretty much discovered my talent as an artist while I was in there.”
His first battle with the law resulted in a three-month stint in a juvenile detention facility where, to pass time, Martinez would use match sticks from the day room and draw on paper towels. When released, he established a statewide reputation for his art, until he was locked up twice for seven months each and was facing time in the reformatory.
That’s when Bill Longley, a man who ran an art apprenticeship for minorities, sought out Martinez and got him out of the juvenile detention facility and into his program. Martinez spent two years with Longley, who eventually got Martinez back into school.
“Somebody helped me out because I was in pretty deep trouble after a few times and I was on my way to prison, and he just got me just in time,” Martinez said. “It completely changed my life — the art experience. With that help, I just completely changed.”
Martinez would make a nearly 45-year professional career out of art, having three pieces at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and teaching at the Art Students League of Denver, where he met Louisa Craft Jornayvaz – the eventual founder and sole financial supporter of Art for Kids: The Emanuel Project.
The program was originally created to provide safe, age-appropriate art supplies for kids in homeless shelters and has evolved into creating an art curriculum in juvenile detention facilities and then a visit by Martinez to work with juveniles on a mural within the facility.
About 20 students went through the training at the Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility and Lori Harshbarger, the facility’s superintendent, says she has already seen results.
“It seemed to attract more aesthetic learners, the hands-on kids, who maybe struggled with the traditional way of learning,” she said, adding the program would donate art supplies to the facility this year to continue the program’s success. “I think it’s been huge already.
The students have talked quite a bit about the experience and how much it’s meant for them and how it’s kept them focused on the programming and their future.”
Nine students worked alongside Martinez last week on a 46-foot by 11-foot mural in the facility’s indoor recreation room. Martinez designed the mural with the theme, “Go and Make Your Mark on the World” — a re-worked phrase from one of the facility’s teaching assistants.
On the left end of the mural is a classroom with a stairway that suggests a path to a higher level. Students are pictured walking up the stairs to a doorway leading to a picture of a graduate representing the spirit of education. The graduate holds the world in his left hand and “makes his mark” with his right forefinger.
Just right of the world is a graduate faced with various career choices. A path in front of those choices leads back to society, while a dark hole with an arrow pointing downward represents the possibility of falling back into negative temptation.
Harshbarger said working with Martinez afforded the students an opportunity to know that success is real.
“It’s a great testimony,” she said. “I don’t think they see the opportunities when we tell them about those that are out there. But to have someone who says, ‘I walked in your shoes. I know what that’s like and I was able to change everything,’ it really does make a difference. I’ve really seen it from some of our students. They really believe that this could be them.
“This really supports everything we’ve been telling them, but in a real way — a way that they can see.”
Sixteen-year-old Sheldon Camarillo is one of those students.
“It’s like a connection,” Camarillo said. “Somebody who comes from a similar background and has done so much with what he had. It kind of makes me feel like it doesn’t have to be this way for me for the rest of my life. I can do as much as him because he came from just as much as me. The sky’s the limit.”
Seventeen-year-old Andrew Akers said the experience had helped him realize he would like to someday give back to his community.
“It’s actually a pretty cool experience to work with somebody who is a good artist,” Akers said. “It kind of makes me want to do the same thing. It’s actually pretty cool to turn your life around.”
And that’s the exact message Harshbarger was hoping to get from the program the facility learned about from colleagues at the Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility.
“I think it’s just great because every day, at least once a day if not twice, the kids are going to get to see this room and I think it’s going to be a reminder of everything we’re talking about,” she said.
Martinez said he wishes Longley was still around to see the impact he had made on lives throughout the country.
“I’m sorry that he’s not alive to see what I’m doing because he always would tell me that if you ever become successful to make sure you give back to kids who were in the same situation you were in and that’s what I’m doing.”
But in the end, it’s all about making that connection.
“I’m not really an outsider or an insider,” Martinez said. “They don’t really see me as part of the system or the facility. I’m kind of in a situation where they can identify with me because they know I’ve been there just like they have, and we can talk with each other. And that’s what I like.”
• Jason M. Rodriguez is news editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5117 or email@example.com