Artists set to take over Washtenaw County courthouse in unprecedented project

Five Washtenaw County nonprofits, in partnership with the Washtenaw County Trial Court, will present an unprecedented artistic "court takeover" called the RE:CLAIM Project for eight weeks starting Sept. 15.
Five Washtenaw County nonprofits, in partnership with the Washtenaw County Trial Court, will present an unprecedented artistic "court takeover" called the RE:CLAIM Project for eight weeks starting Sept. 15.

Hosted by the Youth Arts Alliance, the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ), Washtenaw County My Brother's Keeper, the Amplify Project, and Title Track, the project's mission is to bring attention to the carceral system's harmful effects on youth. Working in partnership with the trial court, the organizations have pooled their resources to create an art-based exhibition in the courthouse at 101 E. Huron St. in Ann Arbor. The project's name stands for "Rooted Exhibition: Community, Love, Abundance, Intergenerational, Multiplicity."

Artwork will be on view at the courthouse for the entire eight weeks of the project's run, but three free special events will also take place during that time. The project's opening reception, "RE:CLAIM: IMMERSION," will offer music, dance, immersive art, and more on Sept. 15. A community conversation entitled "What If We Were All Free?" will take place Sept. 22. And a music-focused program entitled "Soundwaves and Moods" will take place Sept. 30. All three programs will run from 5:30 p.m.- 8 p.m. Project organizers intend to raise awareness and open up meaningful dialogue through this combination of visual art, performance, and workshops.
The RE:CLAIM Project exhibit being installed at the Washtenaw County Courthouse.
"It's mind-boggling to think that just a few blocks away from some of our shops and major restaurants in the city, there's a really big building that most of us see, but don't really think about," says Jenny Jones, Title Track's co-executive director. "Inside, massive decisions are being made all the time by people who aren't necessarily pure advocates for youth. And it's usually decisions that forever alter these youths' lives and adulthood – if they even make it to adulthood, to be honest."

As a way of explaining the impetus behind the RE:CLAIM Project, she notes that the courthouse has a floor just for juvenile cases – and "it's one of the saddest floors in a building" that she's ever seen. She describes cold-looking marble walls, and a single art installation that is on permanent display. In some of the courtrooms there are small play areas for children who might be cheerfully unaware that their fates are being decided at that very moment.

"And then you have an area in this one room where there's some chairs up along the wall, along a window. They're there for the drivers of the youth who are too young to even have a license," she says.
Title Track Co-Executive Director Jenny Jones.
Jones experienced the courthouse in a personal way when she toured the building in April, during the planning stages of the RE:CLAIM Project.

"I was walking around when suddenly I realized that I am a person of color who is going into a courthouse just to tour it," says Jones, who is Black. "Typically, the people of my race that are in the courthouse are people in there who are incarcerated, or people who go in there and don't necessarily go home. And I really had to think about that."

Desirae Simmons, co-director of ICPJ, says the project is a small way to start big conversations. 
Desirae Simmons.
"What we can see in terms of the legal system, the juvenile system, is that the system has failed," she says. "We want people to be treated well, but how do we actually get there? We're inviting the public into this conversation."

Within the larger event, ICPJ is leading a public conversation on Sept. 22 called "What If We Were All Free?" Simmons says the discussion will engage with the idea that most people "just kind of assume that we are all free." 

"But how do we delve into what that means, not only within this county, but within this nation?" Simmons says. "And what would need to change in order for us to bring truth to that idea, and to be able to make it feel more concrete?"
The RE:CLAIM Project exhibit being installed at the Washtenaw County Courthouse.
She hopes RE:CLAIM visitors will walk away with an interest in the county's judges, and an understanding of the importance of making informed decisions about who they are electing to those roles. Both Jones and Simmons are hoping people will come to the project with open minds and a willingness to learn.

"We'll teach you through poetry and music performances and through stories from people about how they were treated. People who just want you to listen to their story and who just want you to understand how their lives have been impacted," Jones says.

Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.