Laura Ramberg is a ceramicist, sculptor, and dancer who has been working as an artist in the Lawrence, Kansas community for the past 40 years. A true innovator and creative pioneer, she has taught art classes three times a week at the Douglas County Juvenile Detention Center in Lawrence for two decades. Working with literally hundreds of students over 20 years, she has witnessed fluctuations in policy, changes in facilities, and the digital revolution in youth culture. She has experienced firsthand how art can help people in crisis in the moment, but also how it can change their lives. Arts Education Council member Margaret Weisbrod Morris sat down with Laura to hear about her experiences working with incarcerated youth.
How did you become a teaching artist?
I came to the University of Kansas to study art. Then I took a dance workshop and fell in love with creative movement too. I ended up performing in all sorts of events, working with Roger Shimomura and others. After I graduated with a degree in sculpture, I started working in Kansas City with Young Audiences doing all sorts of workshops in the Kansas City area. I had done so many performances that being in front of a classroom was really easy for me. I was working mostly in the inner city areas, and it was back in the early 80s when there was more funding for that kind of thing. This is where I really saw my teaching take off.
When did you begin working with incarcerated youth?
I just kind of happened on it, and it stuck. I had a friend that was teaching the art classes at the juvenile detention center. She invited me to model for a drawing class, because she knew I was comfortable in my body and in front of a classroom. Originally I said yes to just the few sessions, then my friend found out she had to travel and asked if I would take the class for a few weeks … and a few weeks turned into 20 years!
I have always been inspired by the fact that you have been teaching in this facility three times a week for over 20 years. Most people don’t stay in any job that long. What has kept you going back?
It’s just a really great fit for me. I am a studio artist and I work on commissions, so mostly I work alone. This work really balances my life—to be able to get out in the public and talk to others, and spend a decent time sharing over artwork. The rest of the time I am alone in my studio! So, it’s a good fit for me personally, but I also see how much the kids need the art. You always hope for meaningful work in your life, and this is it. I don’t reach every kid, but I ALWAYS see that the art class really makes a difference in their lives. I think that is what has kept me going. Helping these kids find themselves in the art, and discover ways to express themselves in positive ways.
A lot changes in 20 years. What changes have you seen that stick out the most to you?
Now, I see more kids that are comfortable in the jail space because their brother went through the system, or their friends or cousins or other family. There is so much repetition—like jail is a normal part of life—not just with the kids themselves, but generationally. I always think, man, if I could work some magic and teach them how to envision and create doors—they could see new paths and see other choices than what they see now. It’s really hard because incarceration has become so systemic—we have a culture of incarceration. It is just a part of regular life now for a large chunk of people living in the US.
How are some of the ways you open doors for your students?
I try to connect with something they are thinking about, something that they know – like a popular movie. One that is out right now is about superheroes—this is something that all the kids know about. I say, “OK guys, we’re gonna draw some comics.” This always gets their attention right away. “I want you to create your own superhero and super-villain. Tell me their history, why they are the way they are, describe what their super power is.” They instantly relate the character to themselves. This project makes them think on a really deep level—especially when they explain why the character is the way they are. This has been a project we’ve done for over a decade and it never gets old.
One of my other favorites is a boomerang project. I love this one because it is about a culture that is new to many of the kids, but it is also artistically challenging. I make boomerangs out of wood, one for each student. We talk about the history of boomerangs, Aboriginal art, and how boomerangs work. Then, they have to design an abstract painting on the boomerang. I explain that the design puts energy into their boomerang. When you throw the boomerang out, you spread that energy out into the world—but then it always comes back to you. That one really hits all the bases: technical skill, art history, multicultural education, and then an emotional tool to carry with you for life.
I also include the work of artist friends as much as I can in the classroom. I ask them to visit, both to work with them and just get to know them a little. I also draw on my artist community for ideas. I have a friend who reads tarot cards. She shared the history of cards with me once and explained that the suit of hearts [in playing cards] began as the suit of cups in the tarot deck. This made me think about the fact that we make pinch pots and cups in class pretty often. So, next time we were making cups, I shared this information with my students and we turned it into a writing exercise. I asked them to tell me how hearts and cups are alike, and they really got into it: some of them are small, some are big, some are full, some of them are broken, and some never get used.
In the 20 years you have been doing this, are there any moments that have never left you?
Lots. One I always remember is the day a young man walked into my class late. I could tell he was just really ready to light a fuse. We were working in clay that day, and I knew that if I put a ball of clay on the table and asked him to join us, he would never do it. He was just looking for a reason to not join, to refuse the whole thing. I knew I needed to find a way to involve him in the class because he really needed it right then. So, instead of talking—I took a ball of clay and just handed it to him, didn’t say a word. He took the clay from me and sat down and worked with it under the table. He didn’t talk. He pressed and pressed and pressed and after a while, he started to work the clay on top of the table. By the end of the hour—he had this beautiful cup. It was just beautiful.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The more a young person can relate themselves to a project, the deeper the impact it has. Making art is so meaningful, and I try to help my students find ways to express feelings in positive ways, to channel themselves into something good. The one thing all my incarcerated students have in common is that they come from poverty, so not a lot of them have experienced art like this. Sometimes I wonder if they had these kinds of classes earlier, would they have been able to see different choices for their lives?
After 20 years, Laura is retiring from teaching. However, she will continue to visit her students at the juvenile detention center on the weekends accompanied by her therapy dog, Rocky.