Community uplift is nothing new for Riley Brenes. The University of South Alabama grad was education director for Mobile Boys and Girls Clubs’ ChARTing New Directions program, launched at guerilla gallery in the 401 Dauphin St. space and started the Fry Building Project utilizing storefront windows for artist displays. It earned the 2017 Arty Award for Artistic Innovation.
After a short stint working for an internationally famous artist, Brenes became a detention officer at Strickland Youth Center. A young artist from comfortable lineage working with juvenile offenders?
“I was a pretty rough kid myself and my background is pretty scattered. I feel more myself in a detention setting than I do in a board meeting,” Brenes said.
He said he “straightened [his] life up” at 22 through religious faith and working with nonprofits.
“I realized there’s so many people in Mobile who feel marginalized,” Brenes said.
His photo for Mobile Bay Magazine’s “40 Under 40” of 2016 had Brenes in sackcloth and ashes. He cited mourning for generations of lost potential in Mobile’s poorer neighborhoods as the reason.
Now, at only 30 years old, Brenes has a new job designing detention programs. He feels his comfort with the kids, along with his creative background, are a perfect combination.
“Art is not necessarily about drawing or painting or sculpture, but it’s really about being creative in a problem,” Brenes said.
He’s also been able to instill change in his kids through arts. A recent project looked at iconic figures who connote respect.
“There’s a Candy Lady in every urban neighborhood who takes care of all the kids. In the summertime, she makes sure they have Freezy Pops and Christmas time, she makes sure they have Christmas cookies,” Brenes said.
He also described these stand-in grandmothers as peacemakers. By Brenes’ account, the Candy Lady’s territory is neutral ground for rival gangs.
The other figure was a local barber. The barbershop’s role in urban neighborhoods is no secret, having been included in mainstream media as community hubs.
Brenes enlisted aid from Mobile Arts Council (MAC) dynamo and photographer Devin Ford. She provided technical advice but otherwise let the kids run the show.
They interviewed a Strickland worker who serves as a Candy Lady in Trinity Gardens. She noted spending up to $250 of a meager monthly salary on the treats. It astonished Ford and Brenes.
The kids interviewed other locals — Kalenski “DJ Dirty Dan” Adams at WBLX-FM 92.9, Charlana Quivers of Backflash Antiques and Lynn Oldshue of Southern Rambler. Brenes described one energized youngster who began coming to daily class in her most professional attire.
He quickly shifted focus to other benevolent entities — the free services from Gulf Coast Ducks, the History Museum of Mobile and the Mobile Museum of Art.
Visual artist Soynika Bush lent her talents, drawing outlines for 6-foot-by-8-foot murals dedicated to male and female role models. The kids spent hours a day, each contributing their efforts to components of the work.
The murals will be at the Fry Building Project for August and remain for months. The documentary is to be shown for the Aug. 10 LoDa Artwalk, projected onto the side of a truck parked across the street from the murals.
They’re hard at work on an upcoming Christmas project. Another work — “Mobile From Where I Sit” — combines the kids’ vision with about 60 pieces of furniture.
“We’re asking what should change in Mobile, and they’ll be illustrating their story as well as their dreams for the city and county at large on these chairs that Bill Appling has that are amazing,” Brenes said.
Through this work, they’ve got their eyes on internships at WBLX, Backflash and MAC. Brenes is trying to find a way they can intern with the monthly Artwalk. The hours put into these efforts help pay off the kids’ court costs.
“People have this view of Strickland or Roger Williams or R.V. Taylor or Trinity Gardens, that these people are just so bad. They’re just kids, kids who screwed up royally and keep screwing up because nobody’s there for them,” Brenes said.
Brenes’ outlook is part of what convinced Judge Edmond Naman to trust him. It’s what keeps him moving forward in a job others might devalue.
“We want to start opening a dialogue between different cultures of people. A lot of these kids, for them they feel like nobody is interested in what they have to say. They just want to shift them from place to place and control their life,” Brenes said.