Mascot in the Making
Many people don’t realize there are full time schools for incarcerated youth embedded in the Dane County Jail, Juvenile Detention Center, and Juvenile Shelter Home. However, the learning that occurs in these spaces can be the most impactful experiences youth have with education. The Bubbler is proud to be a longtime partner with MMSD's collective Metro school classrooms through our Making Justice program, seeking to empower youth with learning through art.
In June 2021, after two years of virtual learning, several students at Metro in the Dane County Jail were ready to graduate and Tina Geier, the full time teacher there, was organizing a celebration with caps and gowns in the various colors of their home high schools, when she hit a snag.
“The students were telling me, ‘THIS is my school, everything I have done that is important happened here.’” Yet they were missing many of the unifying elements of a school, “We don’t have a school name, or colors, or a mascot,” Tina told us, “so we started talking about it. What is a ‘metro’?”
The students were energized by the question and started thinking about what their mascot could be. Three ideas rose to the top: Chameleons, Monsters, or some kind of cat.
While they debated, one of the students started sketching each of the ideas. When Tina checked in with the student the next day, she could tell something was wrong. He had done three different sketches of monsters, but seemed dejected by the results.
“I’m not a monster,” he told her.
“I know that,” Tina responded.
“But people think we are…” he said.
“That idea got canned real fast.” Tina said, “In this space, we talk a lot about how you are not defined by your single worst act. That doesn’t make you who you are. I focus my energies and their energies on who we WANT to be.”
“It started a great conversation about what people see on the surface vs. who we are underneath - we’re students, artists, daughters and sons, we’re fathers and family. And the students connected the idea to Wakanda in the Black Panther movies - a thriving society, hidden in a jungle you can’t see through. We knew then that we had our mascot - we are the Panthers.”
Panther Pride and Paint
With her students energized and excited, and a brilliant sketch of a panther from her student, Tina reached out to Jesse Vieau with the Bubbler at Madison Public Library about resourcing their classroom mascot mural project.
“The teachers in these spaces are so passionate about supporting their students and helping them recognize potential,” Jesse told us. “They work hard to offer the kids new outlooks from their previous experiences with school, and to re-engage and reinvest them in their futures. The students' needs and ideas deserve to be resourced, and we’re lucky to have educators like Tina reaching out to the community for support and relationship-building.”
One of the students remembered working with Audifax on a previous Bubbler project at the detention center, and asked Tina and Jesse if she would be willing to work with them on this mural. Jesse didn’t have to think twice, he contacted her right away and Audifax immediately agreed.
After a couple of disappointing projects, she was looking for something to pour her creative energies into, and this project had a weight and meaning that she responded to. But with COVID protocols still in place, Audifax wouldn’t actually be able to be in the space with the kids. How do you paint a mural together when you can’t work on the same canvas at the same time?
Getting Creative with Canvas
Audifax, Jesse, Tina and the students started brainstorming, visioning, and trading ideas in Zoom sessions to create the design, and figure how to physically paint the mural within the strict visitation restrictions in place at the time. The idea came to Audifax organically in the first Zoom meeting with the class -- to orchestrate a series of paint-by-numbers rotations. Tina shared that “Audifax would work to prep the canvas, let it dry, roll it up, and pass it off to us. The students would paint while hanging out with Audifax on Zoom, let it dry, roll it up, and pass it back".
And it worked. “Even over zoom, there was such a strong sense of community being built,” Jesse told us.
"If people aren't given the opportunity, given something different, which these programs are providing, how are they going to make different choices?" Audifax shared with us. "My favorite part is having judgment dissipating with these projects, getting to know each other and even them getting to know themselves."
In less than 2 weeks, the Dane County Jail Metro panther mural was finished. Just in time for graduation and for the students to proudly take their celebratory photos in front of it. The original sketch of the panther is framed on the wall next to it with the story of the students who made it happen.
But the project was far from over.
An Opportunity for More
There are three additional Metro classrooms for youth connected to the court system – another at the jail, one at the detention center, and one at the shelter home. The teachers in these spaces already had a strong relationship with Tina and Jesse respectively, and were eager to bring the mascot to their Metro Panther classrooms as well. And it was perfect timing, as the visitor restrictions in place for COVID were just being relaxed in the county facilities, meaning the next three mascot mural projects could be conducted in person.
“It was a surprise,” Ed Pearson, the Superintendent of the Juvenile Detention Center told us, “I didn’t know we had a mascot, but it made sense. It gives the kids a sense of pride - it allows us to be a school when being in detention can really overshadow the fact that they are still working towards getting their education.”
“We were excited about doing another mural with the Bubbler, we have done them before and it helps with our overall environment. Especially in the classroom, it helps it be a more welcoming space,” said Pearson.
“Working with Jesse and the artists he brings is my favorite program we offer for kids at detention,” Albert, Lead Worker at the Juvenile Detention added. “The Bubbler bends over backwards for us, and it is something the kids can look forward to. It’s a soothing experience that calms them down, and takes their minds off the trauma of what they are going through.”
And the youth bring their best selves to the projects. “The piece grows with us and our relationship and it’s beautiful. There was one girl who was really into art and painted with me every day at the detention center while she waited for her court date because she didn’t have anywhere to go. It was awesome to know that she was able to have something that she really looked forward to and loved doing.” Audifax told us.
“While we worked she was asking about being an artist professionally. It’s just a reminder that we all have this potential and it’s what we decide to do that’s going to create tomorrow.”
Audifax was working with students at the detention center to personalize and paint their mascot mural while simultaneously leading the same series of sessions with students in the second jail classroom located in a different building than the initial jail students. And once those two locations were complete, Audifax turned her attention to the students and classroom at the shelter home. Each of the four Metro Panthers murals has its own flavor and was transformed by student impact along the way. The mascots have created a visual connection between spaces that allow students to understand how their experiences, teachers and learning paths are still connected as they often move between the facilities for various reasons.
It was while working on the last mural that the conversation started to shift toward the final phase of creating a digital panthers logo that can be used for official school business, but also to brand classroom supplies like the folders and flash drives that kids use every day. Audifax used the central Panthers image from the classroom murals, along with rounds of feedback from teachers and students, to create the official mascot logo for the Metro department moving forward. The teachers even plan to purchase and regularly wear Metro Panthers t-shirts to continue reinforcing the sense of pride and community that was sparked by this project.
Audifax shared that “someone asked me if I felt like I would be doing this work in another city, and I would if it were available, but to speak to Madison and how people are passionate and they care, I feel like it is a special place. With this support, and that of the people working in the facilities, the Metro students have a good opportunity to become who they want to be instead of who they’re told they are.”
Watch time-lapse video of the mural production for each project.
See many more pictures of the creation process for each project from Audifax's perspective.
Learn more about the Making Justice partnership.
See other upcoming Bubbler projects.