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RAW Art Works

At RAW Art Works in Lynn, conflicted youth find a creative outlet and unwavering emotional support. By Kiley Jacques

Growing up is tough. Growing up in the inner city is even tougher. Violence, alcohol and drugs, crime, poverty, and broken families are often part of kids’ everyday lives. They are faced with choices kids shouldn’t have to make, so they need to choose wisely. And RAW Art Works is a very wise choice.

After earning a master’s degree in art therapy from Lesley College, Mary Flannery, founder of RAW Art Works in Lynn, began working with young men incarcerated for sexual violence. Seeing the artwork those young men created and hearing the stories behind their crimes, Flannery was inspired to take her work to the next level. When she learned many inmates intentionally returned to prison in order to belong to a group, Flannery thought, “There must be a better way.”  So, in 1994, RAW Art Works was born.

At RAW Art Works, young people ages seven to 18 learn to identify and depict the “frames” that showcase their stories. Flannery explains how the content of their creations is visible and matters to the world, so they should give serious consideration to what they reveal. That was the idea behind the exhibit that is now on view at 37 Central Square in Lynn. The pieces on display are as revelatory, expressive, thought-provoking, and emotionally raw as those created by trained artists.

From 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 8:30 at night, young artists can be found applying paint to canvas, pointing cameras at all manner of subjects, sculpting materials of every fathomable origin, and writing about their inner worlds. They are working hard to earn an A.F.A, or “Adventures in Fine Art,” certificate. With eyebrows knit in concentration, they listen as instructors share ideas for how to make sense of their turbulent lives. Flannery tells them, “There’s not much distance between your head and your heart. If you walk the world realizing that, you’re going to be so much more connected.” As they create and share, they learn life skills, like making eye contact, articulating feelings, contributing to a group, committing to activities, and taking responsibility. The outcome is profound: Not only are they evolving into mature adults but, for the first time, many are also experiencing what “family” is all about.

Much of RAW Art Works’s aim is to get young people into college and to see them graduate. And they do just that. “What I love about RAW is that it is so full circle,” says Flannery. “What we say we’re going to do, we do.” She is eager to share stories of RAW’s success. “I want people to know that these are the most courageous kids in the whole world, and people need to come here to find out more about them.”