Henri Wilson, who helped create a children’s book with teens in Snohomish County Juvenile Court’s detention alternatives and diversion programs, flips through “Possible Animal Athletes” with her granddaughter, Alexa Estes, 5, on April 27 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Henri Wilson, who helped create a children’s book with teens in Snohomish County Juvenile Court’s detention alternatives and diversion programs, flips through “Possible Animal Athletes” with her granddaughter, Alexa Estes, 5, on April 27 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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In children’s book, court-involved kids show what’s possible

Artist Henri Wilson has worked for years, and through pandemic, with teens in juvenile justice system.

Children’s storybook illustrators, Beatrix Potter to Eric Carle, have created critters loved the world over. In Snohomish County, young people involved in the juvenile justice system had a hand in fanciful artwork for a book sure to delight local preschoolers.

A weight-lifting gorilla, boxing kangaroos and fencing swordfishes are among colorful illustrations in “Possible Animal Athletes.” The slim paperback is the eighth in a series of “Possible” books published as part of the Schack Art Center’s Art Alternatives outreach program.

About 23 young people, ages 13 to 18, worked on the book, said Henri Wilson, an Everett artist who’s been helping court-involved kids express themselves and develop positive relationships for almost 30 years.

“She really is a true treasure to kids and our community,” said Calvin Nichols, a juvenile community program specialist at Denney Juvenile Justice Center.

Art Alternatives classes are offered to youth in the PASS detention alternatives school at Denney, and to those in evening STEP diversion programs through Snohomish County Juvenile Court’s Youth Enrichment Services (YES).

Like all kids’ programs and schools, Wilson’s work with teens was affected by the pandemic. Closed for in-person instruction in March 2020, the PASS (Program Alternative to Secure Sentencing) day-reporting program just reopened April 19, said Mike Irons, Snohomish County Juvenile Court program manager.

The STEP program at the Schack was also shut down for more than a year. Wilson, who receives a stipend from the art center, kept meeting and creating with kids online.

“Henri makes the best of any situation. She was one of our first partners to go virtual through Art Alternatives,” Irons said.

Before the COVID closures, in January and February 2020, Wilson said the young artists had picked a book theme — the Olympic Games. Not only were the Olympics postponed, Wilson said she learned that images and words related to the Games are subject to copyright restrictions.

Keeping with their sports theme, kids decided on “Possible Animal Athletes.” Wilson said the book is being distributed to area preschools, including ECEAP programs, and Everett Clinic waiting rooms. There were 6,000 copies printed. Organizations seeking them may contact the Schack Art Center, Wilson said.

The book project was funded through a grant from the Nysether Family Foundation, with support from K&H Integrated Print Solutions. Also supporting the program are the Anne & Mary Arts and Environmental Education Fund, held at the Community Foundation of Snohomish County, the EverTrust Foundation and The Everett Clinic Foundation.

“None of us could do that book alone,” said Wilson, 71, a professional calligrapher who has also taught adult classes. From week to week, different teens are in her sessions, so some weren’t there long enough to complete an illustration. “Everyone pitches in,” she said.

To create the vivid backgrounds and animal cut-outs that would be attached to them, the artists began by using tempera paints and texturizing tools on 11-by-17-inch sheets of paper. “They didn’t know when they painted it that it might end up being a fish,” Wilson said.

There was lots of work, from picking animals to writing poetry — “Baby elephant wants to swim. Would you be willing To jump in with him?” — and translating poems into Spanish.

The art teacher’s helpers were Sarah Estes, Wilson’s grown daughter, and Pat Nostrand, who once taught in the PASS program.

If the book looks slightly familiar, that could be because Wilson showed kids “Picture Writer: The Art of the Picture Book,” a video featuring Eric Carle, author of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

Much of the work was finished by the time COVID-19 halted in-person sessions. As Wilson continued with sessions online, she found there were benefits to one-on-one meetings. With others not present, teens could talk frankly.

“They didn’t miss the negative stuff about school, but they missed the contact,” she said.

Judge Bruce Weiss, Snohomish County Superior Court’s presiding judge, took Wilson’s art classes with court-involved kids some years ago as part of the Reclaiming Futures program. At the time, he was the juvenile court’s presiding judge.

“Henri was a great influence,” said Weiss, adding that Wilson stays in contact with some she helped long ago when they were teens.

Reclaiming Futures no longer exists locally because grant money was lost, but Weiss said “the philosophy is still there,” along with the need for positive adults in kids’ lives.

Weiss claims he’s “the worst artist,” although on a wall in his home is a painting he created in one of Wilson’s classes. The art teacher doesn’t agree with his assessment of his artistic talents. “What made him a star was his willingness to flounder with the youth,” sometimes accepting their tips on art techniques, Wilson said. “He was completely a human on level ground with them away from court,” she said of Weiss.

And that’s the point, connecting kids with caring adults.

Irons said legislation and other changes in juvenile justice have greatly reduced the numbers of kids being locked up. On Thursday, he said, there were only three in detention at Denney.

Many come into the court system affected by trauma, substance use disorder or family troubles. “Through these relationships, a sense of hope balances out. Connect them with the community, they do thrive,” Irons said.

Wilson knows all too well about danger and tragedy. Drug use, she said, “that’s our biggest adversary.”

“Art makes a difference,” she said.

And those kids? Rather than troublemakers, Wilson sees them as people, and as artists. “You can see they’re meant for some great purpose,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com

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