Former Colorado Springs gang member finds new hope through art

Isidro Rodriguez and Lance Green stand in front of Rodriguez's work. Courtesy.

By the age of 14 Isidro Rodriguez was on a downward spiral.

He was in and out of jail, barely attending school and modeling the behavior of his parents - both incarcerated gang members. He knew what it was like to be hit by a bullet and a stun gun. Artist Lance Green, a Bemis School of Art teacher, recalls Rodriguez telling him he wanted to go to prison because that's where his family was.

"I was not in good shape," Isidro said.

Little did he know that over the next three years, his life would course correct and much of that shift would be due to the art lessons Green provided through Nueva Ventura, a program for Colorado Springs School District 11 students with emotional disabilities.

The program includes regular classroom work and field trips into the community to learn social training. It's based at Tesla Educational Opportunity School, an alternative high school on the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus.

"I think art has huge power to heal the souls of kids," Green said. "When you can express something deep in art, it is so amazing."

Today Isidro, 17, has given up gangs, steered clear of jail and found a stable home in foster care at the Hudson Group Home. He's a regular on the honor roll at Nueva Ventura and on track to graduate in 2017.

"If it wasn't for school," he said, "I'd probably be in the streets."

In October he was awarded the Pikes Peak Arts Council Rising Star award.

He was "emotional" when he heard about it, he said.

"I wanted to prove to my family that I'm not the same person I was," Isidro said.

When Green met Isidro there was an unexpected resonance between them. Green grew up in East Los Angeles and knew first-hand the background of his student - gangs, drugs, prison, death. Out of 14 boys he knew growing up, only five lived to see 21.

"I saw him and he looked like guys I grew up with," Green said. "He was a heavy-duty kid."

The two developed a bond, with Green overseeing and encouraging the drawings Isidro calls "prison art" with Aztec faces, though he's partial to art graffiti rich with skulls and gangster symbols.

"Lance helped me find my capabilities in art," he said. "It gets some things off my back."

Though the goal at Nueva Ventura is to get kids back into high school, they often graduate and earn their high school diploma from the program. Isidro is one of those who will graduate from Nueva Ventura, said Devra Allen, a D-11 social worker. He hopes to become a tattoo artist.

"This (program) is so important for these kids," Green said. "If they dump them back in the public school system, they'll end up in jail."

Isidro's art education goes far beyond techniques - Green has also worked to teach him about life.

"The people who choose to make it can make it," Rodriguez said.

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