From Ashes, Project Rebound Students Rise, Adding Their Voices to Phoenix Sculpture
July 20, 2023

For the past few months, Stan State graduate student and Tuolumne County art teacher Sarah Graham has been working on a thesis project to showcase what she’s learned and internalized in the process of earning her master’s degree in education. Graham was inspired by Stanislaus State’s Project Rebound and has been collaborating closely with students from the program on her project. 

Project Rebound offers resources and a supportive environment to formerly incarcerated individuals who are currently enrolled or who express an interest in transferring to Stan State.  

Graham is no stranger to programs like Project Rebound or the concept of social justice reform. In addition to her nearly 10-year career teaching in K-8 public schools, for the past three years, she has been an art teacher for the Prison Arts Project at Sierra Conservation Center (SCC), a correctional facility in Jamestown. Graham saw firsthand the positive impact art made on her incarcerated art students, and she wanted to bring that to Stan State.  

“In terms of working with people that were or are still incarcerated, you start to see that school-to-prison pipeline,” Graham said. “My thesis is about looking at how post-incarceration art programs can help reduce recidivism rates and how program collaborations like this can help the social and emotional needs of these students.” 

She was able to hire two student assistants after being awarded a grant from the Community Equity Research Center (CERC), a hub for participatory action research based at the Stanislaus State Stockton Campus that partners with the community to conduct research addressing local issues with creative, inclusive and multidisciplinary solutions and to develop policy initiatives to address structural inequities.   

After brainstorming and planning during Zoom meetings and phone calls, Graham and the members of Project Rebound knew what they wanted to create: a metal sculpture of a phoenix featuring quotes from the program’s participants. 

Project Rebound Coordinator Danica Bravo explained the symbolism of the phoenix, a mythical bird, and why it resonates with the program and its participants.  

“The phoenix represents rebirth, which ties in with what we do here at Project Rebound.”

- Danica Bravo, Project Rebound Program Coordinator

The inspiration to use metal stamping for the feathers and body of the phoenix was inspired by the identification tags Graham used while she worked at SCC.  

“I remember looking at my ‘chits’ which are these stamped metal circles used for keys,” Graham said.  

After researching this art style, she learned that this process of stamping metal with designs to make art is a traditional Incan art style called Hojalata. Since the Renaissance of this art style in the 20th century, it has risen in popularity across Mexico. 

“This style of art has a rich Mexican history that I did not anticipate when we started,” Graham said. “One of the reasons I wanted to look deeper into this was because two of the student assistants I am working with have heritage from that part of the world. I wanted to make sure we were honoring that in the work we were doing.”   

DÍAZ, one of the program’s student assistants, helped Graham with the project and used traditional Hojalata methods to stamp the sheet metal feathers on the phoenix.  

“I’m an artist but have never worked with stamping metal,” DÍAZ said. “We collected everyone’s quotes they wanted to include in the piece. Some of the students hand-wrote them and others hand-stamped them when we came together.” 

Between his full schedule of classes and work, DÍAZ didn’t have time to add his own quote, but he said he would’ve chosen one he learned while in prison.  

“Somebody told me once, ‘Nothing changes if nothing changes,’ meaning that many people want something to change but aren’t willing to change themselves to make that change happen,” DÍAZsaid. 

Another student assistant, Joaquin Diaz DeLeon, helped with the feathers and stamping the quotes on the aluminum. DeLeon said he is grateful that Graham chose to work with Project Rebound.  

“She went out of her way to help spread awareness of what good we can do,” DeLeon said. “She chose to tell our story and present our voices through this complete masterpiece. She deserves all the credit.”  

Student assistant Carmen Gallardo echoed Joaquin’s sentiment about Graham.  

“I wish there were more people like her, more people who took the time to find programs like ours to work with,” Gallardo said. “We all are very grateful for this recognition; that we are seen here on campus. Even though we are formerly incarcerated, we are the same as everyone else.”  

Project Rebound has been changing lives at Stan State since its launch in 2019 and plans to keep changing lives for years to come.