Zentangle: Art that helps untangle life

Many of us search for a calm place within the fast-moving currents of life. For some, it’s meditation, for others it’s nature, and for a group of local folks, that calm place is called Zentangle.

Zentangle is an abstract art form, and volunteer Jan Latona is teaching it to inmates at the Larimer County Detention Center. Her weekly class has attracted a loyal, enthusiastic group of students. Besides being a creative outlet, Zentangle has helped many of them focus, and it has reduced their levels of anxiety.

“It’s a meditative kind of art,” says Latona, a retired psychologist. “I enjoy teaching people how to calm themselves and learn mindfulness, especially when there’s a fun product at the end.”

While anyone can do this type of art, it’s especially beneficial for inmates since it provides a sense of pride and accomplishment. Some have sent their Zentangle artwork to family and friends, and others say they will teach Zentangle to their children when they’re released.

Before teaching Zentangle to inmates, Latona gave a class for the jail staff. Some deputies have taken the ball and run with it, using the art form to help inmates settle down when anxiety becomes overwhelming. Zentangle has become so popular that program specialist Clint Burkholder recently organized a Zentangle contest for the inmates. The contest “created a lot of excitement,” he said, drawing more than 40 entries.

Zentangle is done on square paper, and each piece begins with four dots that form the corners of the drawing. After that, students may create any kind of design – but there are rules. Only five drawing strokes are allowed: •, __ , C, S and O. That may sound limiting, but the variety of drawings created by Latona’s students proves otherwise.

One of Zentangle’s advantages is its portability: The materials are minimal, so people can carry projects with them and work on them anytime. All that’s really required are paper, pen or pencil (no eraser!), a creative impulse… and time.

One detention center student, Elizabeth Sinnar, found creativity in herself that had never been expressed before. Besides doing paper drawings, she penned tiny, detailed Zentangle designs on her tennis shoes, an achievement that required great focus and patience. According to Burkholder, Sinnar tended to be anxious and negative about life. With Zentangle, she was happy, engaged and able to focus on something positive.

Other students agree that Zentangle provides a sense of calm. “I have a hard time sitting still, and I get stressed out and mad,” said Jacob Mayer. “Before, I kind of paced the room, but Zentangle makes time fly and I feel more relaxed.”

Latona’s Zentangle class is just one of many volunteer offerings at the detention center. In fact, the jail has 225 active volunteers who teach everything from Bible studies to creative writing and even blues song-writing. Other volunteers lead Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups.

Detention center volunteer coordinator Lisa Schlueter said the volunteers “bring in a breath of fresh air” because they are not part of the law enforcement system. She is always searching out new ideas for classes, especially life skills and hobbies. The jail volunteers, Schlueter said, are “a special group of people, who show compassion and give hope to those that society would often like to forget about.”

To apply for the volunteer program, go to www.larimersheriff.org/sheriff/jobapp.cfm and fill out the volunteer application form. A criminal history background check is required, as well as a full day of training.
There won’t be a paycheck for this work, but as Latona has learned, there’s a lot of satisfaction.

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