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Troubled student lauded for gentle art

An art teacher helps a withdrawn, emotionally distraught teen become an artist who sells.

Two years ago, when Jermaine Barnes was sent to Douglas MacArthur South, a last-resort high school in Kendall for troubled teens, his teachers were warned: "He's hell."

Labeled emotionally handicapped by the Miami-Dade school system, withdrawn and sometimes unpredictably violent, Jermaine kept to himself at the high-security school, where he was assigned to remain closely monitored in the same classroom all day.

He didn't speak to anyone and seemed unreachable _ until art teacher Janis Klein-Young gave him a magazine cutout of a bouquet of wild flowers and asked Jermaine to try to reproduce the pretty picture on canvas.

As Jermaine worked with watercolors day after day, Klein-Young began to discover his untapped talent, and as their relationship flourished in the process, the teacher also began to learn about his life, the poverty and crime that surround him.

"As harsh as his reality is," Klein-Young said, "his flowers are so gentle."

Dazzled by his talent and convinced he could overcome his troubles, Klein-Young took a special interest in Jermaine and mentored him beyond the classroom, bringing him photos and cutouts of his favorite flowers _ orchids, lilies, irises _ and then, finding exhibitors and buyers for his artwork.

Said Jermaine, his voice a whisper, his fingers constantly twirling his braids: "When I look at it, I don't like it. I say, "It's ugly.' But she tells me it ain't."

His future still is as frail as flowers _ at 18, he remains in 10th grade. Jermaine, however, can call himself an artist.

An artist who sells.

At art shows in Coral Gables, Hialeah and Homestead where he has exhibited his work in the past two years, Jermaine has sold almost everything. His artwork also is on display in some public buildings.

At the Domingo Padron Gallery in Coral Gables last May, half of Jermaine's brightly colored flowers had been sold before the gallery doors even opened.

"His painting is almost Georgia O'Keeffeish," said Nancy Solomon, a therapist who bought three of Jermaine's pieces and displayed them in her office at Jewish Family Services.

"What makes him so special is that he was severely emotionally handicapped, and his talent was so great that whatever I gave him, he drew so beautifully," said Klein-Young, who has taught art at MacArthur for 25 years.

To Jermaine, painting is more than an artistic endeavor.

With the money he makes from the sale of his paintings _ most of them go for about $45 apiece _ he helps his mother, Katherine Williams, a Burger King cook who lives on a $6-an-hour paycheck.

They live in a rundown Perrine neighborhood Williams calls "the ghetto," pointing to graffiti, abandoned rusting cars, and idle young people "tearing everything up and stealing whatever they want."

"I want to get out so bad," Williams said.