GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — One project with seven portraits of 3,000 squares each; 21,000 squares total.

It’s a lot of squares, but the meaning behind Joao Goncalves’ ArtPrize entry, “Aging Out / 18 years old,” is even bigger.

Goncalves, who won the ArtPrize public vote in the two-dimensional category in 2016, submitted a piece this year that focuses on something he has witnessed since childhood. Family, friends and his students were the inspiration behind the project.

“We were always close to people that either adopt kids or had foster kids,” Goncalves said of himself and his wife; both have adoptive siblings. “So we kind of knew a little bit about what’s behind everything, like the struggles and how it’s a cause that most people don’t seem to know what happens.”

When someone in foster care turns 18, they leave the system, or ‘age out.’ In Michigan, those who are 18 but are still in high school are allowed to stay in foster care until after graduation.

“So pretty much, they are on their own, but they’re still 18. I remember when I was 18, I definitely was not mature. I needed my parents,” Goncalves said.

After doing research, he came across statistics that he found “surprising.”

“The statistics compared to the general population when they age out, what they go through… I started thinking about, wow, I should maybe develop an art piece that would highlight those specific statistics,” Goncalves said.

Data from the National Foster Youth Institute shows that more than 23,000 children age out of the system each year.

“I kind of wanted to represent that in a way that would connect and give a face to the number, so people that read the statistic would be able to connect with the person behind the statistic,” Goncalves said.

“Aging Out / 18 years old” uses a form of neo pointillism, a technique that uses little spots of color, to create several portraits. Goncalves decided to use tiny squares, adding light and shadow to show certain percentages to highlight specific statistics.

The seven portraits in the series consist of 3,000 squares each. The squares in each portrait add up to a total of 21,000, roughly the number of people who age out every year. 

One of the portraits represents the 50% unemployment rate of teens who age out. In that portrait, half of the squares are one color, while the other half are shaded differently.

“When they age out, 50% are unemployed,” Goncalves said. “It’s a pretty high number for someone who doesn’t have a family.”

Another portrait represents the 70% of kids in foster care who hope to go to college, while another shows that only 3% actually graduate college.

Lights reflecting off the squares create a pixelation effect. The lights turn on for 18 seconds and then off for another 18 seconds. The 18 seconds represent the year many age out of the system. The faces behind the statistics are only shown when the lights hit the portraits.

“I can create different values of color within the reflection of the shadow. So when the light is on, you see the portrait. If the light is off, you don’t see anything, so it pretty much looks like a blank piece,” Goncalves said.


Goncalves teaches art at a facility in Tennessee that helps raise children and young adults. The kids in the program were placed there due to aggressive behavior or after they leave the juvenile system. It’s meant to help kids transition into homes that are suitable for them.

“The kids will come here three times a week and I will teach them art and they will do regular things like… collages with perspective. And then the other half of the class, they would help me. So they would cut papers and push the little pins to create the little squares,” Goncalves said.

The portraits are of real people who have aged out of foster care or would have if a family member had not gotten involved.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen (to these kids),” Goncalves said.

Goncalves knows some of them personally. One of the faces is of a teen who was adopted at the age of 13. He had been placed in more than 20 homes, Goncalves said.

Another teen, Chloe Wolfe, played a big role in the project’s creation.

“She’s actually a really good artist and she helped me with everything I’m doing (with this project),” Goncalves said. “I’m using her as a portrait. Her mom died when she was 14. Her mom overdosed, so she’s within that kind of category of traumatic events that happen.”

Goncalves said Wolfe almost went into the foster care system but a family member adopted her instead.

“It wouldn’t be possible to finish this without her help… she was like a full-time helper,” Goncalves said. “I just want to honor her because she put in so much time here.”

While visiting Grand Rapids for ArtPrize in 2016, Goncalves met Joseph Stein, who became his friend. After telling Stein about the idea for his 2021 project, Goncalves learned that his friend had been in both the juvenile and foster care systems and has done well after that.

“I’m using him as well, so I’m actually using someone from Grand Rapids,” Goncalves said.

A portrait of Stein as a teenager is being used to represent the 70% of foster care kids who hope to attend college. Stein now owns a business in Grand Rapids.

Joao Goncalves (right) stands next to his ArtPrize 2021 entry “Aging Out / 18 years old” next to his friend Joseph Stein (left), who is the inspiration behind the portrait behind them. (Courtesy)

Goncalves hopes to have some of the faces behind the artwork join him in Grand Rapids for the event.

“Aging Out / 18 years old” is hosted at the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation located at 1530 Madison Avenue SE.

Joao Goncalves stands next to his ArtPrize 2021 entry “Aging Out / 18 years old” at the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation. (Sept. 16, 2021)

Goncalves is grateful for the help he has gotten from family, friends and students while creating the project.

“I’ve been dreaming about this project for a while and I really like the project, but then I came here and I started working with the kids and I learned so much and then I started liking the kids more than the project,” he said. “So for me, that was a cool part of it because as an artist, we just fall in love with the project, but I wanted to kind of get to know the kids and then you start loving the kids, and that’s for me, the most rewarding thing.”     

More of Goncalves can be found on his Instagram page.