Working with prisoners
One of the reasons I like working for the OCA is that it gives the widest possible range of people the chance to make serious art and gain a degree if they so wish. Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the work of students serving in Category A prisons.
The images here are from a level one student called Ian who is serving a long term prison sentence and is hoping to gain a degree with us over the next few years. Ian enjoys working in a controlled and precise way, something he has in common with most prisoners I work with. When we began working with prisoners we were given advice from an experienced prison arts worker. He told us that in prison art has a currency in terms of status, or even a direct bartering value. To have a skill in accurate representational drawing can raise your status within a prison in contrast to the more violent route, and being able to draw people’s wives or children can earn respect and cigarettes. Looked at from another perspective, this makes experimentation in one’s art work a lot riskier than for a student on the outside.
The power of art in this context interests me. We are now a very visually aware society but Fine Art does not engage in the rough and tumble of everyday society as it did when the public eagerly awaited the latest penny etching of the new masterpiece by some Academician or other. Although the tabloids do their best to stir up Turner Prize controversy, on the whole people aren’t fainting in art galleries anymore. In prison though, art is in the thick of it and has the power to transform everyday life.
As a tutor, my goal is to stand alongside and enable the student as far as I can to make the art work they want to make, whilst also encouraging them to really reflect on the nature of that ‘want’ and the journey they are on so that the process is a reflective and creative one. The challenge for me as a tutor is to work out what the motivations are for artists in high security prisons.
Some prisons have a rule that prisoners are not allowed to draw ‘any part of themselves’ and there are strict rules which forbid drawing almost everything that the men see around them; the building, the staff or the other inmates. In this way they are stopped from being directly inspired to work from something they have seen in their lives as so many of my students are.
Although this is by necessity a generalisation, all the prisoners I have worked with have not had any art education before being introduced to art in prison. They have not been into a gallery and they tend not to know anything about art or artists. This means that their motivation to do art is not based on any knowledge of fine art or any awareness of art history. They tend to have very limited access to imagery and of course are not allowed access to the internet.
These two things combined mean that they are making their work in a near vacuum, and yet those of them who manage to get going with the course become some of my most dedicated students. For most students, the learning log is a vital tool for me to learn about my students and tailor my responses to the work to be more helpful. My prisoner students tend to find it almost impossible to keep a useful log as they are unused to doing something like that with language and with writing. Occasionally I get a glimpse of something such as a comment like ‘it’s like 5 alive!!!’ (to describe the mood created by working hard at a successful drawing and being ‘in the zone’) but the logs tend to be careful and practical with very little insight into motivation.
To get back to Ian; he wrote to say that he is passionate about drawing animals. It will be a long time before he sees an animal bigger than a fly I imagine, but that passion brings me to the one element of the mix that he still has full ownership of – his own internal creative life. Ian manages to find these images of animals, sometimes disastrously twee in their first incarnation (their work’s relationship to photography is complex), and rework them with the force of his own personality and creativity into the sharp, dark little drawings you see here.
The prisoners’ resourcefulness (one student, finding himself without charcoal, made a drawing with a burnt match), and their dedication is sometimes striking. If Ian were able to I am sure he would want to speak about the difference art has made in his life. Category A prison is an extreme example, but I have students on low incomes, in shared houses, working on kitchen tables, with chronic ill health or juggling work and childcare alongside studenthood. I am continually impressed by the dedication of my students and it is a privilege to be involved with them all.