How Marine Life Felt: Reviewing Perspectives on Prison Arts on the South Bank

It's not every day that Benjamin Zephaniah selects work from our projects for exhibition in London, nor is there many an opportunity for participatory artists to be inspired in their practice by Anthony Gormley, so when Artlink Central received an invite we were delighted to support our own Frances Douglas to attend and we asked her to share her experience.

For the uninitiated:

The Koestler Trust is the UK’s best-known prison arts charity. They encourage ex-offenders to change their lives through taking part in the arts, and they challenge negative preconceptions of what ex-offenders are capable of. They inspire participation in the arts amongst offenders, secure patients and detainees through Awards and Feedback, Mentoring, Sales, Exhibitions and Events. They increase public awareness of the potential of offenders through exhibitions and events, publications and contributing to research.

Late last year, we received the call to the 2016 Koestler Exhibition Opening at The Spirit Level, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London. Included was a visual arts seminar which began in Koestler tradition with tea and cakes as the Trust's Director of Arts, Sarah Grainger-Jones introduced Anthony Gormley (of Angel of the North fame) as the Artist & Exhibition Curator for 2017.

Anthony Gormley began by explaining that he had visited several prisons before deciding on the theme.

‘INSIDE’ is the title and theme of the Koestler Awards and Exhibiton for 2017.

Anthony described what he would be looking for:

  • Where does ‘inside’ take you?
  • What comes from being incarcerated - imagination?
  • When in a cell what might come to mind - is there a mental freedom?
  • What is it that can transcend from inside to out? From ‘cell’ to ‘outside’?

He is suggesting entrants unlock inner feelings and break with conformity in their artworks. He is looking for more elusive qualities in artwork - something personal & subjective, with an emotionial intensity and a degree of truth. This could be a memory of inner feelings, a map, a list… It could be ‘cherished dream’ - imagination can take you places when the body is confined.

Antony’s questions for art tutors were:

  • How can we advertise the theme to potential entrants?  
  • How can we help entrants understand the idea?
  • How can we encourage new entrants?

Some of his thoughts, ideas and suggestions:

  • Encourage artwork in cells - it can be easier to do more meaningful artwork with out beingunder the constraints of coursework.     
  • Perhaps just give out art materials and let the art happen. 
  • Talk about each others artwork. 
  • Unfinished artwork is okay - there is no need to finish and mount everything to enter for an award. 
  • Try to avoid using concrete examples to illustrate an idea as this encourages copying.
  • Try and find the students instinctive & personal creativity
  • Think of ways of liberating people from ‘the model’ eg alternative approaches to making art such as drawing blindfold, modelling clay without looking …
  • Try and release people from the idea of what ‘art’ should look like and think about it in terms of what feelings it evokes and what can it communicate?

Discussion points that came from delegates:

  • Can this all be put into a more simple form of words for guidance notes for learners? There was a feeling that some of our learners & participants might find the ideas and concepts mentioned above hard to understand or use as a starting point.
  • The kind of approach Anthony is looking for can be hard to achieve when coursework has to be followed all year.
  • There was a concern expressed that working in this way and encouraging this kind of artwork might bring up difficult, sensitive and potentially distressing issues for the artist. We would want to make sure there was appropriate support should this happen.
  • The point was made that there are positive feelings as well -  joy, freedom, release.

The conversation between Anthony Gormley and artists and arts tutors is very reflective of common issues with creativity in prisons. The majority of arts experiences are typically within an education or learning context, and therefore creativity is utilised as an accessible route into engaging learners, and while there certainly are many artists in these roles, the opportunities for artists working as artists are often limited. Many people in prison have negative associations and experiences of education and learning and face many barriers to making it across the prison to a learning centre. The education lens whilst incredibly important can often get in the way of more expressive ways of making and creating.

Sally Taylor, Chief Executive Koestler Trust lead a further discussion explaining that when Antony Gormley is looking for raw authentic responses which sound challenging to support entrants to produce, these qualities may well be present in the types of artwork that people in custody produce already and that a lot of the artwork in this exhibition already fufills this criteria without necessarily intending to.

One delegate spoke of a competition they had initiated in their prison due to art class being cut, this led to people participating in art who may never have come to education.

'Looking at Our Award Winners' - A presentation by Sarah Matheve - Director of Outreach and Involvement.

Sarah showed delegates some of the Award winning pieces of artwork from the main categories and asked the tutor from the relevent prison to tell us about the piece if they were present. One tutor had written artist statements which she was able to read out when their pieces were shown - Frances thought this was a good idea and worked well.

The most memorable example for Frances was a piece called ‘Badger in Wonderland’, created using magazines, a glue stick and paper. (No scissors were allowed in the cells) The artist was present and spoke briefly about it, saying that it had really helped her to have something like this to do in her cell and that as well as this larger artwork she had created smaller pieces and greetings cards which could be given to others.

‘I wanted this piece to have a dream like appeal - other worldly like Alice in Wonderland.’ ‘I also wanted to to convey a positive mood in that your mind can still be free to create fantasy, even if you are physically constrained.’


The artists were then offered a guided tour of the exhibition focussing on selected artworks.

Portrait of Her Majesty the Queen (Comfort Blanket)  Peter / HM Prison Dovegate / Oil on Canvas - Patrick Holmes Platinum Award for Themed category 'Comfort'

Portrait of Her Majesty the Queen (Comfort Blanket)

Peter / HM Prison Dovegate / Oil on Canvas - Patrick Holmes Platinum Award for Themed category 'Comfort'

yellow fish in watercolours

yellow fish in watercolours

Is she being comforted by the blanket or stifled
— Frances Douglas
Work by Koestler Awards entrant

Work by Koestler Awards entrant

red fish in water colours

red fish in water colours

Being passionate about watercolour - these were two of my favourite paintings
— Frances Douglas

 The Official Exhibition Opening

One of the key ways in which Koestler Trust widens awareness of work by artists in custody and addresses some of the negative public stigma associated with this work is in the careful selection of curators, artists, exhibition spaces and supporters. In Scotland, the Tramway has been a regular host for the exhibition.

Panel members for the exhibition opening included: Dame Anne Owers - Keostler trustee and former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Benjamin Zephaniah, poet and Koestler Trust exhibition curator, Julio - Exhibited Artist,  Jude Kelly - Artistic Director of Southbank Centre and Erwin James - journalist, writer and editor of 'Inside Time'. Erwin was also a Koestler judge this year and is a former prisoner himself. 

Artists heard from curator Zephaniah about how he went about the daunting task of choosing about 250 artworks, from the nearly 7000 entered for the exhibition. He explained that the the title ‘We are All Human’ was intended to emphasize the point that whatever our place in society, wherever we end up, we are not just statistics, we are people. He said he wanted the exhibition to reflect his love of nature, the outside and open spaces, which he did by having a bench in the middle of the space. He wanted it to be colourful and to attract people who might not normally go to an art exibition. He had also made one space into a ‘Speaker’s Corner’ where he wanted people to be able to stand and talk. The wall in this space had the award winning poems displayed. 

A highlight for Frances was the rap that Zephaniah did at the end to officially open the exhibiton - "It was brilliant!"

Last but by no means least

Frances was able to spend time with the Artlink Central entry created in partnership with New College Lanarkshire staff by women in Cornton Vale Prison.

The Koestler Awards continue to provide an important creative window both looking outside of a custodial setting and for the audience an opportunity to have a sense of the creativity inside. We are delighted that Koestler Trust continue strong creative partnerships with the arts and criminal justice sector in Scotland.

Find out more about Koestler Trust