The last time I was in prison, I met a nice fella who had 15 brothers and sisters. I helped him with a piece of art he was making, a sort of installation which told the story of his family in a gentle, understated way.
The piece above is a “portrait” of his mother. It’s a rubber glove with a painting of the kitchen sink and the window looking out onto his garden. All his siblings were portrayed as hands, a brickie’s hand, a nurse’s hand, a gardener’s hand etc, and he intended to display them all hanging on a clothesline, tied up with pegs.
Well yes, I was giving an ‘Artist-in-Prison’ workshop at the time and some of the resulting artworks are now featured in a very impressive exhibition at the South Dublin Arts Centre, RUA RED in Tallaght. This is a show entitled: “Open Minds” and it was selected and curated by the artist Brian Maguire.
The clothesline never made it but at least some of the hands can be seen in a glass case in the gallery.
Maguire visited the various prisons to select the works in the context in which they were produced. Of course, for many years, he had taught art in the prisons himself so he knew the situation and his visits generated great debate among the students and they enjoyed the opportunity to discuss their work with such a renowned Irish artist.
However, for some students, the art class has nothing to do with exhibitions or galleries; it’s about finding some time and space for themselves, perhaps finding some peace in what for many has been a chaotic, troubled world.
The “Open Minds” exhibition is a collaboration between RUA RED and the Irish Prison Education Service. When I visited, I happened to meet up with Tom Shortt who coordinates the art in the prisons.
There is no doubt in my mind that education, and the art classes in particular, are an important aspect of prison life. For some prisoners, it is their first chance to imagine a different, better future for themselves. For a few hours a week they venture into a world of new possibilities. In subtle ways, the art can “open minds” and help to bring about new beginnings.
If the teachers can enable that, then they are doing us all a service.