Painters on the inside

 

OUTIS THE simple title of an art exhibition currently running at Kilmainham Gaol. What makes it striking is that the exhibitors are the opposite of “out” – almost all of them are “inside”. The exhibition of 144 pieces is a representative selection of artwork made by current and former inmates from the 14 prisons in the State.

That Outwas a careful choice as a title for the show becomes evident when you realise the theme is repeated throughout. Walk through the rooms and what you see everywhere is a longing for the outside, for a world not constricted by walls. Images of escapism are everywhere. There are vast blue skies, deserted beaches, uncrowded green fields, idyllic countryside cottages, crashing waves, pretty villages, mountain scenes, solitary fishermen, pristine rivers, huge trees, bursts of flowers. Space and light and horizons infuse many of the paintings, watercolours, monoprints and lino-cuttings.

There are more than 3,900 people imprisoned in the State’s 14 prisons, the vast majority of them male. Art, craft and design classes – as well as music, writing and drama – are part of the wider curriculum offered by the various prisons in each education unit. Participation is voluntary, but due to the fact that such classes offer a change in the normal routine of an otherwise severely limiting day, many people with no former experience – or even interest – in art are attracted to them.

Bernie Masterson, who has been teaching painting through the prison services for several years, helped to curate the exhibition. “The challenge of the job is introducing people to a medium of which they have absolutely no prior experience,” she explains. Due to the transient nature of prison, there is no consistency in attendance. “They’re a very diverse set of individuals, ranging in age from 17 to 70, and they’re always coming and going.”

Masterson has observed “a very definite set of themes” that her students have consistently focused on over the years. “It’s indicative of being deprived of that environment, which is why they paint big wide expanses of spaces and skies. The art room can bring the outside in.” Apart from the evident images of escapism, she says people frequently make portraits of their loved ones, children or partners. However, the public visiting Outwon’t see very many of these images, because they are usually given to family members.

SHE STOPS BYa trio of precisely-painted paintings, each large canvas almost entirely composed of azure-blue sky. Two include scraps of branches, one with blossom, and the third features a tiny plane high in the sky trailing a white line of vapour, en route to some unknown destination. Cumulatively, the three have a haunting effect: the skies are so huge and depthless, the longing for freedom almost visceral.

“These are the first works by someone in the system for a very long time,” Masterson explains. It’s only lately this person has engaged with the art classes. “He wanted to do large pieces of sky because he’s been a long time incarcerated, and he spends his time looking up at the sky during his walkabouts in the yard.”

Derrick Hogan is a former inmate, who has one piece in the show, a highly accomplished oil entitled Christ in the Tomb. He found the image in a book, and reinterpreted it. “It took me 2½ months to paint the sheet around Jesus,” he declares with pride. He took art classes with Masterson because “You have something to look forward to. It keeps your head going for the next day.”

In addition to the oils, watercolours, monoprints, lino prints and ceramics, there is also a case of jewellery. Maria Azambuja has been working at Dóchas, the women’s prison, for five years. Some of the necklaces and bracelets are intricately worked in wire and tiny beading. Not everyone is able to do this kind of work, however. “If some women have come off drugs, their hands shake too much, due to the addictions,” she explains. There are some exceptionally eye-catching chandelier earrings. “The women watch telly to get ideas, especially The X-Factor,” Azambuja says.

VERONICA HOEN ISthe art development officer with overall responsibility for the exhibition. To make the selection process as fair as possible, they send out entry forms to all the prisons, who send back photographs of work. “We show work from all the prisons, but there also has to be a certain standard,” she says. They also show work from some post-release projects, which support former prisoners who want to continue their education in various ways such as the Pace and Pathways community-based projects. The opening night was recorded, and all the prisons will get a chance to view the DVD, and to see their work on display, even if they themselves cannot visit the show.

The most obvious challenge to teaching in a prison is that students are always coming and going. “You never know when you’ll see people again,” explains Karen Cotter, who has been teaching art in Wheatfield Prison for eight years. “They might be having a visit, or having a bad day. Another specific challenge is that people cannot go out and gather research or inspiration in the form of photographs, or sketches. We use a lot of National Geographicsand art books.” This explains why there are some puzzlingly exotic scenes in the exhibition, such as a perfect copy of a photograph of the famous bridge at Mostar.

ONE OF THEmost powerful pieces in the exhibition is a Francis Bacon-type self-portrait, entitled I Know What You Did. The creature-like person, a dark blue shape appearing to be pulsing with rage, clenches an accusatory fist, while hovering protectively over a collection of buildings.

“This piece changed several times,” Cotter says. “The person who painted it is from another country, and the buildings represent his village. To me, looking at it, I’d think the person was very bruised and sore and that he was protecting something.”

At one point, the painting included people with guns, which the artist eventually painted over, leaving a dark ragged blotch. Cotter points out the blotch, and explains what originally lay beneath. She also says she’s glad the artist painted over it, as if he had not, he would have been asked to remove it anyway. What about censorship? Or, is this a valid question here, given the context of the classes? “The art room is a space where people come to get away from everything else in the prison. We don’t allow any images of a violent or sexual nature. When you go into the art room, we have Lyric FM on, and it’s a peaceful place. The art room takes people away from the rest of the prison. For an hour or so, they forget where they are.”

Everything at Outis displayed anonymously, or represented by initials, and no exhibitors who are currently prisoners are permitted to give interviews. To walk around the rooms at Kilmainham Gaol where Outis on show is to have a fleeting but memorable insight into a world most people never see.


Outruns until January 31st at Kilmainham Gaol Museum, Dublin. Admission is free