A chance conversation with a fellow prisoner opened a door to The Learning Connexion and the world of art for Ray*, who is part of the therapeutic community at Auckland Prison.
“Once I obtained approval from Corrections to pursue the art programme, I immediately enrolled with The Learning Connexion and now, six years later, I’m about to start my Level 6 module, as soon as a mentor becomes available,” Ray says.
During the past six years, he’s produced more than 300 artworks and 16 “Garden Sketchbooks”. No wonder he is known as one of The Learning Connexion’s most prolific creators.
Based in Taita in the Hutt Valley, the arts and creativity tertiary institution set up a prison programme in 2005 as a pilot with five women in Arohata Women’s Prison.
Restricted Programmes at The Learning Connexion
Now, its Restricted Programmes have approximately 140 students across the prisons – all studying towards an art and creativity certificate or diploma. Some students also continue their studies after they are released from prison.
“Up until the time I embarked on the distance-learning art course, I had never done anything artistic. I’d never even picked up a pencil to draw anything,” Ray says.
Now, he talks passionately about some of his favourite artists, who influence his work: Picasso, Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, to name a few.
“A New Zealand artist I highly admire is Gretchen Albrecht,” he says. “I learned more about her in a book I found in the prison library and have been following her work ever since.”
What has Ray discovered about himself since he started exploring his artistic talent?
“I’ve grown in self-confidence and my communication skills have improved significantly. I don’t feel like an idiot anymore. Above all, my art has helped me with my mental health challenges: post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other issues.
“I remember the psychological release I experienced when I first started making art – making a mess really; the letting go of built-up emotions and the fear of being in prison. I find the art programme extremely stimulating and it has helped me move forward and try new things.”
Countering “the dull and grey everyday life in prison”
Much of Ray’s current work is vibrant and colourful, countering “the dull and grey everyday life in prison”.
“I’m in a good place now, and working in the prison garden and being involved in the beekeeping programme all adds to the creative influences around me. I’m also a chef, which is another form of creative expression.”
These interests clearly come to the fore in Ray’s Garden Sketchbooks, which chronicle his prison journey, his vision for the future, and his passion for art, nature and sustainability.
Ray is grateful to his Learning Connexion mentors who have been guiding him to continue working to find his own style and voice. He hopes to turn his art into a viable livelihood in the future.
He also appreciates the huge amount of inner growth he’s been experiencing (especially with regard to his offending), thanks in part to his creative endeavours.
“I used to blame everyone for my offending and for everything that was wrong in my life. Now I take responsibility.”
*Not his real name to protect his privacy.
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