Art and love support former prisoner’s redemption
14 January 2016
An exhibition called The Roads to Redemption, featuring the work of artist and former Northland Region Corrections Facility prisoner Simon Kerr, continues at the Whangarei Art Museum until 31 January, with an artist floor talk on 17 January.
Described as a “biopic-style documentary”, the exhibition takes viewers on a journey through Simon Kerr’s life – from a difficult childhood, family, crime, incarceration, escape, activism, and ultimate rehabilitation and redemption through the love of his partner and small children, and his art.
Born in 1961, Simon was 16 when he was first sent to Mt Eden Prison. In the 1990s, he was the leader of a group of safe-crackers known as the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and staged a number of escapes from prison.
But during his most recent prison sentence, served at Northland Region Corrections Facility, he began working out his troubled life through art.
What was therapy for him was quickly recognised as something much more by his art tutors, and the works he painted in prison formed The Roads To Redemption exhibition.
In an interview on RNZ, tutor Kerikeri artist and critic Mike Nettman, says he was staggered when he first saw what Simon was producing. "I looked over his shoulder to see what he was doing and I thought, 'My gosh, this man is incredibly talented.
Robbing banks was all he knew
"I asked him what he did before he was in prison. And he said to me, 'I robbed banks'. I said I meant what was his occupation and again he said he'd robbed banks. From 15 years old, he'd been robbing banks and that's all he knew."
Mike Nettman says it was not surprising that some of the paintings in the exhibition have moved gallery visitors to tears.
"It's very emotional. You know, it's very honest work. He doesn't want to learn about technique and he doesn't have to because he is a storyteller in his art and it is very powerful stuff. Also because of the words he puts in his paintings. And he's there on the canvas as most artists are. He's opened his soul."
In the interview, Simon says he's glad that people liked his work. "I'm humbled by that. I don't see myself as an artist. I'm just telling my story."
He also says he isn’t angry that no one recognised his plight as a youngster and helped him. "I'm not angry with anyone except maybe myself.
"And I don't see it as a 'plight'. It's just the way it is. Life is an experience and if we all lived the same and had the same experience – how boring. Hopefully something good will come of it."
Simon will keep painting. There are many more stories to tell.
"I have love in my life now; I'm committed to that. And I want to paint about that."
Simon is now living on parole with his partner and two young children in Kerikeri - just down the road from the police station.
Every painting in The Roads to Redemption has sold. However, the works are on show at the Whangarei Art Museum until the end of January.