Maths and art meet in prison

9 November 2010

Geometric artworks - compelling, skillfully drawn and hung for visitor viewing at Mt Eden Prison in Auckland - were spotted by Moana Tipa, Prison Arts Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa, during her recent visit there.

Programme Co-ordinator Nazara Rafik said the work was created by prisoner and mathematician Raymond (not his real name). Furthermore, she said, the 50 or more drawings he made in the short period when he was on remand had been stored and could be viewed.

Each work is an exact arrangement of lines within a geometric form – each line resolved to an exact millimetre measure. There are no erased or reworked lines. There is a simple accuracy and confidence in the recording of lines, and no two works are the same.

For Moana, the works raised questions. Where did the artist learn these skills? Which skill came first: maths or art? How did inspiration arrive? What practical application could this work be given?

With the help of the Department’s Communications team, a number of questions were put together and presented to Raymond by Mary Stenton, Programme Manager at Rimutaka Prison.

Understanding the ideas

The aim of the questions and his answers is to help readers understand Raymond’s ideas and their translation into a finished piece of art.

Q. Mathematics appears to be the dominant factor in your work. It appears to be a complex and specialist language, where drawn lines and a little colour give it form. Is this the case?
A. When I draw, I see the image as a whole, and it’s an element that is able to be repeated. I see geometry as maths in pictures and I mainly do the calculations in my head. It began as something for myself but now I am pleased to see other people enjoy seeing my work.

Q. How long have you been making maths-based art? Where and how did it start?
A. I don’t remember being shown how to do this. It was just something I did when I was a boy. I just did it all the time. I stopped when I left home at 15. I only took it up again about two-and-a-half years ago as something to do in prison to pass the time, and now I really enjoy it.

Q. How do you describe your work?
A. I find it hard to describe. I just enjoy coming up with new patterns. I leave it up to other people to describe. Different people see different things in the designs.

Q. How does the inspiration for a work come about? What usually happens?
A. I just get the image in my head. I could be doing anything at the time. I try to make a quick sketch as soon as I can, then come back to it and work it out in detail.

Q. Does each new work you start pose new challenges?
A. All the work is a challenge. The bigger and more complex the image is, the more challenging it is. But that makes it all the more enjoyable, and more satisfying when it works out. Sometimes I can’t get the image onto the page, which is frustrating.

Q. Given your skills, what would your ideal occupation be?
A. I would love to be a designer so my images could be on wallpaper, or on tiles or fabric and so on.

Q. Do you make art every day (i.e. maintain an art practice)?
A. When I have the materials I draw every day. But in prison, I can’t always get the materials.

Q. Do you have a routine or a process you follow?
A. I just draw when I feel like it. Sometimes I draw all night when I’m really absorbed in what I am doing.

Q. Within the routine of making art, are there skills you develop that transfer to daily life and understanding?
A. My pictures keep me busy and keep my mind busy, so I don’t even think about getting into trouble. I’ve served my time and kept out of trouble.

Q. There appear to be disciplines that you work within to make these works. Is that the case?
A. It isn’t easy to talk about this. I just find I can put my mind in a different space when I work. It’s almost like I’m not even in prison, I could be anywhere.

Q. Anything else?
A. The biggest problem in prison is getting the materials and storing the finished pieces so they don’t get creased or damaged. I still have lots of ideas I haven’t even begun yet.


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