Paul Bradley: challenging prisoners to create and make choices

9 December 2009

"Jumping into a creative mindset for a couple of hours a week can be a big ask for prisoners living in an environment where everything else is so structured," says art tutor Paul Bradley.

The art class he runs each week at Wellington Prison in Miramar and the Māori Focus Unit at Rimutaka Prison are among the few opportunities prisoners get to use initiative.

“The process of being challenged and overcoming that challenge to produce something they’re proud of can be hugely beneficial,” Paul says. “In prison, they are pretty much told when to eat and sleep and get up. So to have a space where they can make a lot of choices is essential for a healthy human being.”

Paul Bradley, art tutor at Wellington Prison and Rimutaka PrisonPaul, who is an illustrator, painter and video performance artist, has been teaching art in prisons for three years and says the boost it gives to prisoners’ self-esteem is a key benefit of the programme.

“I often see a rapid change in people’s self-belief. People really come out of their shells, surprising themselves, as well as seeing development in their art.

“When people come in I hear a lot of negative self-belief. But they give it a go. There is actually a lot of talent in the prison. It is not unusual for someone to feel pretty proud of their very first painting. And to say ‘wow’, I didn’t think I’d be able to do that.”

Focus on painting

Most of the art sessions focus on painting and drawing although there is some flexibility, depending on people’s interests.

When Paul started teaching in prison, he was “really hung up about trying to have them all make excellent art”.

He still aims to help the prisoners make good art “but often I am much more interested in the process – the conversations that happen around the art, their personal growth and what they overcome”.

Prisoners choose to take part in the art programme and although some might take the class to get out of the wing, “those who aren’t really into it don’t tend to stay because it is quite challenging. Some might think it will be a cruisy time but it doesn’t work out like that.”

Sharing equipment and space

Part of the challenge is sharing equipment and space with other prisoners. “I try to encourage them to help each other and discourage them from ridiculing each other’s work. There are some interesting interactions that happen as they learn to share techniques, tips and ideas with each other.”

Paul also runs art classes at the Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School and is a casual tutor at Pablos Art Studios, working with artists who have experience of mental illness. He has also tutored at Massey University, and at Spark Studios in Auckland.

He says teaching art in prisons is very different from teaching at a tertiary level. “When you’re teaching tertiary students, ideally you’re producing top-shelf, industry-level and cutting-edge work. In prison, I pretty much teach whatever people want to do in terms of subject matter or style. As long as they’re interested in it, my feeling is ‘go for it’.”


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