Prisoner paintings depict journey from dark to light
29 September 2014
Prison art tutor Ann Byford sat in a cell in Hamilton Police Station, its door closed. She stared for ten minutes at the bare, grey walls as part of her research into a major art project she was about to embark on with prisoners at Waikeria Prison.
“Now there are posters on the walls and when people in custody look out through the bars they can see positive messages,” says Ann, the recipient of Arts Access Aotearoa’s Prison Arts Leadership Award in 2013.
There are messages of hope, of breaking the chains with the past, of making positive change and beginning a new journey.
Senior Sergeant Peter van de Wetering, based at the Hamilton Police Station, visited Ann Byford’s art class at Waikeria Prison in February 2013. He talked about the overall initiative Better Public Services Flagship Project and its aim to reduce re-offending by ensuring there were positive messages for offenders and their families in facilities such as Police cells, Community Corrections offices and Court foyers.
And then he talked about an art project involving the creation of 12 paintings, to be designed and painted by prisoners.
“My brief for the project was simply to ensure the 12 works had a ‘consistent thread’,” Ann says. “It was a massive project because it wasn’t just a matter of doing some paintings. We had to develop the overall concept so that each painting worked together to tell a story about the men’s journey from darkness to light.
“Over the first three months, we talked a lot about the project and the messages. We did mind maps, a lot of sketches and concept drawings, and then the editing.
“The big challenge was getting the guys to work together. Some of them had never done art before and others were used to making art only for themselves or their families.
“But this was work for a joint project between the Police and Corrections. Part of my job was to keep bringing them back to the brief and ensuring there was a consistent thread so the works flowed as a story.”
Missing pieces in the puzzle
Each of the paintings contains jigsaw pieces. Missing pieces in the puzzle are metaphors for a missing family member. The final painting, representing stability, change, support and love, has no missing pieces.
The men doing the project were violent offenders with a high risk of re-offending, selected because they were part of the Integrated Offender Prevention and Support Programme at Waikeria Prison. They attended the art class once a week for three hours.
Commenting on the project, one of the participants said: “Change starts from within. Just the process behind these paintings, the reflection, it has made me question my own behaviour, my own beliefs. I know I don’t want to be on that same path that I came in here on, so I have to change the path myself.”
Kevin Smith, Prison Manager, Waikeria Prison, says: “Rehabilitative arts programmes are so valuable. Through the creative process, offenders develop skills in team work, patience and goal setting. For many offenders, it can be the first time they’ve produced anything positive in their lives.”
In July 2013, the men completed the 12 paintings. Earlier this year, large digital images of the artworks were launched in the cellbock of Hamilton Police Station.
A story of despair and hope
A booklet called Message from Within: Journey from dark to light contains images of the 12 paintings and is available in justice sector agencies throughout the Waikato. Writing in its foreword, Peter van de Wetering says the paintings tell a story of despair and hope.
“The artwork was created by men who know what it is to embark on unfulfilled lives of crime. They take the viewer through a story of despair to hope, from dark to light.”
Throughout the project, Ann documented the men’s progress with weekly reports and photographs of the works’ development.
Then, when the project was completed, she presented each prisoner with a photo album. It included the Carl Jung proverb, “He who looks outside dreams. He who looks inside awakens.”
“It meant they had something to show their families,” Ann says. “The guys were overwhelmed by what they had done.”
Peter van de Wetering says the project was made possible because of an “interagency belief” in the project and the people involved. The partners included New Zealand Police, Department of Corrections, Child, Youth and Family, and the Ministry of Justice.