Prisoner profile: a bottomless jar of ideas
21 October 2011
"It's great to have access to art supplies and to paint out the backlog of ideas that has built up," says Emma Wilding (not her real name), a prisoner undertaking the first year of the diploma programme with The Learning Connexion.
Emma says that studying through The Learning Connexion reminds her that there are other people “out there” who think art is important, and like to discuss ideas and techniques.
“It’s also good to have a critique, not just warm fuzzies,” she says. “It’s good to have a structure to my learning for when inspiration is a little dry. And good to be shown techniques I may not have thought of by myself and have access to other artists’ works – both the famous and especially those by other students.”
There are approximately 80 prisoners studying art from Corrections’ facilities around the country, using the distance-learning processes at The Learning Connexion. Sharon Hall, Restricted Programmes Co-ordinator and Distance Delivery Mentor at The Learning Connexion, says Emma’s work is grounded in the world of narration and storytelling.
“Emma has a bottomless jar of ideas that is overflowing and which requires her to work at a steady pace," Sharon says. “She develops her ideas in such a way that it keeps her work fresh and inviting. The viewer is left asking for more and wondering where the story will go to next.”
1. Before enrolling in the course, how much art-making experience did you have?
I did School Certificate art about 30 years ago. In 2008, I came to jail for a three-month sentence and did a two-hour art class each week with Moana Tipa. She was very interested and supportive, and went out of her way to get me permission to have art materials in my cell. So I treated that time as a three-month residential art workshop. I kept my hand in out of jail in between earning a living etc. Almost two years later, I returned to jail but things had changed. I wasn’t allowed art supplies except for three months of two hours a week with the new tutor, Corina Hazlett, who was great too. Then in June 2011, I started The Learning Connexion course by correspondence.
2. Do you think it’s important to have good art instruction and a mentoring process that supports the development of your art?
Yes I do. It is easy to be lazy and do only those things you find easy, and are already good at. Even if I was fairly sure what direction I wanted to head in, there might be other places to go that I hadn’t yet heard of. Plus, everyone needs a sound base of technical skills to support their own ideas. Often something that doesn’t sound very exciting can surprise you once you actually try it.
3. What are the things that art teaches you most about? Are they useful skills?
I am still learning to visualise thoroughly and in detail. I need to get better at this if I want to do sculpture. I have also learned to be patient and to plan things out, and to keep trying if I think an idea is good but the first attempts fail. I have learned a little about how non-artists see art, what is likely to hold their attention and not to be upset if they show no interest in something that took me hours. For instance, I used to often incorporate words in my pictures, which gives non-artists an easy “handle” on a work. But I stopped that because I noticed they would just read the words and not look at the visuals. Make them do some work, I say.
4. Do you think the skills that you learn when you’re making art transfer to other things you do in your daily life?
I am using art as part of my personal Drug Recovery Programme. My plan is to be too busy to think about drugs. Art and exercise (swimming) were always the only things in my life I was so obsessive about that they competed with the addiction focus. They were the only things I feel more intensely about.
5. What does being able to participate in exhibitions mean for you?
Exhibitions. My main focus on exhibitions is the chance to see other artists’ work. I view my own submissions as a ticket of entry and comparison studies. I would like to see a lot more of what other students are doing. I think this is the biggest loss of distance education.
6. Looking to the future, do you see yourself utilising the skills you have learned so far?
I am planning to continue The Learning Connexion course after the first year until I hopefully pass the diploma, and then continue as an artist although I don’t really know or care if my work has popular appeal. Once I leave jail I would like to do some printing and more craft-based work, which I would be prepared to sell. I would be prepared to cater to popular demand in order to sell enough to at least cover costs. I am no prepared to paint black velvet pictures of Elvis (or similar) to make money. I think the main thing I have learned is to assert the importance that art has always held for me and to believe in the value of what I want to do. I have finally learned not to marginalise my own creativity by measuring it by its money-making potential. Happiness comes first and art makes me happy.