Studying art through The Learning Connexion, an art and creativity tertiary institution in Hutt City, has given artist and former prisoner Gee Way the chance to “totally and utterly lead a new life”.
Gee Way has spent most of his life in and out of prison. He didn’t like art at school because he “hated being told what to do” but over the past 10 years, he’s been discovering art through long-distance study at The Learning Connexion and, more recently, with the support of the Director of Tongariro Prison.
Released from prison early this year, Gee Way has been coping with the pandemic and using the time to improve his photography, business and marketing skills to promote and sell his artwork.
Once he’s able to return to his home, he’ll have access to all of his tools so he can work on his sculptures – his favourite medium. One of his goals is to have an exhibition to showcase his work.
“At this stage, I’m just exploring everything,” he says. “I enjoy working in stone, bone and wood but I also like experimenting with painting.”
Boredom was the main reason Gee Way started to study art, he says. On remand in Waikeria Prison, he read an article about The Learning Connexion in the local newspaper and thought, “Why not?”
“When I started the course, it just clicked with me. At first, it was a time-filler but then I really began to enjoy it and I gor a lot of positive feedback.
“After a life of darkness and negativity, it was good to get such a positive response. I can’t stress enough how it has changed me and made me look forward to living my life as an artist.”
However, he says his biggest challenges is getting people to accept that being an artist is a viable future for him.
“It’s not just about making money. It’s about doing what you’re good at and what you enjoy,” Gee Way says. “Luckily, I have friends and family to support me but agency support to help me achieve my artistic goals is the biggest thing I need.”
Gee Way has both a certificate and diploma in art through The Learning Connexion, and is completing the New Zealand Diploma in Creativity, level six. After that, he wants to learn more about the bronze casting process – also through The Learning Connexion.
Creativity as a life skill
His tutor, Leo Semau, says The Learning Connexion teaches students the principles of creativity as a life skill, and as a way to relate to others and the wider community.
“Gee Way’s got a very strong work ethic and over the years, he’s devoted a lot of time to learning. He has an impressive range of technical skills, combined with a wealth of interesting, often humorous ideas about life.”
In 2016, when Gee Way was at Tongariro Prison, he created two sculptures and donated them to the prison “to show them what I could do”.
“Thankfully, the director realised what I was capable of and allowed me to work on my art. She went above and beyond, and I owe her a debt o gratitude.”
Gee Way has exhibited his work In two community exhibitions in 2019. The first was Huakina, curated by The Learning Connexion in conjunction with Expressions Whirinaki in Upper Hutt. It included work by students from 14 prisons and well-known guest artists, who were all given a wooden box to respond to.
Gee Way says ideas are “bubbling” in his head all the time. “Each piece begins with an initial idea and grows as I work on it. Like when my tutor Leo asked me if I wanted to be part of the Huakina exhibition and told me to think outside the box. I had three works in it.”
Artwork from Tongariro Prison
The second exhibition was From the Inside – Mai i Roto, presented by Taupō Museum and Ara Poutama Aotearoa Department of Corrections, and showcasing the artwork of men at Tongariro Prison.
Curator Kerence Stephens says Gee Way’s works were “of the highest standard and exquisitely finished. I was impressed by the impact of the statements he expressed in his works. There were a number of standout pieces that the public commented on because they touched them emotionally.
“His Blown to the Wind work was chosen as the centrepiece as it made a statement about the release of a prisoner. It stood out for the visual impact of a hand (representing Corrections) holding a dandelion head (representing the prisoner to be released). It also stood out for its use of buttons from old Corrections uniforms donated to Gee Way from Corrections staff, making it a collaboration between staff and Gee Way.
“In the exhibition, we gave the public the opportunity to write messages of encouragement to the artists. Gee Way received around 300 messages, many mentioning the incredible way his work had struck their hearts.
“His sculptural piece entitled Sometimes I cry of a tear-filled eye had a huge impact and left many viewers in tears as they left the exhibition.”
Kerence says it was great that staff at Tongariro Prison supported Gee Way’s creativity so he was able to work on his art and mentor others.
“He’s a natural artist who can create high-quality, meaningful artwork from carvings to paintings,” Kerence says. “I look forward to seeing Gee Way forge his way and flourish in the New Zealand art sector.”
Gee Way says he’s very grateful to Kerence for her support. “The exhibition looked so good. It was absolutely unbelievable. I felt so proud and also humble to get such nice feedback from people.”