As the siren for the Doncaster Library rang out, a crowd of couples, parents, and prison workers poured in for an exhibition titled Art From Inside. Above the library, the Manningham council presented the annual exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculptures from jails across Victoria.
“There’s something special about telling people in prison that someone out there loves them,” said Richard Feeney, executive director of Prison Fellowship. “The world’s rejected them, they’ve stuffed up and they don’t even love themselves. It’s almost like…loveless.”
I too have friends and family in prisons across Australia, and can sympathise with the fear of abandonment that comes with incarceration. My cousins often mail me their artwork—elaborate sketches of anti-style graffiti, and kaleidoscopes of coloured pencils that take them countless hours and drafts. And I know that when they post these works, it's not for the receiver. Instead it’s the effort and time they want their recipients to consider.
Art From Inside was once a global project bringing together works of art from prisoners across the globe, but in recent years financial support and prison cooperation has declined. David Jack, the program's curator, is determined to see it continue in Australia.
“One prison had six art works that inmates had been working on all year and the administration decided, at the last minute, they weren’t going to participate," he explained. "And I thought, what you’ve just done to those guys, knocking the wind out of their sails, that's really devastating.”
Art is capable of communicating feelings that we find difficult to express verbally. As well as using art as a cathartic form of expression, prisoners share illustrations and drawings in an attempt to seek forgiveness, repentance, or as an offering of gratitude.
When I asked Richard why the exhibition was important to him, he said: “Last year, there was a boy looking at a painting by his father, who was in prison. And he was just lost in this amazing portrait of his mother. There was a message there that only art could convey.”
Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that encourages self-expression through painting, drawing, or modelling. It’s used as a remedial or diagnostic activity, and it’s optional for inmates throughout Victoria’s prisons.
“It becomes a cathartic output,” explains David Jack. “We’re encouraging the art from inside, the therapeutic side of it.”
And the visitors, most of who were not art enthusiasts, engaged in hopeful discussions about their loved ones: trying to decipher prison life via the work while actively deconstructing the myth and stigma of the convicted.
While stalking the makeshift gallery and snapping photographs on an iPhone, Richard remarked, “It’s very difficult for all of us to go and visit a prison, and some of us may not even want to go inside a prison. But the prison has come to us tonight.”
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