What is your personal experience working in the prison system and why do projects like this interest you?
The prison environment is one of the most difficult places to work as an artist. In the first place they are hard to get into (no pun intended), and there are lots of political and material limitations on the type of work that is acceptable. This can create massive compromise in the work created, but if the challenge is met it can create some of the most incredible work. This is why I am so interested in supporting artists to navigate this environment.
Why do you think it's important to work with people in the criminal justice system through arts projects? What are the benefits?
Art and education in prisons - at their very essence - are reform-based activities. They oppose the idea that prisons are for punishment. One of the major obstacles to our country fully embracing the idea as prison as a place for rehabilitation is popular opinion of crime and those who commit them. Creativity is a human activity, and can but demonstrate the depth and complexity of the human experience. However art is used, it is an incredibly powerful tool to change the experience and understanding of prisons.
Why is it important for people to learn how to "navigate" the system - what challenges might practitioners face?
There are many practical problems, which the course covers in depth. But more interesting are the idealogical ones. The course challenges students to develop and articulate their own individuals views on various types of crime and the criminal justice system. We talk about if and how these views are compatible with working in this environment. I also get students to really dig deep into their own artistic values - what do they really feel their art form offers that other mediums do not?
What is the most important thing that participants will take away from this course?
A set of critical tools and exercises that they can apply to any situation - not just prisons. They will develop skills to take a much more rigorous and individual approach to every aspect of their art practice and the commissioning process, whatever the context. By going really in-depth about a specific context, we are able to deal with the nuances of socially-engaged art practice.
Can you tell us about any success stories you know about as a result of projects like this?
Several students have gone straight on to get funding for their projects. Each student comes out with a fully formed art proposal, including a strategy for raising funding, which gives them the opportunity to directly apply the principles they have learned.
Jacqueline McCullough – a socially-engaged photographer - won Most Enterprising Community Project Award, a grant from the Beepurple / Santander Enterprise Awards, for her idea for a community arts project aimed at women in prisons. Here you can read a blog containing research she undertook as part of my course.
Kass Boucher – a creative writer - won a Social Enterprise Award through the Unltd/HEFCE Social Enterprise programme. She ran five workshops with the men who take part in the Playing for Time production at HMP Winchester after it ended, and print an anthology of the creative pieces they produce for them to keep and give to family/friends.
And lastly, Bethany McDonald Shepherd – a performance artist - successfully funded Women in Mythology through crowdfunding and an Arts Council England Grant. Women in Mythology is a two-day, collaborative performance art project written and devised by female ex-offenders and vulnerable women in the London borough of Camden. Together, the group will build and devise a female empowered performance based on research into ancient goddesses from Greece, Africa, India, and Native America.
If you're interested in taking part in this unique six week course, the only one of its kind in the country, then click here to find out more and book.