Prisons are not known for being particularly inspiring places. The word tends to conjure up images of uniform jumpsuits, grey concrete walls, barbed wire and security guards. Nevertheless, even in such an uninspiring environment, human creativity can still thrive. Art education programmes offered in prisons attempt to provide inmates with a therapeutic outlet during the course of their sentence. These programmes reveal the talents of highly skilled individuals who, for one reason or another, have been edged to the margins of society. These people have often never been afforded the chance to create art before in their lives. Many of the works produced by inmates would be equally at home in a gallery setting or art school show. However, this rarely comes to pass. The general public at times seem unable to look past the ‘prison art’ label attached to these works and view them more as a novelty than a genuine form of self-expression. Indeed, most headlines relating to inmate art shows focus on the given crime of the artist rather than their creativity.
The main publicity for the artwork created by inmates in Ireland is the National Prison Art Exhibition. This year’s show was entitled ‘Humans Sharing Spaces’ and ran throughout March. Every other year, hundreds of pieces are exhibited at locations throughout the country for a month. These vary enormously in subject, style and medium, though animal and landscape scenes are always popular. Usually, the works are vibrant imaginings on the part of the prisoner, rather than portrayals of their surroundings and everyday life. The inmates never get to visit the exhibition, though this year it was well-attended by the general public. Furthermore, the works are exhibited anonymously for confidentiality.
It can be difficult for many people to come to grips with life in prison. However, the art programme offers a creative and supportive atmosphere for prisoners. For a few hours, the monotony of daily prison life is replaced by creativity and possibility, the making of something new.