Women in Prison art workshops

In the summer I was involved in Susan Merrick’s project Statements in Semaphore by running art workshops at a female prison.  The Arts Council funded project formed her residency for FiLiA conference for which she presented work developed from the interactions betweens artists and academics within local communities (around London).  My involvement saw me lead art workshops at an all female prison on the outskirts of London for the Women in Prison, a national charity seeking to support women out of the criminal justice system and campaigns to expose the damage to these women and their families.  It was quite an experience, nothing like I expected.

I first came across Susan’s work when my daughter suggested I apply for the open call for the project ‘Statements in Semaphore’.  Susan is artist in residence for FiLiA 2017 and is working on delivering, as well as myself and other artists, workshops to women in various settings including prisons and women’s refuge centres.  In response to these workshops Susan aims to create a body of work which is commentary from the dialogue created with these women and the artists involved.

© Susan Merrick

FiLiA, the organisation Susan is working with, stated last year that ‘Art has a unique ability to communicate the diversity of women’s experiences, and to engage the public with feminism in an accessible way.’ My arts practice is predominantly textile based and I see it as a comforting, accessible and familiar medium to broach and open up subjects to an audience.  There is a cultural, physical and visceral dialogue with the viewer and my themes of the human body are often concerned with feminist views of how women are treated and seen within the world.  I believe this is where both myself and Susan became excited about working together.

The art workshops

For my part in the project I delivered two workshops at an all woman prison near London which is supported by ‘Women in Prison’ charity. Only as a child visiting my father in the Dickensian prison of Dartmoor, I have never visited a prison as such.  Leading up to my first day I had no idea what to expect, of course I had some nerves concerning the reception I might receive especially after a recent bad experience of teaching disaffected teenagers in Exeter.  I am from Cornwall with little cultural diversity and experience of the world, so I still possess that backwards view of London being a scary place and women in prison must be even scarier.  Well they are not.

Upon arriving at the prison I was greeted by what you would expect, high fences, razor wire and lots of gates.  That sense of enclosure was strong, as you passed through each gate becoming further and further removed from the outside world.  Also, you were not allowed your phones and I felt very isolated from that world these women are no longer allowed to be part of.  For myself this was just a temporary part of my day, for these women, reality.  A further frustration of not having my phone was not being to take photographs (cameras aren’t allowed either), as an artist entering that space there is such a wonderful array of photographic opportunities on offer you just had to glimpse and remember in your mind.  I did however complete some collages myself into my sketchbook and have since taken photographs for you to get a sense of what we did on these workshops.

© Rebecca D. Harris

Driving a great deal of miles and needing to pass through London’s longest car-park/forcefield known as the M25, I was late.  Eventually arriving I was welcomed by big smiling faces who were getting the tables very messy with paint.  You don’t have to a psychologists to read this experience, they were feeling liberated, as much as prison would allow them of course.  Of which, I was struck that they constantly referred to myself, Susan and Claire from ‘Women in Prison’ as ‘miss’.  They were nervous of calling us by our names written on the address labels we all attached to our chests.  It became more relaxed as the day went on but was testament to the prison system treating them like naughty children.

When planning the workshop, we were asked to get them to consider the art competition ‘Women in Prison’ are running with the theme – ‘Which Way’.  My approach was to consider which way we see ourselves in terms of body image, self-esteem etc.  I believe that some courses, twists and turns we make in life are greatly influenced by what we think of ourselves and as physical beings in the world that starts by *that* ‘gaze’ of others and how we fit in to society.  To start, we created a group collage, adding text and images from women’s magazines to create a large scale visual collection of how these women responded to this prompt.  During the making of the collage there are wonderful conversations about how they feel they look, ranging from total body confidence to acceptance of scars and how they feel about life outside of prison and the decisions moving forward.  To ensure there wasn’t too many clusters of individuality within the giant work, every five minutes the women are instructed to move around the piece.  It allowed a sense of group identity within the work and a loss of territorial stance on areas completed.

Once finished the work is turned over, this is where random lines are cut all through its length and from these strips and then from these strips smaller fragments were cut.  Initially they felt the work they had done lost, a group collective piece now fragmented.  Turning them over like playing cards the women then select the pieces they can add to the A6 sketchbooks provided (see above for the example in my work I brought home).  This enabled them to return to their individual identity, their aesthetic choices of selection and application.  Every single sketchbook was individual, different, much like those women.

On the two workshops I led, it was clear they were totally absorbed in the process and enjoyed the whole day.  They communicated often how they need more art in prison and I was really touched with the feedback given, one in particular stating she almost forgot she was in prison.  These women are not hardened criminals, they are just everyday women.  Women who are struggling with society and some spoke of feeling safe, cared for whilst there.  It was particularly poignant hearing that some are now off drugs and don’t want to leave as boyfriends waiting for them would surely get them back onto the stuff, thus restarting the cycle of the justice system once again.  One women commented, now she is in prison, how she no longer needs to shoplift for tampax anymore.

Upon completing my time there, I won’t miss that commute but I do miss the women I met and their fascinating stories.  The art that I provided opened up dialogues within a safe space.  It allowed them to talk freely with no eye contact whilst they were absorbed within their work.   Imagine if they had more opportunities with this and the progress they could make within themselves as they explore their own identities?  Art is not for the elite to enjoy, not for the art educated to partake in, not for those confident they *can* draw.  It is for all of us and for all of us to enjoy moments of exploration and self-expression.  I really hope these women have taken much more than just their sketchbooks with them.

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