Sheffield exhibition featuring art made by prisoners offers hope that it is possible to change your path

Art can change your life. It might seem like a bold statement, but does that make it any less true?

Thursday, 17th June 2021, 6:00 am
My Path, HM Prison Wealstun, First-Time Entrant Award for Drawing.
My Path, HM Prison Wealstun, First-Time Entrant Award for Drawing.

We often talk positively about our experiences of seeing art – maybe it’s something we’ve discovered in a gallery or happened across online; it could be a mural we’ve spotted on the street; it might even be that first crayon picture from your little one that gets pride of place on the fridge. For whatever reason, we find a connection – it inspires us, it raises our spirits, it moves us, it makes us think.

While the experience of viewing art can be incredibly affecting, the act of making it can be even more potent. Whatever your artistic ability, doing something creative can be hugely rewarding. Even something as simple as arranging some flowers or taking a photograph gives us a sense of pride and self-worth. Sometimes though, creativity can offer us a lifeline. Expressing our thoughts and feelings through art can help us understand them, and ourselves better. It can help us navigate our darkest moments and recognise what we value. It can make us think about who we are and ultimately, where we’re going.

This Sunday afternoon, the Koestler Arts exhibition, My Path: Art by People in the Criminal Justice System, comes to a close at the Millennium Gallery. Koestler Arts was set up by Arthur Koestler; a writer who campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment in the 1950s, Koestler saw the potential of art to stimulate ‘the mind and spirit’ of people in the justice system and motivate them to change their lives. Today, the charity works tirelessly to increase awareness and understanding of the experiences of people in the justice system and demonstrate the power of art in their rehabilitative journey.

Curated by young people working with Sheffield Youth Justice Service and Sheffield-based artist Sarah Jane Palmer, My Path features artwork from across Yorkshire made during lockdown. Every work has been made by someone in a prison, secure hospital, young offender institution or on probation, many of whom experienced lockup for 23 hours a day during the pandemic. Access to art materials and experience was often limited.

When I look around the exhibition, I’m inspired by the way people use art as a way to express complex and sometimes hidden feelings and emotions. The work is often optimistic – it may not tackle an issue directly, but somehow speaks to it in a way that opens new possibilities and, especially currently, strikes a chord. The works each hold something unique – they speak of where the artists are and also where they can imagine themselves.

Some capture the claustrophobia of a confined space; the view from their window, a singular gaze staring back from the mirror on the wall. In one work, which gives its name to the exhibition, a bridge disappears into the horizon. It made me ponder the way we plan our lives, in my case, a partner I love, our kids, a house, a job – the extent to which we have agency, how easy it is for things to go wrong and how little we know about what’s around the corner.

Other works take us in to the big wide world, both real and imagined; the vast sky drawn from the cockpit of a plane; memories of playing in the family garden – whatever their subject, all the works open a door on deeply personal journeys.

While the works are anonymous, the presence of the people behind them is keenly felt. Their stories combine and collectively emerge as a deep-set feeling, a sense of space, a realisation and acceptance of where you are, but also a future filled with new potential. Coupled with an evocative soundtrack, poignant titles, notes on where they were made and quotes and snippets of stories, these works pull you into the lives of the people that made them. You can’t help but pause for a few minutes and consider things through someone else’s eyes.

If you ask me to sum up the exhibition in a single word, I would say it left me feeling hopeful. Not because I think that the artists involved were in some way transformed by making art, but more a sense that at the heart of things there is always a potential for change and growth. This isn’t something that the works communicate directly. The exhibition is about the hope that it is possible to change your path, to actively choose to do things differently. That hope is one we should all carry forward.

The exhibition continues until Sunday June 20 at the Millennium Gallery – entry is free. It’s also available to view online at www.koestlerarts.org.uk/exhibitions/regional-exhibitions/my-path/