Art therapy. What comes to mind? Mentally ill patients scribbling dark images a la horror films, or prisoners passing the time locked away from the world. You’re not entirely wrong, but aside from the cliches, you’re missing a major element of art therapy. It’s benefit reaches far beyond the niche sections of society. Just as each and every person could profit emotionally from a session with a psychotherapist (everybody’s childhood fucked them up), so could we all gain insight into our subconscious selves through the medium of art creation. Not purely a method of analysis, it also provides an escape, a focus on positivity. A means to feel achievement. ‘Free’, this year’s exhibition at the Southbank Centre by the Koestler Trust, demonstrates just how powerfully art can change people, their lives and often the lives of those surrounding them.
The Koestler Trust celebrates its 50th year in 2012, and has been curated this time by Sarah Lucas. With its first show in 1962 at Foyles bookshop the charity became a pioneer of what is still often ironically classed as ‘outsider art’. Some prisoners have access to art classes and facilities, usually as a result of collected privileges. Some acquire materials and produce works In their cells, with prison officers often the ones to spot the pieces and suggest they submit. Over 8000 pieces are received by the trust each year to be exhibited in the Koestler exhibition and entered for the awards which tie in with it. Of these, 190 were chosen this year. 190 pieces of work which hold so much soul and story that you leave the exhibition emotionally exhausted, opinionally reformatted and valuably educated.
For many, especially those who have no experience of ‘outsider art’, the show will hold surprises. Talent they thought wouldn’t be present, or insight they didn’t believe existed. This did not surprise me. Since exploring art therapy, art by the mentally ill and prisoner art in my university dissertation I was already privy to the infinite talent in these spheres (as well as being fully aware that artistic soul transcends all social stigma or circumstance). What did surprise me, as it does every time I come into contact with these works, is the way in which whole sections of our society are lost. Dismissed. If you fit into a category, particularly a negative one, you are defined by it. Each and every one of us perpetuates this judgmental fallacy in some way, bred by aeons of societal divide. Government and the media goad us to fear each other, to be angry at one another. Focusing on benefit scammers, squatters; all a deliberate (and seemingly successful) attempt to divide us into manageable groups. United we are powerful, divided we are childish fists pounding on an iron fortress. It all stems, as do many ills, from a lack of understanding. Speaking about ‘prisoners’ will conjure images of aggressive murderers, violent rapists, paedophiles etc. But take one person. Give them their individuality back. Hear their story, their thoughts and feelings. Really listen, without defensively turning away and I believe those generalised judgements would fall away. Sadly most people don’t get to have contact with people classed as ‘outsiders’ and therefore can’t develop a framework for discovering how and why people make the mistakes they do.
One visit to the Koestler exhibition, or an art therapy group for the mentally ill and judgements seem irrelevant. The work speaks for itself. Often sad, always a labour of emotion and sometimes stunningly technical, the pieces are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Take Mirror Included; its bold confrontation of the self. Although portraits abound in the exhibition (interesting that for people categorised as being anti-social, many focus on the depiction of others), very few are self-portraits. This is perhaps unsurprising if you consider that prison is designed to degrade and strip away self-confidence. Even if the starkly scrutinising eye required for a self-portrait is understandably hard for a prisoner to embrace, the works as a whole are often extremely self-reflective. In a refreshing contrast to those contrived artworks created by well-known artists for collectors and galleries and waiting to be critiqued by the few who believe they are the authority on ‘good art’, the pieces here are raw material. The irony is that as we cage them like animals, they can produce works which often exude more humanity than I have come across amongst those who consider themselves to be overtly ‘civilised’. Symbols of freedom abound, as do depictions of the outside world; wings, nature, home, as well as poignant representations of life on the inside.
A large proportion of the works are created from recycled products. Art materials are scarce in prison and choice is limited. Traditionally, matchsticks and soap would be popular and easy to get hold of, and is still the case. As you might expect, conditions and access are less restricted nowadays and as such inmates no longer have to use spent matches, which in different sizes would have given a very different effect to those we see nowadays. The pieces made from matchsticks in this show use brand new uniform matches, which detracts nothing from their collective beauty. The skill involved and time invested is astounding, and the medium is sometimes so well disguised it is hard to believe. In pieces such as the spectacular Violin Case and Bow, coffee is used to stain the wood to give it an aged effect, or to create patterns and tones. Among the abundance of used materials recycled to produce some of these artworks are: tree bark, newspaper, clothing, soap, string, wood, wire, metal, and books.
Invaluable organisations such as the Koestler Trust provide a means to reconnect us to the sections of society we too often forget. But just as importantly, it allows the inmates themselves to establish a positive link with the both outside world and with the inner parts of themselves they may not have explored before. The fantastic tour guides who took us around the exhibition (I highly recommend taking the tour on a Tuesday/Thursday at 6.30pm) were a Koestler Trust worker and and ex-offender taking part in the mentoring scheme Koestler run for prisoners after release. Aside from their insightful analysis, they also explained some of the stories behind the artists themselves. Some had been able to attend the exhibition opening and those who hadn’t were astounded with the positive feedback sent in on comment cards. Some had even enrolled in art college on their release, using their portfolio built up in prison to outweight their resume. Although often tinged with sadness, the show is overwhelmingly positive and the benefits wide-reaching. The most depressing thing about it is that the genre and organisations involved with it are still not as prominent and recognised by the art world as they thoroughly deserve to be.
The Koestler Trust 2012 exhibition ‘Free’ is on at the Southbank Centre until 25th November 10am – 11pm. Fantastic guided tours led by ex-offender interns are available Tuesdays and Thursdays 6.30pm and Saturdays 3pm. See the website for more information.
All photographs (c) KateW Photography