Welcome to my blog…
Top of the morning…
Commiserations to our Welsh brethren this morning as they head home to nurse their collective bruised egos after a spectacular no show in last night’s euro knock out. I doth my cap to your effort lads but maybe you should be sticking to a little rugby, eh? We’ll show you how it’s done on Tuesday when we play against the Germans and if not, at least I won’t have to write about it due to only publishing once a month. So, we’ve got the football and the tennis to keep us occupied and distracted at the mo which is a pretty good thing as sod all else has changed, my moods certainly haven’t but at least I’m managing to present much better at the moment. I’ve returned to focussing on acceptance and getting on with my project as best I can, a hard task in the face of the hypocrisy being shown by those in power or wealth. Whilst the rest of the country try their best to stick to the rules our leaders do whatever they please and upon discovery think they can just apologise and all is right with the world again. Yeah Soz, soz makes it all better. Only last week I heard of one con who was put into isolation for hugging and kissing his partner during a visit. I’m not attempting to justify his actions but when our own minister for health does exactly the same thing and not even with his partner, where’s the consequences for that? What’s worse is people are now expected to accept such low moral standards from our leaders. Wow, debauchery, philandering, back stabbing, lying, cheating, money grabbing, just what is the criteria for a leader these days? Yes, it’s hard indeed to focus on acceptance when all I want to do is scream and shout. 15 months behind the door now and as of tomorrow we begin our 16th with no end in sight for us. Some days I wake up and genuinely have no idea what day it is. After all these days of 22 hours locked up it’s all just become a blur, I’m existing in a very surreal bubble.
When asked how it’s going, I speak truthfully, fucking shite, which seems often to leave people perplexed. Not that I’m saying it aggressively or nastily, it’s just now I refuse to attach a social nicety to my answers. There’s sod all pleasant about what we’re enduring and what’s the point in social falsehoods ‘I’m fine thanks and how are you’, ‘not bad, not bad, nice weather we’re having’, right, you’ve had your hour out of the box time to bang up. Actually, it’s quite interesting watching how people flounder when they receive a response they weren’t expecting, ‘How are you’, ‘Fucked off’, ‘oh what’s wrong’, ten minutes later my diatribe of what’s wrong concludes with uncomfortably long eye contact and a response of ‘ah, erm, yeah, must be shite. Anyway, time for bang up’. It’s not all as black and white as that but I’m sure you get the picture. And how is this sorry state of ‘affairs’ (soz Mr Hancock) affecting or influencing my artwork at the moment? Adversely for the most part, I don’t know how it impacts upon others but more and more often I find myself far too frustrated to even contemplate picking up a paintbrush. My work rate really had tapered off during the month of May and its only in the past couple of weeks I’ve found some impetus once again from two separate sources no less, my wonderfully creative partner and our artist in residence, both of whom have offered their own particular brand of challenge. My partner has been developing a new approach to her work involving mixed media and 3D, affording us some stimulating conversation and debates surrounding which direction it might take and, in turn, has led to some interesting composition being developed even though its having to be done from a distance, phone calls, letters and emails etc, all of which throw up their own frustrations due to a non-visual form of communication but I’ve really enjoyed the process as well as the sensation of fires being reignited that sensation was compounded by another piece of work I completed this weekend, a change of direction from my more somber work. I took on a challenge of a portrait, my partners daughter is 18 in a couple of months and thought it would make a nice birthday gift, only the gift turned out to be for me too, gleaning inordinate amounts of pleasure from this break from the norm and having the opportunity of observing something beautiful and vibrant in both subject material and painting, really was a breath of fresh air. Sometimes I forget just how adversely some of my darker pieces affect me and leave me in a shite space. It’s not until I experienced the lighter side of artwork do I get a taste of that particular sensation. Often I’m asked questions along these lines… ‘why don’t you paint something happy?’ or ‘don’t you ever paint anything pleasant?’. Despite the angst and turmoil my work often evokes in me and others it’s also very cathartic and whilst I’m involved with the execution of the piece, I get to examine the minutia of what’s going on for me, in fact the word execution is extremely apt in this context because afterwards I get to put it all to bed in a very finalised way. It would be nice to share the portrait with you and see what you make of the vibrancy of colour and structure I’ve employed but as it’s a surprise gift it might have to be later on down the line. I mentioned there is two sources of stimuli, the other being our artist in residence. Over the last couple of weeks, they’ve been allowed to come back into the establishment again and what a great relief to be able to have a catch up. Prison ain’t renowned for its focus on culture (unless in the guise of a petri dish culturing one form of disease or another) I’m often feeling starved of influence so any opportunity to be involved in the arts, I’m first in the queue. An interesting proposition was offered to us a couple of months ago, I was invited to join in a project titled ‘From Night into Day’ which would run alongside MA students from an art school in the Midlands at which our resident artist teaches, As I’ve stated in previous writing the therapeutic value of art in our jails has long since been and gone so be in such a fortunate position I really must count myself amongst the lucky few. Again, having that external impetus is amazing, I also got to hear about some of the students’ ideas and creations and found it very touching that they’re working in the knowledge that incarcerated men would also be producing pieces of art running parallel to their projects. I don’t know if the tutor had included within the brief to keep us and our restricted environment in mind during their developmental stage but listening to the description of what each of them bring I’m really looking forward to seeing everybody’s end results. As for what I’m producing, well initially I was going to do a painting relating to a sense of freedom as my own particular take on ‘From Night into Day’ is an interpretation of waking from the nightmare which is prison however, due to my initial sketches being drawn in ink using cross hatching, I was encouraged to consider creating a small series of intaglio prints depicting my ideas. After mentioning that it took a decade of incarceration before beginning to see any light at the end of the tunnel that concept began to solidify. So, the paint brushes have been shelved for now as not only will I be spending the next few weeks etching intaglio plates in preparation for the printing, our resident artist boys have also given me another interesting task/challenge, I’ve been passed a handmade sketch book only without the white drawing paper in it, instead it has a dozen leaves of black and white Elvis photos depicting his performances. Alongside this I’ve been given a white ink pen and asked to do some of my drawings on top of the images. What a really interesting concept, I would never have thought to take this approach myself, it certainly has me intrigued to see where it’ll end up. Watch this space.
And on that positive note I’ll sign off now and wish you all good fortune. Until next time, look out for each other.
Kind regards, SDS.
Top of the morning…
Its mid-May and after last night’s thunder storm the morning looks bright and refreshed as if the rain has acted as a cleanser and washed away all of yesterday’s turmoil which in essence is a parallel to how I feel myself. The past month or so has seen me spilling out all over the place, resentments, anger frustration, boredom, depression, the list goes on and on as does this bloody lockdown. On Monday we observed society returning to some semblance of normality with the relaxation of your restrictions and having already experienced watching England come out of the previous lockdown with no change to our circumstance I’m yet again left with a sense of frustration that we continue to endure 22 hours behind the door with absolutely no idea of when all this will end. 14 months now and the stress is beginning to show. I got my first nicking for well over a decade last week for being abusive to an officer, lost my canteen privileges for week and fined 50% earnings which equates to about £5. The nicking is pretty irrelevant in itself as there’s sod all else anyone can do to me, I’m already on segregation regime with the amount of time I’m locked up in this tiny concrete box. I can’t lose any other privileges as I don’t have any to lose. I can’t even be awarded loss of days as I’m a lifer and I don’t have any of them to lose either. So, what is relevant? Well, my behaviour and the inability to manage myself appropriately regardless of the levels of stress. One of the recurring themes throughout my life has been emotional management. For those of you who are used to the bywords of the psychological interventional world, you’ll be all too familiar with that descriptive label. For anybody else you’d probably say ‘angry bastard’. Regardless of terminology I’ve spent a number of years working on my social skills and learning how to interact with my fellow man without the use of more ‘primal techniques’. Observation, acknowledgement and plenty of self-reflection are some of the daily practices of my life and recently I finished a painting I’d like to share with you on that theme. Titled ‘At Odds’, it’s an acrylic on canvass 1000 x 750mm, depicting a naked figure, twisted and unbalanced surrounded by a flotilla of security cameras.
I’ve introduced an extra arm and leg to the figure in order to depict the sense of surreal one might feel having to endure such scrutiny. Initially I had in mind self-reflection, upon further thoughts around the subject I began to ponder, what does that entail exactly. Obviously its healthy to be self-aware and reflect upon the actions you’re presenting on a daily basis but what occurs when that self-analysis becomes all-encompassing and you begin to scrutinise every tiny nuance of your behaviour. Ever heard of the phrase ‘to over analyse is to paralyse?. I’m in an environment where every aspect of my behaviour is being observed. My mail is read, phone calls listened to, records being updated by daily, weekly and monthly observations. Who visits me, who I associate with, all of which is accompanied by continuous whirring of motorised cameras? You’d think ‘just be yourself’ and you’ve nothing to be concerned about but does that really ring true? Which of you has never walked down the hight street and not noticed when the cameras appear to be following your progress? How does that feel? Knowing that you’re being observed. Does it alter your behaviour in some way? Do you become self-conscious, maybe you wonder how you appear, is your hair a mess, your shoes tatty? Perhaps you reflect upon the 8 bags of shopping you’re hauling around as a testament to your day of retail therapy, highlighting the empty void in your life, needing to be filled by the superficial. Gripping your bags tighter and putting away your phone as a group of teens walk towards you because they appear menacing in their hooded tops. Maybe they’re black and you now think you look like a racist for besmirching a whole section of society because you’ve come to believe the shite that the tabloids are telling you. One camera looks at you and you go from happy-go-lucky average Jo or Joanna to a self-conscious dishevelled shallow racist. How did that happen? Perhaps you noticed the camera following you and felt nothing what so ever, after all, it is quite normal in this day and age. Then again, we have to look at our culture of reality TV to witness what happens when we put a camera in somebody’s face. Characters become more animated, a heightened sense of awareness, behaviour changes in a multitude of ways. most of which can be transcribed by one word ‘contrived’. How then can we ever hope to be ourselves when scrutiny in itself promotes falsehood. Where’s the congruence in that, it’s very difficult balancing act indeed. I feel the painting gives the viewer a sense of discomfort. I know I often feel at odds whilst in that particular circumstance. Feeling naked and vulnerable, wary and weary and most certainly unbalanced. I know I’m not the most accomplished of painters and may not be able to execute a piece to the same high standards as others achieve but with this painting, I feel I’ve really captured something of my own personal angst and was able to share it openly and honestly. That, for me, is a huge achievement in my journey as an artist and to date I feel its my best piece yet.
And, on that happy note I’ll say bye for now and despite my jealousy of your sense of freedom, I’m genuinely happy things have begun to move forward for you.
Take care of each other.
Kind regards, SDS.
Top of the morning…
5.54am and the rising sun has just begun to create an interesting negative out of the tree line on the distant hills. Choosing not to hang curtains in my little concrete box I’m forced into getting up to hang my towel as a sun screen. Switching the radio on whilst I’m up, I catch the first few bars of Pink Floyds ‘Time’ smiling at the sense of irony. The intro fills my cell with its melodic sounds until the dulcet tones of Dave Gilmore initiates the opening lyrics ‘Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day, waiting for someone to show you the way’ now that gave me a sardonic smile. Its looking like another beautiful day out there and boy do I love a sunny day. Unfortunately we are still on severe restrictions in here and our days continue to be spent behind the door. Can you believe its been a year, wow, as we enter the 13th month of our lock down the predominant topic of conversation I hear relates to the possibility of us going back to a normal routine in June but I’m afraid my own half empty glass is not so optimistic. Try as I might I just can’t seem to allow myself the luxury of believing that will be the case for us. Decades of experience and an ingrained mantra of ‘prepare for the worst’ has never been accompanied by ‘hope for the best’, one hell of a character defect eh? I constantly have to battle myself in trying to remain positive but knowing my first thoughts may well be of a negative nature I do try to ensure my first actions are the complete opposite. When I’m feeling particularly cynical about any issue I make sure I do something constructive. This past year of turmoil and angst can attest to that, despite all the misery and strife suffered by most I can say that I didn’t waste that time. I put together a huge body of work, 20 odd paintings, 14 line and wash, 3 etching plates, I’ve even managed to create a little sculpture out of pebbles I found when on the exercise yard, think I was having an Andy Dufresne moment (Shawshank Redemption). I also began a monthly blog and, alongside my wonderful partner, created a website which has continued to generate interest from around the globe in what we’re doing. Most recently I was asked by a french organisation to write a testimonial for their website, Prison Insider, which has just been published this month, see ‘useful links’ on reverse. So yeah, I might not be the most optimistic of individuals but I’m certainly a constructive one, and what’s the old maxim ‘actions speak louder than words’. Well now I’ve given myself a much needed pat on the back how about I tell you what I’ve been painting this month and why. Perhaps the ‘why’ is pretty much self evident, I’m feeling very resentful at the moment, most of which is aimed at the system, a system I feel is letting us down. Obviously I can’t speak for anybody else I can only give you an insight to my own thoughts though its fair of me to say ‘I do say what you see’ and what I see is Mr Chips and his pals are becoming stressed and depressed beyond reason. I’ve got two paintings almost finished in which I speak to our isolation and how it feels to be discounted and ignored. First of which is an old Victorian prison cell showing three figures reclining and sitting on one double bunk and one single. All three wearing face masks and displaying a real sense of tedium and isolation. One figure is in solid form, another is becoming translucent and the third is a skeleton draped with cobweb. Upon the floor is an empty HP baked bean can which I re utilised from a previous painting and changed the label to HMP Human Beans. The second painting is a self portrait wearing a face mask ensconced within a very gloomy and depressive cell. I’m holding a cardboard sign with the words ‘anonymity’ scrolled upon it. I chose anonymity rather than anonymous as the face mask over the mouth also hints at the lack of voice. Both are very bleak images of my life at the moment, obviously prison isn’t meant to be a wonderful experience but surely its should at the bare minimum be a humane one. Often I read the papers and the sentiment of the ‘lock em up’ brigade spewing out their endless diatribes on how prison is too easy these days pisses me off no end. What exactly is it they want? Should we be hung by our toes throughout the day and maybe they could interspace the night hours with little electro shock therapy to keep us warm. If my retort comes across as facetious then its because its meant to. That kind of mentality often evokes my destain. If there was ever an opportunity for people to understand that prison isn’t a place you go to ‘for’ punishment, its a place you are sent to ‘as’ punishment, the opportunity is now. Amid the endless suffering and turmoil the whole country has endured for the past year you’ve all had first hand experience of what a lock down entails, what its like to have your autonomy removed, what it means to have your liberty taken away. Sequestered under severe restrictions to just one space, requiring permission to do the most normal of things, experiencing months of isolation whilst enduring the effects of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. All those aspects that are detrimental to a social animal such as a human being. That is why they use prison as a punishment, being removed from the society to which we belong is the penalty you receive for our infringement of collective laws. Incarceration is the punishment and now you’ve experienced your own version of what that truly means. Why would anybody spout such nonsense as prison is too easy these days, by its very nature its impossible to be easy. Prison means being locked up, its not a half way measure, locked up is locked up. Let me ask those of you who may well be the more affluent members of our society how it feels to be locked up in your penthouse, surrounded by all your luxury and splendour being able to indulge yourself in all your wonderful possessions, did it lessen the angst you felt at not being able to leave that penthouse? Did it reduce the loss of liberty you felt? Of course not. Having everything you could wish for pales in comparison to being in a lock down doesn’t it. That’s what incarceration means, liberty is the most treasured possession each and every one of us could ever own. Removing that is punishment enough don’t you think? Only recently I was asked ‘don’t you want to paint anything pleasant?’, I chuckled inwardly at this question. Yes, I would love to offer an insight into a wonderfully pleasant peaceful soul filled with joy and happiness, my world is presently not of that ilk. Its one fraught with sadness, shame and guilt. I use my art to explore my life and whilst utilising the time period it takes to complete a painting for self reflection. I stay with the theme for a long enough spell that it becomes a beneficial catharsis. The present restrictions imposed upon those of us who are already locked up to begin with have become brutal. I have neither the energy nor the inclination to formulate a list of what we’ve had to endure over the past 13 months, suffice to say I’m not inclined to currently paint anything pleasant. This month I’ve chosen to share 3 paintings that expose my own personal angst relating to our covid experience.
Painting 1, ‘The Walls are Closing in’, self explanatory really. The painting shows a man who is trying desperately to stand tall whilst the weight of the systematic oppression begins to buckle him at the knees.
Painting 2, Gilt, a cage within a cage. As Covid arrived those of us already locked up had further restrictions imposed upon us. I depicted the cage within the cage because of how it felt to be locked down within a lock up. There is the old adage of ‘a gilded cage is still a cage’ however, for those of us inside our 7” x 7” concrete box for the past year we’ve had to eat our food whilst perched on the bed like a deranged squirrel with a piss pot within touching distance (what a joy).
Painting 3, Touched, is of a man ensconced in a stark Victorian prison cell with just a hint of his painting equipment for company. You’ll see a river flowing through the landscape upon the easel which is dripping paint into a puddle upon the cell floor in which the figure has placed his toe. The colour begins to flow up the leg of the monochrome figure adding a degree of warmth. Covid added a whole new dimension to this painting by introducing the next level of incarceration depicted by the armour plates surrounding the painting. The chains are formed into the shape of the anarchistic symbol ‘A’ to represent my own feelings of resistance and resentments to this new degree of bondage. The rings on the keys representing unlock may well be in sight for you the viewer but for the isolated figure they are both out of reach and out of sight.
As I sign off from this 13 months of lock down we are still on a minimum of 22 hours locked in a box with no end in sight. I wish you all good health and good fortune.
Stay safe and look out for each other. Kind regards, SDS
Top of the morning…
Recently I was asked by Selina at the Prison Phoenix Trust to write a short piece on my thoughts of yoga and meditation. They were interested to know if it plays any part in my artwork. Initially I thought ‘no it doesn’t’, as I’d had some previous experience of yoga and its beneficial properties from years ago. I trapped a nerve in my lower back whilst painting a wall mural and despite all the treatments I’d tried it was one of the lads teaching me the Sun Salutation which actually healed me so I couldn’t really correlate these two together. Art and yoga? No, not really. After giving it some more thought and quite an in depth discussion with my partner who’s also an artist we focused on what was called the Dharana. A single point focus form of meditation and it turns out there’s quite a few similarities between the two activities.
My daily routine consists of a fair degree of preparation. You may think it is just a case of simply picking up a paintbrush or finding a spare half hour to fit in a spot of creativity. Though that may well be the case for some folk, for me it’s a methodical approach in which I spend at least 30 mins just ‘pencil sharpening’. A term I use in the metaphorical sense as it’s a time period where I begin to centre myself for the day’s work. Laying out my equipment, setting up the easel, freshening the water pot, arranging my pallet, even choosing what music will suit the piece I’m working on. I’m quite literally organising and decluttering my mind simultaneously. There’s also a physical routine which is part of my structured approach. It’s not uncommon for me to spend 6/7 hours standing at the easel so stretching our properly is essential especially the lower lumber as after standing for that amount of time it can become very tight and compressed. Shoulder and neck rolls are also employed as is the stretching out of the hand muscles. I often do some sketching as well to get the creativity flowing. Being an artist is very much a journey of mindfulness and so much more than the craft. It’s a way of seeing the world and engaging with people. It’s also about observing and connecting with yourself. How you feel at that particular moment in time. How my breathing affects the control of my tools. How to recentre after an interruption or somebody disturbing you. How to acknowledge the lovely summer breeze upon my face without allowing my mind to drift into distraction and fantasy about a walk on the beach. Even if the mind is in chaos at the start of my day, I have learnt to take solace in standing before my easel and acknowledge the serenity on offer in this space.
Once I begin to paint, I could be in a studio anywhere in the world, my 7” x 7” concrete cell and steel door no longer has any relevance. I’m just a guy on a specific day of a specific year creating a little bubble of tranquillity in which to share a little of my life’s journey. Throughout the whole day mindfulness and single-minded concentration continues to play its part. If I have a specific thought that’s distracting me, I will acknowledge it and take a moment to scribble it down without pondering over long on any merit it may contain, that’s for later. This enables me to seamlessly reapply my focus without forgetting what might be an idea of note, maybe even a new piece of work. I learnt a long time back about the futility of attempting to stop my thoughts, it’s an pointless exercise. Finally, I remain aware of my own body speaking to me. If I feel thirst I drink, hunger I eat. If my back begins to ache, I soften my knees until once again the ache returns with more demands and I accept my aging body is asking me to call it a day. Although my approach to art and creativity might not be yoga or meditation in the traditional sense it does have similar aspects and for me it offers a wonderful way to find peace and tranquillity in what is, in essence, a pretty hostile environment.
After writing about my average day and the serenity it introduces into my life I got to thinking about how fortunate I am to be in this particular establishment. Especially throughout this pandemic where we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time locked in our tiny concrete boxes. Very few jails in the British penal system cater for the arts these days and it’s such a crying shame. When I first started this sentence in the early 90’s there was a huge emphasis on the therapeutic value of art in prison. Back then you could walk into a fully equipped art studio and never be at a loss for materials. Woodworking benches and the tools to build your own canvasses, Oil paints galore, pottery kilns, throwing wheels, craft materials and anything you could imagine, Guest speakers and art lecturers. The passion to promote creativity was tangible. After all, what better way to enrich and encourage the souls of those who’ve led a destructive life than to get them creating. Alas, for the majority of the system those days are long since passed. I recall walking into an art class in my last prison, it was probably the most depressing sight I’d ever seen since my last spell in the block/segregation unit. Tables set in rows so that the lads had their backs to each other, each one of them trawling through ‘How to’ pamphlets in order to achieve a level 1 OCN, Open College Network. A particularly redundant qualification with little to no personal or academic value what so ever. The soul destroying, obtuse attitude of the teacher, and yes, I use that term loosely, left you with no illusion as to his level of enthusiasm, I’d met bureaucrats with more desire to be helpful and trying to get materials out of him was another exercise in futility I soon learned to avoid. Not here though, here we not only have access to ample supplies and materials funded by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky trust, an amazing organisation, they also fund an artist in residence who works alongside a creative colleague from Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. Together they tirelessly promote the arts here with projects such as exhibitions, print workshops and most recently they’ve managed to secure the funding for the men to study for a BA in art, unheard of these days. Yes indeed, I consider myself fortunate, it’s been a valuable life line and not just during this uncertain time of Covid 19. The therapeutic value of the arts in prison should never been underestimated in its benefits but encouraged at all costs.
One final note of some worth, did you happen to see Banksy’s latest piece, depicting an escaping convict climbing the walls of Reading jail? Surely this adds weight to my comments. One of our literary greats, Oscar Wild, being immortalised by one of our most renowned modern day artists on a prison wall. A convict who wrote the ballad of Reading jail represented by an anarchic graffiti artist, wow, does it get any better…well maybe. Reading City Council has entered a bid to transform the building into a centre for the arts. Again, wow, would it get your vote? It certainly gets mine.
Until next time, stay safe and look out for each other.
Top of the morning…
I’m really hoping everybody’s safe and sound during lockdown part two? Obviously due to our own particular brand of isolation I can’t be absolutely certain of what the ‘general’ mood is out there but it’s probably a fair to guess that most will be feeling the strain at the mo? Or, maybe feel better prepared for this one due to your previous experience of what a full national lockdown looks like? From my perspective it seems to be running a little smoother this time around in here, but then again we didn’t actually get out of lockdown. The easing up and relaxation of the regime for us still consists of 22 hours behind the door. Compare that to the current 23 hours of bang up then not a great deal has changed. Still, ‘looking on the bright side of life’ our establishment remains Covid free so that’s something to be grateful for. Plus I’m still ploughing on with the new work and trying to remain positive despite how morose some of the paintings turn out to be. I really should be thankful for the opportunity to get so much done and still be able to get my ‘voice’ heard.
Intermittently I’m trying new approaches and techniques amid the ‘darker’ pieces but it’s very difficult finding new inspiration in such isolation. My lovely partner ensures I receive a couple of monthly art mags which are full of useful and interesting articles. Inevitably I continue to return to the same themes though and I have to exercise my imagination in doing so. Is that a bad thing? My sterile, often dark and brutal world is a subject I’m all-too-familiar with. Paint what you know! Ain’t got a clue where I picked that saying up or indeed if it’s even a saying. Though I do recall somebody saying something similar to me last year. His favoured painting style was of landscapes, stating he’d become quite proficient and hadn’t ever consider changing until the day somebody he admired asked him the question “what does an inner city Birmingham boy know about landscapes?”. Although there’s plenty of debatable points in that argument I get what the question evokes and it strikes the same chord with me as it did with the landscape painter who’s now a filmmaker. I know institutional life, I’ve been a part of it since I was a small child of 11 and although I do purposely try to stay clear of the more brutal and graphic images so as not to inflict upon others (you the viewer) I do try to ‘paint what I know’ and offer you a little insight into my world.
Anyhow I was telling you about trying new approaches so I thought I’d share a little info about one of my recent paintings and the techniques I employed.
As most of you who have ever looked at a blank canvas will understand how daunting that empty space can seem. Our own supply only comes and primed white and my preferred size is 750 x 1000 mm which is a fair size chunk of blank space. It can be quite intimidating to approach a new painting without any idea, concept or composition in mind but that’s exactly what this approach requires. So far I’ve had some very interesting results. Starting with a pallet of primary colours (red, yellow, blue) I laid down some lovely bright pastel tones by adding a touch of white. Keeping the washes loose and allowing the colours to merge offers up some really interesting patina and in this particular painting I chose to use a large damp flat brush to create some structure by cutting into the wet canvas and removing some of the paint. Sometimes I’ll use a wet J cloth and just dab away or throw it randomly at the canvas. Random is pretty much the key to as it’s the pattern left behind I’m using as the basis of the painting. By continuing to overlay further washes and enriching the strength of colour it’s interesting to see what the minds eye will pick out and focus on. In the same way the shapes, tones and structure of clouds will produce visuals we can identify even through others may say something completely different. Or now I come to think about it ‘inkblot tests’. I’m sure there’s some technical or scientific name for this phenomenon but I don’t know it (feel free to email and educate me). I did have an interesting talk with one of the individuals who reckons there’s a primal reason our minds or minds eye works in this way. They reckoned it’s about self-preservation and having the ability to recognize hidden dangers amid the undergrowth and bushes. Being able to distinguish faces or shapes amongst the natural camouflage of our prehistoric surroundings is hard wired into our DNA as a protective factor. Similar to how genetic memories lend their hand to other survival traits such as a natural aversion to spiders, snakes and other creepy crawlies that way that may contain poisons and toxins. Or the fear of heights and the dark. I have no idea how true any of this is but I do find it interesting especially from an artistic perspective as that’s usually the driving force for an artist, that need to see, to understand and make sense of.
So with this in mind, sometimes I set the painting aside but keep it in view (not difficult in a 7 x 7 cell) until something catches my eye. This could be hours or days, I may even turn the canvas into a different position but eventually something will click. And for this particular painting, which I’ve titled ‘Rise’, I saw the structure I’d cut in with a wet brush as buildings, and as the brush marks had traversed the length of the canvas they became trees framed by the reds and oranges, I began to enhance that section into what would evolve as fire. The Bee literally grew out of a lovely patch of cadmium yellow and appeared to be on an upward trajection. So I allowed three elements to morph in the same general direction. Still not knowing what the piece would become I continued to build upon what I saw in front of me until I finally felt the piece had actually become something. The buildings looked a little more industrial and gave me the feeling that what we consider to be ‘construction’ is often in fact ‘destruction’. Are we just parasites who destroy and consume all before us? That might be a little too blunt and an unbalanced statement but maybe there’s some truth in it.
As for the painting, well I’m not too sure how well it works as a piece but the process itself is very interesting. Not knowing what you are going to paint evokes a range of emotions from excitement to uncertainty. I guess it’s pretty much like life in general eh? Which of us knows how it’ll pan out!
Having made a few forays at working in this particular way I do find it has more pros than cons so I will continue with my attempts and see where it leads me. Hopefully one day I’ll find my preferred style amid the multitude of different approaches I take. Though to be fair I don’t half enjoy ‘playing around’ and after all ain’t it meant to be fun?
Time to wish you all good fortune, may your work be fruitful.
Stay safe and look out for each other.
Top of the morning to you all,
Hopefully life is treating you and yours as well as possible considering the circumstances? Life on this side of the wall continues in much the same vein: tedious, frustrating and morose. Feel free to place them in your own order of relevance.
I can’t speak for you but I’m often feeling on the verge of either exploding or falling apart at the mo, trying desperately to hold on to some semblance of sanity is compounded by being confined to a 7’ x 7’ concrete box for twenty two hours a day. I wouldn’t say I’m quite at the stage of licking the windows yet but I do admit to watching a spider for 15 mins yesterday and genuinely wondering what webs taste like. Mmmmm…
Its not all negative though, one aspect of having to dig so deep for those illusive reserves of resilience is an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Self reflection has become an interesting bed fellow over these many months of lockdown. In fact, I think its fair to say ‘Reflection’ itself appears to of become an oddly repetitive theme throughout this Covid crisis, or maybe I’m just more aware of it because of the epidemic? Be it reflecting on the need to give myself a good kick in the pants and drag myself offa the pity pot or the more recent completion of another self portrait, reflection has began to wear many a different guise in my very insular world.
Even whilst painting and having to study your own visage in a mirror for days upon end is a peculiar aspect of self reflection. And what a strange experience it is too, almost borderline disturbing. Have you ever spent that amount of time looking at yourself in a mirror? I found it to be a very disconcerting activity and often felt very uncomfortable under my own gaze. It put me in mind of staring at a dog, no I’m not likening myself to a mutt (at least not any more). Have you ever tried staring at a dog? After a few minutes of intense scrutiny the animal will look away and its evident to see how uncomfortable it gets. Interestingly cats don’t, they just give you a look of contempt and a “don’t give a shite” attitude.
Really looking in the mirror is something I expect we don’t do much of, both in the physical and metaphorical sense.. Just chuckled at the image of that narcissistic egotist popping the double gun fingers at the mirror whilst puckering a self blown kiss.
What do we really see when we truly study ourselves I wonder? Are we seeing ourselves the way others see us or is it just a representation of what we believe others observe? There’s an interesting exercise called the Johari Window, designed to enhance communication and understanding between members of a group. Although the model is used to enhance the individuals perception of others it also promotes self awareness and personal development which is quite apt considering the subject. If you’ve never heard of it give it a read, interesting stuff.
Do we spot the flaws or identify the beauty? Do we come to believe what we see is the gospel truth? If I’ve been touched by the ugly stick would I believe I’m a hideous person? If on the other hand my beauty is a sight to behold does it transpire that I believe I’m a delightful person?
Artists often speak of looking for the ‘inner person’ seeking to depict the very ‘essence’ of a sitter. What skill must that require or should I say ego? Such self belief in the ability to capture on canvas the complexities of a human being. At this stage I can just about ensure the likeness is accurate let alone searching for the human soul. Yup, a long way to go yet.
Anyway, I was telling you about this self portrait and what had transpired whilst looking in the mirror. I had recalled an incident from around 2005. Somebody took it upon themselves to enter my cell and surreptitiously stick a hand scrawled note under my mirror using the obligatory toothpaste as an adhesive. I’ve no clue as to what time he’d done this but I do know it was after bang up (lock down) when I noticed it. All these years later and I can still recall that reflected look of confusion being mirrored back at me as I re-read the note with the smell of toothpaste assailing my nostrils. ‘You’re looking at the problem!’ it said.. Eyes flicking to and fro from the mirror and note I saw the anger ignite as my initial response spat itself from my lips ‘F**king knob head!!’ It didn’t take much in those days for my sense of indignation to take hold and this particular incident had left me completely confused as to whether I was being criticized or complimented so as per usual I chose the former to take umbrage with as it was a more familiar emotion.
Some time later and upon further reflection I began to wonder not just what it was this guy saw in me but also why he’d bothered doing it at all? I was acutely aware of what people thought of me back then, it was plainly evident in the looks of destain and the usual avoidance of me, but as I didn’t particularly like myself in those days either, its understandable.
That note has always stayed with me an gave me enough food for thought to ignite a very small flicker of a flame which eventually would combust into a burning desire to be healed.
Despite the recent self portrait receiving good feedback I didn’t like it. Perhaps it was my palette of phthalo green and oriental violet or maybe the composition, I really couldn’t tell you I just ‘know’ I didn’t like it. Not wanting to let all the effort I’d put into it go to waste, I decided to use it as a homage to the note writer and transform it into ‘You’re Looking at the Problem!’ I can’t declare it was a wonderful memory but it certainly was a poignant one. After leaving that note in situ till it finally gave up the ghost and degraded some six months later I’d read it often enough for it to become a bit of a mantra. I was indeed the problem. I can tell you I did eventually find out who the anonymous scribbler was and if by any chance of fate you happen to be reading this now, I owe you a debt of gratitude and offer my deepest appreciation for giving me, a very sad man, a light of hope in his darkest hours. Thank you brother!!
And with that I’ll wish you all good health. Goodbye for now.
Yours in reflection,
Top of the morning to you all…
And here we go again, finding ourselves stepping into another new day and breaching yet another new month. I’d love to be able to report a degree of change for the better in our current situation but alas lock down 2 has inevitable arrived and me bemoaning the fact when I’m sure you’re all ‘far too aware’ of what’s to come, won’t change it one single iota. What has changed for me personally is a recent healthy dose of optimism certainly not my usual perspective of a half empty glass that’s for sure. Ooh, whilst I remember, I heard a cracking take on the half full/half empty adage last week. A lass on TV was talking about it and stated “As far as I’m concerned a half empty glass is just more room for booze”! How brilliant is that, optimistically pessimistic! I digress, I was saying how I really had to give myself a good kick in the pants this week and drag myself (kicking and screaming) off the pity pot. Listening to the daily news reports of growing mortality rates, job loses, bankruptcy, hunger, debt, depression, the list goes on of the ways the country is suffering and gave me a rude awakening of a reality check. So I picked up a pencil and wrote myself a Gratitude list and amongst the top five was ‘the opportunity to paint underscored twice as if my internal anger was condemning me for daring to moan at my circumstances when in essence I’ve been offered an opportunity to spend as much time as I’d like creating and expressing myself uninterruptedly.
With that thought in mind I reached for the sketchbook and flipped through countless drawings and ideas I found two particularly punchy images that although hadn’t been conceived with Covid in mind now took on a whole new perspective for me. Four days later and one extremely aching back I was looking at two new paintings that gave me immense pleasure and satisfaction. Although I won’t to be able to share them with you for some time yet its more work in the back and the much needed boost of enthusiasm has reinvigorated my drive and passion to just get on with it.
Speaking of boosts… I received news today that the piece I entered into this years Koestler awards ‘The Cracks are Showing’ received a Commended Award. My partner was left laughing at my typical glass half empty response of ‘Shouldn’t that be a highly commiserated award, you won sod all’? Though upon reflection I was pleased it received some kind of acknowledgment as I thought the work quite apt and relevant to the current climate and bared a little of my soul.
Maybe time I enter some other competitions and see how I fare amid the wider art world. There’s always that fear of failure or rejection which accompanies those thoughts for me. Is it the same for you I wonder? I’m sure its pretty much a human trait most can identify with? Even this foray into the world of websites, blogs and social media has evoked many a daunting thought of ‘what if’s’. Thankfully I have an amazing partner who’s glass is over brimming with optimism and enthusiasm whom I just can’t say no to. I recently told her of an article I’d read in Septembers issue of Artists & Illustrator magazine asking the question of how lock down impacts upon the creative approach of those already incarcerated? Her insistence I respond to this question saw me scribbling away my inner thoughts whilst all the while thinking ‘They won’t want to hear from a convict’. Low and behold Decembers issue was delivered and not only did they want to hear what a convict has to say but they actually printed it in the letters page alongside the steeldoorstudios logo. Very surreal to see it in front of me in black ‘n’ white. Maybe more to this positive thinking malarkey after all!!!
Speaking of exposing ones inner self, I’m currently working on another self portrait and after watching a recent show on BBC2 charting the career of Maggi Hambling, I’ve got a real hankering to do a portrait of her. I found her absolutely mesmerizing and was fascinated by not only what she had to say but the way she said it, her interaction left you under no illusion she is her own person and makes no apologies for it. Her whisky drinking, chain smoking don’t give a sh*te attitude was a breath of fresh air (despite the irony)! Never have I been more attracted and repulsed simultaneously in my life.
Often I hear people claiming to not give a damn about what others may think of them yet within 5 mins of talking to them its clearly bullcrap as they continue to attempt to impress you on a multitude of different levels with how brilliant they are. I suspect Maggi Hambling is exactly what it says on the can, a ‘Special Brew’, and capitulation wouldn’t even be found amid the small print.
I wonder what it is in me she appeals to? Is it perhaps my own deep seated desire to achieve that level of freedom myself? And, I’m not just speaking about my physical incarceration thought that would be nice. The liberty to be free of social constraints to be who you are and express yourself without fear of being labelled, be at ease with yourself and as long as you’re not hurting anybody, do as you please. If you wanna run naked into the sea with a tomato plant on your head then who am I to judge?
Maybe its her sense of anarchy that resonates so deeply within me. Perhaps she’ll end up as one of my punks. Which ever route I find myself taking I hope I can do her justice. On that note I think I’ll wish you all good health and hope this next lock down will be the last.
Top of the morning to you all. Hopefully life is treating you and yours well and the trials and tribulations of the current situation ain’t becoming to much of a strain?
Whilst life on this side of the wall finally took a turn for the better with the visits being recently reinstated there appears to be lots of anxiety surrounding the prospect of people outside returning to another full lock down. Those of us inside ain’t returned to a ‘normal’ state of affairs with just around two hours of unlock per day so the thought of beginning the whole process all over again leaves a sense of dread weighing heavily in the stomach.
Another positive though, with this continued onslaught of Covid-19 new technology has finally found its way through these normally impenetrable stone walls to offer us ‘Purple Visits’ (video link). Absolutely fantastic, as social visits are currently limited to just once a month this enable us the ‘travel home’ (virtually of course), twice monthly. I realise it might not seem a big deal to those who’d think nothing of skyping loved ones a the press of a button half way across the world but believe me, in the British penal system this is a futuristic and forward thinking as its ever been. Having had my first experience of it quite recently I gotta say ‘wow’, who’d have thought a loved one showing me her chickens could bring such joy? No that’s not some obscure weird double ‘entendre’! Real live actual chickens in a coop again was a wonderful experience indeed. The system ain’t renowned for its forward thinking but kudos to this endeavour.
I actually drifted off there pondering on life in what’s usually a seriously antiquated system and ironically found a ‘silver lining’ (and for those of you who know me and my half empty glass its surely a first). With the usual mantra of ‘mend and make do’ in the system it often becomes a catalyst of creativity. What’s the old adage, necessity if the mother of invention? Or, it that the other way round? Regardless…you’d definitely be amazed at some of the ingenuity I’ve witnessed over the years, The most recent item to impress me was a beautiful little wind chime made from old vape pens (steel tubes with the innards taken out), a cork coaster (probably pilfered), bit of dental floss and a painted pebble. Gotta say it was absolutely lovely and chimed wonderfully. Kudos to that particular adroit mind.
I’ve watched men re-engineer stereos by building their own soldering equipment out of nothing more than a bit of old brass, empty roll on deodorant bottle, mop head for a wick and cooking oil. That, in turn, was then utilised and upgraded further by one clever bugga who used that heating system to design a set of differently shaped tool heads that he could heat up and burn delicate and intricate floral designs onto the lids of his hand built jewellery boxes. Though the fact he was a pyromaniac serving time for arson I do have to question our acceptance of this practice. “Nowt as queer as folk” eh? The creativity displayed by those with time on their hands is fascinating especially those who tend to be a little light fingered, quite literally if it ain’t nailed down someone will find a use for it.
I’ve used my fair share of prison fire blankets as canvas over the years (already ‘torn’ and due to be destroyed of course). The weave of the material is incredibly tight and once primed is good enough to paint on. In fact the tree painting I entered into the last *Koestler art competition were all executed on fire blankets.
Speaking of jail related paintings, I’ve recently completed another couple of large ones that depict how I’m feeling about this current Covid crisis. The added pressure and turmoil we’re all enduring. Don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity to pass then out as we are still under lots of restrictions at the moment. I’ve actually got half a dozen painting to share with you but in this interim I’m doing a fair bit of line and wash as I’m able to get them posted out. I’ve also involved myself in three art competitions, two of which are online **‘Paperchains’ via the Inside Times, the ***‘Made Visible Project’ by Pictora and of course this years ‘Koestler’. I received a gold award in the ‘Paperchains’ art category, Yay!, along with some great feedback from the organisers, A.G. Smith and David Kendall, a much needed boost of encouragement and very appreciated gents, thank you.
If you’ve not checked out the Paperchains/Inside Times site yet then please click the links at the end of the blog and have a look. There are three categories: Art, Literature and Poetry, all designed to offer a voice to our prison, homeless and armed forces communities during this time of lock down.
They are also about to embark upon their next project for young people in secure units, pupil referral units , those living on the street and children of veterans and serving armed forces. Click the Inside Times link at the end for more information.
On the subject of children, I too have embarked upon a new project. I’ve produced the first of what I hope to be a series. Keeping in theme with the recent line and wash and with the help of my ever optimistic wonderful partner and helpful staff members I’ve been able to get hold of some incredibly emotive documentation relating to children convicted of petty larceny during the late 1800’s from the National Archives. Amid the mug shots and intricate copperplate handwriting lies a tale of the British judicial system handing out sentences to children that far out weigh the crime. I’m sure we all have our own opinions of specific crimes warranting a specific sentence and I too am not immune from judgmentalism but in this instance I pretty sure we’d all agree sentencing an eleven year old child to hard labour for stealing a handful of gooseberries growing on a bush, or whipping him for stealing a bit of coal is beyond reason and insults the very essence of what law and order is about?
Should stealing for survival even be classed as a crime? If we look at Maslow’s hierachy of needs most of these kids have done no more than try to stay alive. If the foundation of ‘basic human needs’ are air, food, drink, shelter, warmth and sleep how can we punish what is innate in our nature and necessary for survival? Albeit these were crimes committed 150 years ago, is our modern day society so much more different? We may well of stopped whipping people in our country but corporal and capital punishment are still rife throughout the rest of the ‘so called modern world’ and begging, homelessness, squatting are still crimilised in one way or another.
I’m hoping to be able to put a thought provoking body of work together and see where it takes me. I would love to hear any views or feedback you have to offer so feel free to send comments via the ‘Contact Us’ page on the steeldoorstudios.com website.
And on that note I’ll sign off. Stay safe and keep well.
*The Koestler Awards for arts in criminal justice started in 1962. Each year over 3,500 people in custody and in the community share their creative work by taking part. The Koestler Awards provide feedback and encouragement to entrants of all abilities in visual art, design, writing and music.
** Inside Times/Paperchains
*** Made Visible
My first ever blog…!
How is life on your side of the wall?
Things this side are a little strange to say the least. A very uncertain time for all involved. We are getting through it though and hopefully it won’t be much longer before things return to some semblance of normality. Not that you would associate that particular word with prison. Nothing normal about any of it but you know what I mean.
As I’ve decided to start sharing my artwork with you all I thought it might be a good idea if I also share a few words about it. The what, where, why, when and whatnots so to say. Art seems to of been a large part of my life. During this unprecedented period of Corona virus lock down it has been a lifeline for me. I’ve had something to focus on and turn into a positive. Indeed I’ve had the opportunity to finish a couple of paintings that have been hanging around for months whilst completing half a dozen new ones along the way. There’s something very cathartic about sitting in front of a canvass with music on and brush in hand. I guess the fact that I’m located in a 7′ x 7′ cell no longer becomes relevant. I could quite literally be anywhere doing the same activity and it would still be painting. The bars and steel door don’t exactly melt away but they do become less important at that point in time.
CELL IN CELL (GREEN DREAMS)
Acrylic on canvas board
‘I’ve drawn endless images of myself drawing myself. It speaks highly of the monotony endured within prison. This particular one I implanted the fantasy of my eventual freedom’.
Just had an image of Dali-esque type painting of steel doors melting into the ground. Maybe a piece of work in there somewhere? I often jot down a few words or maybe a doodle or two so I don’t forget those fleeting ideas in fact the drawing board I’ve currently clipped this piece of A4 onto had a large sheet of cartridge paper under it with all kinds of doodles and scribbles on it. The typeface you’re actually reading is the work of my wonderful partner whilst I’m sat on a bunk with a stub of a pencil dictating my thoughts.
I guess in reality most of my work comes from those little doodles and scratches. My ear is often tuned into the metaphorical and stimulated into vision by particular words. The very nature of metaphor I guess. I enjoy the activity of ‘people watching’ but listening to what others say and identifying the unconscious use of metaphor is utterly fascinating. I’ve gleamed many a useful image by listening to others use of words and what they intended to communicate as opposed to the unintentional. Through these particular occasions its best not to be caught writing notes whilst listening to conversations in prison. Convicts have a funny way of misinterpreting these actions!
Of late the most dominant subject in here, as I’m sure it is out there, has been about Covid-19. There’s been a marked increase in the appearance of the Grim Reaper in my work. I guess that’s not unsurprising given the mortality rate had reached over 40,000. My work often has a darker side to it, morose and weighty for the most part but it would be interesting to see if this period of sadness and pain has affected your creativity in the same manner. Watching the recent art show produced by Grayson Perry on Ch4 certainly did not confirm that point of view. The creativity portrayed on there was very vibrant and stimulating. Perhaps that’s down to the editing or maybe your glass is a half full one compared to the average convicts half empty? Either way I’m betting 2021 will bring forth some incredible exhibitions representative of the amount of time people have had on their hands this year.
Time on your hands! Interesting metaphor in itself. Indeed time features quite a lot in my own work. Going back to listening to conversations, time has and always will be a predominant factor of prison life so you tend to hear it mentioned an awful lot in metaphor. He might be ‘Big Time’ or ‘Small Time’. He might be referred to as a’Old Timer. You could be ‘Doing Time’ or ‘Killing Time’. A game of chess is a ‘Pastime’. There’s even phrases like ‘If you can’t do the time don’t commit the crime’ or ‘You can lock the locks but you can’t stop the clocks’. The list goes on but no need to waste your ‘time’, I’m sure you get the idea.
In fact one of the paintings I entered into the Koestler Awards (the annual exhibition at the Southbank of prisoners) last year was titled ‘Killing Time’, have a look in Gallery 1. At first glance it appears to depict suicide but in reality it was an attempt to Juxtapose the meaning of wasting time (killing time) by using a creative process to contradict it. I thought it quite clever but it didn’t get placed in any of the winning categories so I guess not. I’ve just entered again with a piece titled ‘The Cracks are Beginning to Show’. If you’ve never heard of the Koestler Exhibition then check it out. Its an open competition for serving prisoners, ex offenders etc.
I think that’s enough for my first blog. I’d like to briefly address the reason for my anonymity before I sign off. As a serving prisoner its not unknown for some to include their names but as this is solely about my desire to communicate about my artwork I feel its best if I just stick to SteelDoorStudios. I’ve no intention of standing upon a soap box for a political rant I’ll let my work speak for itself about my politics or lack of it. I just want the opportunity to share with you and doing it anonymously affects nobody adversely.
Till next time.
Regards to all.
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