Being Human

Being Human

Matt O’Halloran – Winter 2020-21

Exploring perceptions of good and evil with prisoners

‘I am an illustrator about to complete a 2-year part time M.A. at Plymouth College of Art in the UK.  Over the past two years I’ve worked on a professional body of work that explores the duality of good and evil within human nature. This is an overly wordy title for my experiment with Arts Lab, but for the context of the work with prisoners, let’s call it “Being Human”.

At the start of this project, I believed that there was a universal black and white view of good and evil, with good people on one side and bad on the other – a view that I disagreed with. The aim of my work with the prisoners at Dartmoor was to highlight that, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, we are still capable of redeeming qualities such as kindness, courage and compassion. To quote Solzhenitsyn:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts and even with hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.’ 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Working with Arts Lab, I designed 3 briefs – one for each week of the takeover – and provided a sketchbook for each of the 20 prisoners. The 3 weeks consisted of firstly, Good and Evil which challenged the prisoners to recognise the good and evil qualities within themselves and the world around them. Secondly came Everyday Heroes, the belief being that all too often we focus on the negative qualities of humanity and not our best traits such as the previously mentioned courage, kindness and compassion. The challenge for the prisoners here was to then envision simple acts of heroism they could commit to in their daily lives. Finally, Conversation and Communication in the third and last week, gave the prisoners the opportunity to express thropugh slogans their feelings and give them a voice on what matters to them.

This experimental project was hugely beneficial both for the prisoners, whose creative output during the 3 weeks resulted in some fantastic work, and for my own professional development. The prisoners challenged my own previously made assumptions on how good and evil are viewed. Based solely on the prisoners’ responses, it was clear they were aware of the duality of human nature, thus shifting perceptions and perspectives of a theme that dominates in our society today.

‘Being Human’ hopes to evolve into an exhibition open to the public in the near future, together with an illustrated catalogue.

To learn more about Matt’s collaboration with Arts Lab, see our journal post Q&A with Winter Experimenter, Matt O’Halloran.

See also his online exhibition of digital collages TheLucifer Effect. You can purchase limited edition prints of Matt’s work from our Shop.


Artist, Experiments, Learning, Offender rehabilitation & prisons