Great Prison Art Exchange

Great Prison Art Exchange

Sara Downham-Lotto & Chris Sargent – March 2018 ongoing

Reducing self harm and suicide in male prisoners.

Transforming spaces inside and outside prison with artist-prisoner collaborative artwork.

‘The project encourages inclusivity and is challenging in a good way. It took me outside of my comfort zone and connecting with others. I felt encouraged watching other people’s eyes open to art and seeing their inspiration firing outside of the session. I think it encourages self-expression and I hope that we can keep it going.’ 

Dartmoor prisoner

The Great Prison Art Exchange is a National Lottery Community-funded project that uses art to reduce  instances of male suicide and self harm at HMP Dartmoor. Now into its second year, vulnerable male prisoners and artist Sara Downham-Lotto have collaborated to produce a body of work for display and instalment both inside and outside the prison establishment. Chris Sargent, a recent graduate from Plymouth College of Art, assists on the project enjoying his first paid job doing what he loves.

The project also helps to build bridges and convey a positive message of hope and opportunity. We run fortnightly artist-led experimental drawing and painting workshops; we provide art materials and equipment for individual in-cell work between sessions; we curate regular exhibitions in the community and install displays inside the prison.

Through shared creative making, we make the first steps towards positive change. We talk, we laugh, we learn and begin to trust each other, build self-esteem and build relationships.’

Sara Downham-Lotto

In February 2020, Arts Lab received a Matrix Causes Fund grant to establish an online shop to sell collaboratively-made artwork, the proceeds of which will ensure the continuation of the project. The grant will also provide financial support for a member of the GPAE (Great Prison Art Exchange) group who has recently left prison and wants to start a business nurturing and selling prisoner/ outsider art.

‘I want to express my gratitude to Arts Lab for their commitment to our art project over the past year. I am very proud of what we have achieved. It has been very special and my involvement has been a highlight of my time spent as Safer Custody Manager.

Moving forward, I dearly hope that you manage to secure the necessary funding, there is no doubt that the sessions improved the lives of those involved and has played a part in making the Dartmoor community a little safer. My hope is that you will now manage to get some of the wonderful work up on the walls, it is a credit to the participants and its presence will brighten up the day for those who pass by.’

Safer Custody Manager, HMP Dartmoor

To learn more about our process, see the Journal post Why Prisoners Love Abstract Art. See also Human kindness in crisis foreshadowed in prisoner art show, and our online exhibition Art as Collaboration. Limited edition prints of this work are available to purchase in our online Shop.

To date, we have installed 20 pieces of art on the corridor walls of Dartmoor Prison and have had 3 exhibitions at Arts Lab, Dartington in South Devon: Art As Collaboration I & II and Inside Out. The latter brings together artwork from workshops inside the prison, individual pieces created in cells between sessions and work started in the prison and finished outside by Sara.

In May 2021, we will be holding an exhibition of 20 collaboratively-created artworks in the National Park Visitor Centre in Princetown. (Details coming soon).


Artist, Community, Learning, Offender rehabilitation & prisons