Reducing youth offending

with Key4Life

In March 2016, Arts Lab was privileged to embark on a long-standing relationship with Key4Life, an organisation based in London and Somerset committed to reducing youth offending. The Lab was asked to play a part in the delivery of their innovative rehabilitation programme to those in prison and those at risk of going to prison. “Why come all the way to Dartington,” I asked. Attracted by the Lab’s location and experimental ethos, the Key4Life cohorts would clearly benefit from the freedom to express themselves in an entirely new, safe, non-judgemental and beautiful environment.

Each visit involves 20 or so young men enjoying creative freedom in the Lab, painting collaboratively with myself and writing lyrics and performing rap with DJ artist Jerome Rokka. For two hours on a mid-week afternoon, this part of the estate is transformed with energetic sounds and young guys spilling out of doorways with laughter and smiles. You know it’s been a good session when folk leave the studio with paint on their shoes and charcoal on their faces. The studio likes mess. We’re blessed with both the space to do this and the healthy acknowledgement from Dartington Arts that it is a necessary part of the creative process.

About their regular visits to Devon, Key4Life writes: “Leading up to their graduation, the cohorts spend two days at The Dartington Hall Estate on the Key4Life rural residential – reflecting on their journeys since the start of the programme, acknowledging the challenges and celebrating their achievements. One participant commented: ‘Key4Life have given me consistency in my life. They really have changed everything for me.’”

In turn, the visits from these guys have really helped to crystallise my vision for Arts Lab as a place to connect and have a voice through creative doing.

So picture a typical Key4Life afternoon at Arts Lab: stroll through the grounds of the Dartington estate to the studio, floor partly covered with expanse of paper, paint pots and household brushes. The room’s huge but warm and welcoming with everything you need to draw, paint, make a mess, make music or even make a film. The GoPro camera is rolling and the DJ rap artist playing energising tunes. We’re all set. Enter twenty 18-25 year olds. The space suddenly makes sense. They have two hours to chill and be themselves, pick up a paint brush or a mike, write lyrics or draw a dragon, perform rap or walk barefoot across the painting. Most get involved – “fantastic success!” says the CEO of Key4Life, Eva Hamilton – “a significant contribution to our rehabilitation programme”. …. And these guys have had it tough – in care most of their lives, in and out of substance abuse and prison. Last time they came on the train up from London, this week from Somerset; 20 more from Wormwood Scrubs next month.

“Thank you for hosting, organising and inspiring the most fantastic session in your studio”, wrote Eva – “everyone loved it, including all of us!”

In July 2017, Key4Life’s CEO Eva Hamilton, was given two large rooms in HMP Guys Marsh in Somerset from which her project intends to continue its good work but on a residential basis. As part of this innovative programme, my hope is that Arts Lab will be invited to support young offenders’ preparation for the outside world as an extension of tjhe project’s outreach service.

‘One way of honoring the artwork made by the Key4Life groups when they visit Arts Lab, whilst at the same time resourcefully using it as a ‘first layer’ for another piece, is to incorporate it into my own practice.’ Sara Downham-Lotto has used Key4Life’s collaborative murals as the starting point for her own giant collages. By cutting up, painting over, tearing, rearranging and reconstructung, she has turned the chaotic murals into calmer and more composed wall hangings, revealing elements of the original piece  beneath the layers.