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‘Sharing the Light’ at HMP Dartmoor – magazine article

Featured in Dartmoor Magazine Spring edition 2021

Written by S Downham-Lotto. Editor Cari MacGowan

Devon-based abstract painter Sara Downham-Lotto is leader of ‘Sharing the Light’,  an art project for 20 male prisoners at HMP Dartmoor,  started in April 2020 as a response to the Covid crisis. Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and the Prison, the project addresses the immediate needs of prisoners adapting to contact restrictions, solitarily locked up in cells up to 23 hours a day. ‘Sharing the Light’ provides a creative outlet and  helps reduce the increasing sense of isolation and anxiety amongst male prisoners. What makes  this project special is that participants are given the opportunity to express themselves through art whilst  learning  about abstract art by creating work collaboratively with a professional artist. Sara brings high quality teaching and facilitation through weekly briefs delivered to each prisoner in brown envelopes. Each week has a different theme – such themes including   ‘What Matters to Me’, ‘Blue’, ‘View from my Cell’ and  ‘Black & White’. 

Every week, envelopes are returned to Sara filled with art. In her studio, she then empties the contents of each package and arranges them into collages – 20 in all! The work is then photographed and sent to the local printer where it is made into posters. The posters are returned to each prisoner with their weekly packages, as a positive reminder of shared creative purpose and to help brighten their cell walls.

The head of learning skills and employment at the prison said: 

‘At this time, we have developed a huge number of in-cell activities for the prisoners. ‘Sharing the Light’ is the one thing we do that allows the prisoners to express themselves freely, that isn’t ticking boxes in exercise books and helps them to offload anxieties such as missing family. There is no question that it is helping to reduce incidents of self-harm and suicide inside the prison already, creating an overall sense of calm and positivity in the prison environment.’

At a time when creativity is becoming increasingly valued as a force for good, Sara has a clear sense of purpose: to use abstract art to inspire creative thinking and transformation across communities, whilst growing her own practice as a painter. Art and teaching are interconnected practices for Sara – the one feeding  the other.  People and process-led and experimental in approach, she works primarily with paper and mixed media. Her collage technique, layering material from workshops and discarded paintings, emits an upbeat joyousness through colour, bold, abstract forms and repeating pattern. Each work then becomes a palimpsest of her own and others’ past experiences in the act of making art.

Trained in Fine Art and Art History in London, Manchester and Glasgow, Sara has been painting, exhibiting and teaching art for over 30 years in the UK and abroad. In 2016, she founded Arts Lab CIC at Dartington to consolidate her lifetime’s work into a model to benefit wider audiences and collaborators. Her belief is that art, the great leveller, should be accessible to everyone for its extremely positive impact on people’s lives.

In September 2020, Arts Lab moved from Dartington to an online platform from which it continues to deliver workshops, community projects and support for artists. The latest exciting news is that they now have an online shop where prisoner artwork, amongst other things, is available, plus a new online gallery.