Arts Lab Experimental visual arts for social change

The press on our work with prisoners

Dartmoor prisoners are finding their voice through art

by Paul Greaves  28 Dec 2020  Devon Live

Artist Sara Downham-Lotto is working with prisoners on an innovative arts project.

A project between an abstract artist and inmates at Dartmoor Prison is providing a fascinating insight into life behind bars during the Covid crisis.

Once a week, artist Sara Downham-Lotto meets a senior prison officer in the local Tesco car park to exchange bin bags of 20 large brown envelopes. Inside is the work of convicted male criminals serving their time on the bleak moor. After a Covid-safe period of quarantine, Sara takes them back to the studio and arranges them onto patterned backgrounds creating a positive message out of their thoughts.

The fruits of the inspiring project – Prisoners Sharing the Light – can be seen in finished artwork. Sara says:

‘The story behind the project is a fascinating one. Prisoners face a particularly challenging and lonely festive season, with no access to family and friends, providing a sharp focus on life inside under Covid.

At last count yesterday, dozens of inmates have Covid and many of the staff are down. The governor I meet weekly in the local Tescos car park to exchange bin bags, from what I can gather, works a 12-14 hour day, with just one day off for Christmas. Our weekly art packs carry on uninterrupted – a life line for all of us.’

The project is run by Arts Lab, established by freelance painter and tutor Sara in 2016. It was formerly based at Dartington but has now gone online full-time. She says:

‘That’s when the fun starts. In the studio, I play with and create 20 collages out of the contents of each envelope. The finished, collaboratively-created results are then photographed, printed into posters and sent back the following week to each inmate to pin up in his cell.’

Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, Prisoners Sharing the Light provides a creative outlet for prisoners, many adapting to contact restrictions and being locked up in cells 23 hours a day. The idea is to use art to reduce issues of isolation and anxiety amongst male prisoners.

The question Sara asked 20 prisoners this week was ‘What keeps me going’. The results are beautifully decorated words like ‘patience’, ‘hope’, ‘family’ and ‘chocolate’. Sara says:

‘It provides a valuable insight into “forgotten”, marginalised groups, highlighting what it is to be human and what connects us all. The incarcerated have the opportunity to have a voice and the basic human right to express and to be heard.’

All artwork is shared on Arts Lab’s daily social media posts; some goes to public exhibitions, some is developed into limited edition prints available to purchase on our online shop. Three quarters of all profits go back into the project. To date, over 800 pieces of original artwork have been created and celebrated. This process will continue for 24 weeks. It is now in week six. Sara says:

‘It serves the double purpose of improving the lives of prisoners and raising the profile of visual arts as a force for good.’

One ex-prisoner commented on a completed artwork:

‘The work really speaks to me on a personal level. Even though I’m now on the outside, it makes me think about all the prisoners who will be spending Christmas behind bars away from their families. Whether they’re guilty, innocent, there by their own choosing or because of someone else, my thoughts will be of those who will spend Christmas in a cell. I’ll be sure to make the most of my first Christmas in five years with my family.’

Danny Branley, head of learning skills and employment at HMP Dartmoor, said:

‘At this time, we have developed a huge number of in-cell activities for the prisoners. Arts Lab’s 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.’

Public Conversation:

Great to see the expressive and talented art work from these guys. Prisons are all about reform, otherwise what is the use of them; they will just keep coming back. Anything that helps with this change of attitude is a good thing. Find what they are good at in a positive way is the way to go. Many offenders get turned around dramatically when this happens, some have even become leaders helping other offenders to change.