Arts Lab Experimental visual arts for social change

Why prisoners love abstract art

Featured image – ‘Like ducks to water’ (10’x5′ mixed media on paper) by Dartmoor prison’s GPAE group.

You may like abstract art, hate it or not understand exactly what it is, but the fact that it evades definition and artistic classification is why it is so popular with prisoners. Locked up so much of the time with scant opportunity, if any, for creative expression, the freedom that this genre affords, results in an eagerness to get stuck in and have fun. Participants are encouraged to be in the moment and enjoy the creative process exploring and experimenting with a variety of art mediums and materials. Some of the resulting artwork wouldn’t look out of place in a cosmopolitan contemporary art gallery.

Abstract Art is ‘art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect.’ (Tate 2019).

Into their second year, Arts Lab is running fortnightly art workshops with safer custody prisoners at HMP Dartmoor. The Great Prison Art Exchange is a Big Lottery funded project that uses art to reduce instances of male suicide and self harm. Conveying a positive message of hope and opportunity to permeate prison and community environments, these abstract artist-led workshops have culminated in collaboratively created artwork to brighten up spaces inside and outside of the prison establishment. Some of the artwork goes straight onto prison walls, some comes out for displays and exhibitions at Arts Lab or submitted to Koestler Arts, and some, Sara the artist, takes back to the studio to work with, weaving the work of the prisoners in with her own. All of the work has attracted much interest. Sales from originals and prints, at the suggestion of the prisoners themselves, go towards ensuring these valuable sessions can continue for as long as possible.

‘Door locked. A horseshoe of chairs next to an expanse of white paper on the floor;  table 1 with tea urn, tea bags, custard creams and a row of plastic blue mugs; table 2 laden with paint pots, brushes, pastels and a pile of paper.

Over 3 hours of shared creative making, we connect, talk and laugh. There’s a heightened eagerness in the room to be involved in something which gives us a shared sense of purpose, which helps to pass the time when we are alone, which helps to make our environment (physical and emotional) more beautiful and which, above all, gives us hope of a life better than this ….’

To see more work created on the project, go to the Vault.