This project has been run in a bail hostel. I have to be honest and say that, before the workshops began, I was nervous. Some of the women we have been working with have committed serious crimes. Most have come direct from long stays in prison. I didn’t know what to expect. Would the women be receptive to the activities? Would they take to us? What if one of them became upset or violent during a session?
Fully risk-assessed, we showed up that first week and felt the fears fall from our shoulders as we gradually got to know this wonderful group of talented and funny women. The women did not talk at all about their crimes in the sessions. Instead they enacted mutual kindnesses on one another. They praised one another’s artwork. They gave themselves to the creative process and they surprised themselves.
Colour was a focus when we began whereas transformation was a theme that emerged along the way. These women have had lives that, for the most part, have been deprived of the types of colour that allow us to maintain wellbeing. They have often felt powerless to transform their own lives.
Yet we saw so much potential in those four walls of the art room – women with hopes, dreams, skills and pure generosity of spirit.
We were well-supported throughout by the Ripon House staff and the incredibly astute and capable social work student Krystyn. As they strike that delicate balance of being friendly but boundaried, it is clear the welfare of the women is at the heart of their service. Their multi-faceted work is essential for helping the women transition from their sentences to living again in the outside world.
Milena and I could not assist them with this directly but we could provide the materials and support for artistic activities. We could provide the space to allow the women to prove to themselves that they have the power to transform the mundane into something wonderful – be it decorated wooden jewellery boxes, tie-dyed T-shirts, moulded and baked bread, written, recorded and performed poems or created characters and stories.
Our penultimate session took place at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We explored the colourful exhibition Kaleidoscope and Tony Cragg’s A Rare Category Of Objects.
Kaleidoscope activities focussed on colour and repeated patterns while the Cragg exercises involved ordering lines to make a poem and transforming the texts into performed poems.
As the women discovered at the sculpture park, in looking at the world around them and at art, they are even capable of creating something from nothing.
In the last session we made wordy-visual window sleeves inspired by the Kaleidoscope exhibition. The women collected their much-deserved certificates and canvases to put up in the homes they will go to when they leave the hostel. One participant said ‘we have watched everyone evolve during this project’. Milena, I and the rest of Artlink West Yorkshire wish them all the very best with their second chances.