Some thoughtful and attention-grabbing images on display this week at The Big Issues exhibition, a project that forms part of prison outreach work at Surrey’s recently restored Watts Gallery.
The exhibition is the result of the Compton-based gallery’s Art for All project. The outreach scheme involves artist-led workshops with inmates in prisons including Send and Coldingly in Surrey and Bronzefield in Middlesex – the pieces featured here are by female offenders at Send and Bronzefield.
The inclusive arts project is in keeping with the beliefs of the gallery’s namesake, Victorian artist George Frederic Watts. Watts and his artist wife Mary Watts supported penal and social reform, believing in widening access to art, using the medium to benefit individuals and the community and arguing against prejudice towards ex-offenders. The couple’s aim of transforming lives through encouraging the socially excluded to engage with art underlines the gallery’s current outreach work.
Art for All aims to build confidence and self-worth in people usually deemed socially excluded – prisoners, young offenders, addicts, and those with mental health issues or experiencing homelessness housing. One former prisoner at HMP Send, for example, was released before Christmas and been accepted on a foundation course at Brighton University. Another participant described the project as “some light in the dull, grey prison world”.
Rehabilitation through art can provoke controversy and the Watts gallery scheme is by no means unique, but with prison numbers at a record high and a proven reoffending rate of 26%, the value of projects like this is clear.