People and architecture are my main interests. In certain situations the way people and their environment affect each other is fascinating to see, especially at an emotional level.
I’ve recently been involved in running a reading group at Pentonville Prison in north London. I meet the prisoners once a month and it’s a chance for us to air our views, usually, uninterrupted. I try, by painting these meetings from memory, to express the way I notice the interactions between us all within the ever-present hulk of the building.
When Discussing a Book is Novel
Prisons are microcosms of the world outside and prisoners have the same needs as ordinary citizens: the need to organise into hierarchies for protection, the need to find a purpose to their existence, the need to interact in society and a need to find pleasure. With most of their freedoms taken away prisoners are infantilised, a necessary step maybe to becoming a responsible adult. By committing to reading a book a month, my book group at Pentonville allows me and the inmates a couple of hours a month to socialise, listen to others and expect to be listened to in turn. Maybe a few come for the chocolate biscuits but for many there is a genuine desire to interact positively. Often one or two inmates will assert themselves to a point of stifling the discussion. Equally disruptively, some inmates may remain stubbornly passive. I try to create a balance but am always aware that, for many whose formative years may have been chaotic or violent, the act of sitting round a table in discussion is a new experience.
I am not a quick reader and for this reason I have always chosen my books carefully. Making our monthly choice is a democratic process though I do try to steer the group towards works of literary merit (I dread having to wade through the easy-read murder-a-minute thriller so prevalent in the prison library). Each reader nominates a book after which we take a vote. Often, though, I find the inmates accept my choice, seeing me perhaps as a figure of authority. Some books we’ve all enjoyed are ‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck, ’The Circle’ by Dave Eggars, ‘Oliver Twist’ by Charles Dickens and ’The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ by Mark Haddon.
Pentonville is a holding prison: many of the prisoners are on remand, waiting to hear the outcome of their case, some are starting long sentences and some are there to serve out short sentences. For this reason the magnitude of our readers' crimes varies hugely from violent crimes to financial fraud or shoplifting. Sex offenders are segregated for their own protection. I’ve never felt particularly interested in the inmates’ crimes. There’s a time and a place for dealing with the sometimes horrendous consequences of their deeds and the reading group is not it. What is of paramount importance to me is that each individual throws in his tuppence-worth and starts to realise that the group is a metaphor for the world outside.
I make my paintings and drawings at home from memory. My aim is to depict the prisoners firmly rooted in the space where we meet. The infinite possible combinations and compositions may suggest a form of freedom but also highlights to me the limits which have been imposed on the prisoners. I’ve wondered, in my own life, what the purpose of taking a holiday is, often opting to stay put. In many ways, painting offers a straight-forward metaphor for prison life: on the canvas there is always a tension between illusion and reality; in prison a similar tension occurs between the prisoners’ emotional life and their physical existence.
The setting of a prison library: the crude lighting and easy-clean surfaces, the prisoners’ drab indoor-wear (mostly grey tracksuit tops and bottoms) all accentuate the starkness of their existence. My paintings use this starkness to draw parallels between, say, a prisoner’s posture and the furniture around him or, maybe, his expression in relation to a closed door. Using only square canvases, I see the edges metaphorically expressing the room’s perimeter from which, for the moment, there is no escape.
Wait II (HMP Pentonville), oil on canvas,
45cm x 45cm, 2017