Bob and Roberta Smith

One of the joys of Outsider Art and art by non-professionals is the sense of discovery, and this is brilliantly facilitated in the new exhibition of work by the inmates of prisons in the North West at the Castlefield Gallery. Last November the gallery invited Bob and Roberta Smith to put together an exhibition of work from the Koestler Trust, an organisation established in the 1950s to facilitate and celebrate creativity in prisons.

The exhibition display is inspired by the set-up of the Koester Arts Centre itself, where there are three floors of rooms – all painted sunshine yellow – with art works on the walls floor to ceiling, each room presenting a slightly different theme. At the Castlefield Gallery there is not space for rooms of themes, so Bob has opted for walls: these comprise ‘Silence’, ‘Your Inner Being’, ‘Snail Porridge’, ‘Deal or No Deal’ and ‘The Art Class’.

Trip to the Koestler Trust’ (2014) a piece created by Bob and Roberta Smith especially for the exhibition, sets the tone. This work describes Bob’s response to his first encounter with the artwork at the Trust. The emphasis in this work is on the hopelessness of the prison system, and the hopefulness offered through art in these places.

Susanna Hill met with Bob and Roberta Smith and curators from the Koestler Trust as they hung the show.

Susanna Hill: How do you go about making a selection for an exhibition like this?

Bob and Roberta Smith: When you make a selection it isn’t just about saying something is good or bad, it is much more about whether you find it interesting, and think someone else looking at it would find it interesting. You look at it and think ‘well this actually tells me something’. The great thing about art made by prisoners is that they are using a craft to talk to the public – or rather through these exhibitions they can talk to the public; they are saying something that needs to be said.

SH: It is a kind of doorway into their world?

BRS: Yes, it shows us in. But it is also about trying to remember things, or having a desire to speak. These works are really about self-expression, especially in the ‘psychedelic fantasy’ works. They have aspects of Salvador Dali in them, but they also reference gaming technology and the different levels you get in this. This is an internal world and it resonates with the idea of being in prison, and being concerned with how you – as it were – ‘get to the next level’. It is escapist.

The less obvious thing about this work is the arc of time spent engaging in it. Those in prison are of course there for different lengths, but most of what they do whilst in prison are short, mundane activities, whereas the time spent in art classes working on a particular piece might go on for several months.

SH: Did the themes for the walls emerge as you made the selection?

BRS: I wanted to find some route in for the public, a way of understanding, and the themes of the exhibition really came out of the work. For example the diagrams [on the ‘Deal or no Deal’ wall] are about people working out how they ended up in the system. And the theme of ‘The Art Class’ shows the kind of depth of work created. We have actually made a video of the young offenders who learn to design brick walls, learning the building trade. These kinds of activities don’t often get shown in Koestler Trust exhibitions because it is more workman-like rather than ‘creative’, but it is of course an activity that no one would dispute as a good activity for prisoners – it is about learning a trade. We have also made a video of some of the young offenders who have designed the interior design of their cells themselves, as well as those older inmates who design interiors for the younger prisoners; making the environment less forbidding.

And there is another project that we have done alongside this exhibition with responses to writing.

Ria Sloan (from the Koestler Trust): In every Koestler Trust exhibition there is a selection of writing. For this exhibition I took a selection of writings from previous Koestler Trust projects to Thorncross prison and worked with inmates to produce prints. We had six sessions in total. We have framed some of the prints for the display and have all the prints and texts in a book available at the exhibition.

SH: The curation of the work is inspired by the look of the Koestler Arts Centre [positioned at the edge of Wormwood Scrubs in London], what inspired you about that arrangement?

BRS: It is like a Royal Academy Summer Exhibition hang down there! We have tried to keep it the same down to the labels on the pieces [which display the work’s individual ‘k’ number, its category and the name of the institution it has come from], and there are various signs lying around that the Koestler Trust use for organising things. We have even built a room and put in the same wooden panel doors that they have at the Koestler Arts Centre, so visitors have the same sense of the ‘Aladdin’s cave’ that I had when I first visited.

SH: Tell me about the title piece – why did you decide to name the exhibition after ‘Snail Porridge’?

BRS: It is a great piece of art! You have great techniques with the meticulous grading of tones, and this snail with a prisoners blue stripy uniform on its shell, and you have the pun on Heston Blumenthal’s porridge and the pun on time in prison going slowly. Then there is the psychedelic wave and a lot about the piece reminds me of then magic roundabout and Brian the snail. This work is immensely skilful and seems to clearly present the obvious idea that art in prisons provides a glimmer of hope in long prison sentences.

SH: Do you think exhibition like this present a kind of democratic notion of art and creativity?

BRS: What is funny about these artists is that they are in a situation where perhaps they wouldn’t have made art other than the fact that they are in prison (with some exceptions) but I think it does show how all people have creativity within them. I think there is definitely something democratic about it.

SH: All the work in the exhibition comes from people in prisons in the North West, which brings a slightly political element to the exhibition in that we don’t often think about people in the prisons in our area, and then in Koestler Trust exhibition we get to experience something of their world. Was that important to you?

BRS: Absolutely; it is an immense access that the Koestler Trust has given me to this world that I would have had no contact with otherwise, and it has been wonderful. These works are displayed necessarily anonymously but they are quite clearly from individuals who aren’t anonymous beings and so to see all this artwork is to see the product of people who are thinking – they are locked up but they are thinking. And that is really important; it is great that the Koestler Trust display this. It is a profitable system in that works get chosen for exhibitions and for prizes, and the prisoners are rightly very proud of this recognition. Everybody needs to know that they are the centre of their world, but the prison system is set up to say that they are not, that they are on the periphery, and so the Koestler Trust comes in and says ‘well actually you are still the centre’, and that is really important. That is one of the things that art does, it puts the individual at the centre.

SH: You have a film, Art Party premiering at the Cornerhouse later this year – what can we expect from that?

BRS: Last November, I went with Jeremy Deller (who has also done work with the Koestler Trust) Cornelia Parker, Richard Wentworth and other British artists to the spa at Scarborough and held an event called The Art Party. It was huge and great fun, and out of the event we have made a documentary. But it is also a narrative and I think anybody would enjoy it; there is also a kind of love story and lots of great music. Michael Grove – our version of the Minister for Education – appears and says that art in schools is all a big waste of time, but then he has an epiphany and ‘gets’ art suddenly. The slogan is ‘to better advocate the arts to government’. It will be released on GCSE results day, and the idea is to release it as a national art party with events in organisations across the country on the same day.

Snail Porridge is on at The Castlefield Gallery until the 15th June.

Image curtsey of John Lynch.

Susanna Hill is a writer and full time fundraiser for the Halle Orchestra.

Art Party will be released on the 21 August 2014 with screenings around the country including Cornerhouse, Manchester, ICA, London, Chapterhouse, Cardiff and Steven Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. The film captures the spirit of the Scarborough alternative art conference held in November 2013, championing the importance of art and its place in education and modern politics. A kaleidoscopic mix of performance, artist interviews and imagined scenes, Art Party is the latest in a line of collaborations between director Tim Newton and Bob & Roberta Smith, released by Cornerhouse Artist Films.