Artwork behind bars

They may be in prison, but the imaginations of some of Cayman’s inmates run free in their works of art.  

Every week for three hours, inmates in Cayman’s two prisons pick up paintbrushes, pencils or pieces of wood and get to work on their latest pieces of arts or crafts. 

Under the instruction of inhouse art teacher Alton McDonald or Jessica Wallace and Aston Ebanks from the Cayman Islands National Gallery, the prisoners create pieces of artwork to fill in time while they’re ‘doing time’, but these classes also give them an opportunity to reflect and express themselves, said prison chief Dwight Scott. 

The results of their efforts were on display last month in downtown George Town when paintings, sketches, craftworks and even furniture they had made were laid out in a tent and shown off by prison staff. 

Director of Prisons Scott said the art, crafts and woodwork classes gave the inmates an outlet for their creativity and energy. 

“Some of the artwork is quite reflective,” said Scott.  

As an example, he showed the work of one prisoner – a painting divided in two with one half in black and white showing a prisoner sitting on a bench in a cell as, in the background, an arm reaches through a window.  

The other half, in colour, shows a mother comforting her child, trying to explain where daddy is.  

“I asked them to think about the theme of reflecting on their family and the effect of being away from their family in prison,” Scott said. 

Some of the prisoners have taken to painting and art in a big way, working in their cells outside of art-class time. 

The prison director shows a series of bird paintings, done by the same artist who, Scott said, had never picked up a paintbrush in his life before and who now loves to paint. 

“Whatever we can do to encourage a more positive approach, we try to do,” he said. “It is not just about finding something to do with their time, it goes beyond that. It’s about self-expression.” 

Pencil and charcoal sketches of famous people and politicians were also on show – with images of McKeeva Bush, Kurt Tibbetts, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King and Queen Elizabeth up for sale. 

 

Several pieces were bought.  

While some of the prisoners only work on their art projects as part of the classes, others do so on their own initiative. 

McDonald said that on average 28 prisoners take part in the art classes at Northward prison. Classes are also held at the women’s prison at Fairbanks. 

At Northward, McDonald reckons the average age of the male prisoners who avail of the classes is about 25.  

“The older ones; not so much,” he says.  

And it was not just artwork on display at the exhibition on 28 May – examples of the work done in the prison’s woodwork shop were also on show, including a rocking chair that had anyone who sat on it saying it was one of the most comfortable they had ever rocked on.  

The mahogany chair, like most of the other wood items on display – mancala boards, chess boards, miniature houses and picture frames – was made with local wood. 

Scott said the prison often gets orders from members of the public who want wooden furniture or items made for them. “They send us the design and specifics or a picture of the item and we make it,” he said. 

“We do all kinds of carpentry – benches, furniture, dog houses… all sorts,” the director said. 

Some prisoners have developed their skills in art over the years through the prison classes. 

Wallace of the National Gallery who visits Fairbanks once a week to help inmates with their work cited one participant in the women’s programme whose artistic abilities have become more and more advanced.  

“She is very talented and works extremely hard to learn various techniques. She is hoping to study art at the tertiary level if funding can be found,” said Wallace. 

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Even in prison, some of the artists retain their sense of humour.
NORMA CONNOLLY

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