Connecting through art

The National Gallery recently highlighted work by those who attend the Haven Art Club – participants from Northward and Fairbanks prisons and from the Caribbean Haven rehabilitation center. The art program has become an outlet for communication in an otherwise often-closed world.  


Within the often bleak environment of incarceration at Cayman’s Northward prison, inmate O’Neil Robinson has found a distinctive vehicle for communication – a vital ray of light that is helping him see his way through his term.  

Robinson has found art.  

As a result of his participation in the Haven Art Club, sponsored by State Street Cayman, a number of Robinson’s paintings were on display last month at a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery. 

Robinson says he benefited in many ways from attending Haven Art’s weekly classes at the prison, including “development of my skills, sharing my knowledge with others and the chance to socialize with the other individuals who also love art.” 

He got involved with the program a little over two years ago because he loves drawing. Now, as a result of participating in the classes, he has developed a love for painting as well. His favorite medium is pencil, and portraits, in particular, hold a special fascination for him: “I like the face because while the features are similar, the shape and sizes are different.”  

Northward inmates Lindsay Dixon and Carlney Campbell also take part in the art program, and they, too, have experienced the joys of discovery. 

“I have loved art since when I was at school,” says Dixon, adding that the art classes help him relax, express himself and his love and appreciation of art, “and it reminds me of when I used to travel to exotic locations where I’d watch the local artists.” 

Dixon’s favorite mediums are pencil and water colors, and he focuses on drawing and painting faces “because it is easier to express the beauty of people.”  

Campbell, who has been attending art classes for more than two-and-a-half years, describes art as his passion and something that helps him cope with his incarceration.  

He works mainly in acrylics, interpreting anything he sees “because it comes from deep within.” 

Beyond the opportunity to learn new skills, the classes provide him with a way to meet people, Campbell says, and to better understand art from the perspective of different artists. 


A personal connection  

Joseph “Gumba” Betty is an art instructor at Cayman’s men’s and women’s prisons, Northward and Fairbanks, respectively, and quite naturally, a passionate supporter of the art program. 

“I use subjects that the participant can relate to, thus, using it to their advantage as a therapy form,” he says. “Hence the participants can connect with its form from a mental perspective, applying the theory in a positive way, whether in their personal life or on the canvases.” 

Betty says the feedback from participants is always very positive. 

“They allow themselves freely to become one with art and the programmes,” he says, adding that the program is incredibly popular. 

“Enthusiasm is not the word, especially in the male prison,” he says. “They are so into the programs and what they do each session. As a matter of fact, just today in my group, the participants were asking if we can generate more classes for them.” 

Neil Lavis, Cayman’s prison director, is another solid supporter of the art therapy program. 

“I think it is important that we support and develop undiscovered skills that inmates have,” he says. “It gives them a way to express themselves and also a sense of achievement and pride in the work they produce. For some, it is the first time in their lives that they have felt this.” 

Beyond that, Betty says, the benefits he personally derives from assisting the prison inmates are immeasurable. 

“It’s a little bit more than excitement for me…I live for it!”  

“For every one person out of ten that I can encourage in a positive way, means more to me than words could ever explain. My purpose here is to serve, that means it gives me more joy to see any of the participants from my groups leave the room with a positive and soul- fulfilling attitude. If I can contribute to this, then it’s the best thing in life for me at that moment because I have achieved a goal and that is to instill positive attitudes without receiving.” 


Art as therapy  

Art therapy, a fairly recent practice (mid 20th Century), has been used across the globe as a means of helping people who have difficulty communicating or expressing their feelings verbally.  

Perhaps the most-recognized authority on the subject is David Gussak, a professor at Florida State University, art therapist, author and developer of the state of Florida’s Arts in Corrections program. 

He has written about major obstacles that block the effectiveness of therapy in prison, noting in a 2007 paper that, “Many inmates have an inherent mistrust for verbal disclosure. Rigid defenses exist for basic survival. Despite these defenses, there has been support for art therapy as a valuable tool.”  

In that same paper, Gussak explains that in prison, defenses such as lies, silence and aggression are used for self-preservation as inmates take advantage of weakness and vulnerability. Inmates with mental illness are the most vulnerable, and depression is one of the most prevalent mental illnesses among inmates. However, inmates who participated in art programs show “a significant decrease in depressive symptoms,” he wrote in “The Effectiveness of Art Therapy in Reducing Depression in Prison Populations.” 

In the UK, the National Health Service, recognizing the positive impact of art therapy, employs professional art therapists to work in prisons, with people with learning disabilities and in special and mainstream education. According to the NHS, qualified art therapists, among other qualities, provide a trusting and facilitating environment in which those with whom they work are able to safely express themselves. 


Art Haven exhibition   

The recent exhibition at the National Gallery featured 12 artists who participate in the Haven Art Club. Works were presented around three themes: Still Life, Children’s Illustrations and Landscapes, says Elena Fear, a National Gallery intern who curated the exhibition.  

The National Gallery, through its art club program, broadly helps participants to meaningfully fill their time by completing art projects and encourages the discovery of new skills and development of abilities through experimentation.  

According to those involved with the program, it is anticipated that participation in art will increase self-esteem, self-awareness, knowledge and skills. The central aim is to provide participants with a vehicle to reduce stress.

Papaya Still Life by O’Neil Robinson