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Reflections on my "Made Visible" experience.

As a part-time volunteer at HMP The Mount, it was my job to liaise with outside tutors and to co-ordinate matters within the prison to ensure that their courses/projects were able to take place. The work included promoting events, recruiting prisoners to attend the same, booking appropriate venues & the distribution of completion certificates etc.

Made Visible was a project that followed several others, in which I had been involved with the directors of Pictora, namely Robert Morrall & Philip Emery.  Their passion in wanting to improve the future lives of prisoners was motivation in itself for me and I was excited by this new challenge.

Despite advertising posters and informational leaflets, I found the best method of gaining the prisoners’ interest was to make a physical presence on the Wings and develop relationships with the inmates, who had initially shown an interest.  It was the start of creating a network of enthusiastic men, who were willing and wanting to spread the word and who were really pleased to be of help in getting the project off the ground. It could be seen and felt that this joint venture was as benefitting to them as it was for me and I thoroughly enjoyed working alongside them whilst building mutual trust and respect. 

Other means of support came from the keenness of the Art Department within the prison.  The advice and help they gave with the promotion of the project was invaluable and much appreciated.

Once the recruitment period had finished it was then time for the distribution of security-cleared art materials to be handed out to the interested participants and this created a sense of excitement within the prison walls and, along with the encouraging enthusiasm being shown, it meant that I would often go home on an emotional high.

When the deadline for the collection of their works had been reached, there were 43 exhibitors, who had supplied over 120 exhibits and, although no expert, I was astounded at the high standard of the entries.

Pictora’s directors then arranged for the judges from a local Art Society to choose the award winners and an offer to present the winners’ awards was gratefully accepted by the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire.  Meanwhile I was busy cataloguing the exhibits, confirming the exhibition venue in the prison chapel and ordering food for the event from the prison’s catering department.  Getting as many people as possible from the prison departments involved was a deliberate ploy to try to encourage co-operation and togetherness within the establishment and it seemed to work.

The effort of everyone in setting up the exhibition was great and the keenness for it all to succeed was incredible.  When the day of the exhibition was nearing, it enabled me to reflect on what the Made Visible project had already achieved.  The support, enthusiasm and excitement amongst the exhibitors was special but the successful integration of those from different backgrounds, ages, religions and ethnic diversity all coming together to support and encourage each other provided a very powerful and meaningful message.

For the exhibition and award ceremony, all the exhibitors were invited to attend and the impressive talent that was on display was enjoyed by everyone who visited the venue.  The directors of Pictora pulled off a masterstroke by ensuring that every exhibitor was to be presented with a participation certificate so that they would feel involved in the ceremony even if they were not to receive a winner’s award afterwards.

The sheer joy on the faces of those being presented to the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire to receive their certificates and awards was unforgettable and their look of pride and self achievement was moving to see.  It was obvious that the Made Visible project had convinced so many prisoners that they could actually achieve something of which they, initially, didn’t believe they were capable. It was a terrific boost to their morale, confidence and self-esteem.

After the awards, I visited one of the 2 chosen winners of the exhibition, as he had been unable to attend the ceremony, to give him the news that his winning work was to be shown at the Royal Society of Arts.  The look of shock and disbelief followed by his utter joy and excitement will live long in my memory.

The judges were so impressed with the standard of the exhibits that they asked if they could be loaned out to them for an external exhibition in a nearby town.  There was a great response from the inmates and nearly all the exhibitors were more than happy and willing for their property to be taken away to be exhibited elsewhere.  Some prisoners, who had already passed on their work to members of their family arranged for the family member to return their exhibits to them so that they could be shown with the rest at the outside exhibition.  That gesture was amazing and much appreciated.

It was an incredible feeling to realise that the prisoners had grown to respect everyone who was involved in the Made Visible project and to trust them sufficiently to allow their works to be taken away from them so that they could be shown elsewhere.

Although it was obviously impossible to arrange, it was a great pity that the exhibitors could not visit the outside exhibition themselves but Pictora’s directors gave them all a wonderful surprise when they produced for them an acknowledgement certificate for displaying their works there and a picture document of the gallery, in which they were shown.

For many of the participating prisoners the time during which they created their exhibits and the exhibition day itself was pure escapism.  Many asked me to thank Pictora’s directors and everyone involved for what they had provided for them.  In the words of one long-serving inmate, who had supported every course and project that Robert and Philip had arranged in The Mount, stated that “the Made Visible project was the best event that had been held at that prison during all his time there”.  Coming from that particular individual it was genuine praise indeed and later feedback revealed that many other prisoners thought so too.  They had enjoyed the feeling of being valued enough to be included, for being treated and respected as normal human beings.

The months that it took from the start to the end of the project were hard work but they were probably the most enjoyable, worthwhile and fulfilling period of my life so far.

Volunteer at HMP The Mount (name withheld)                                                  30/06/20