Marion Cheung – Freedom and Constraint
This blog is guest written by Marion Cheung.
Marion Cheung is a multidisciplinary artist based in South Wales, with over 10 years of experience in Participatory Arts Practice specialising within Arts in Health. Here Marion reflects on her involvement in Creating Roots for well-being through art.
The idea of working in a prison intrigued me as I had never worked or been in a prison before. At first I was apprehensive, it was reassuring to know that I would be working with low-risk offenders and not be on my own. I decided to take part because I wanted to be involved in a meaningful, creative project with a long-term legacy. GC a prisoner at Parc described it as humanitarian work. This appealed to me, especially if I could help people change the way thought about themselves or uncover a hidden talent. Das Clarks managed the administrative or organisational aspects of the project, leaving me to concentrate on the art activities and in particular, specialised painting workshops. This took pressure away so that I could focus on preparation and delivery – a factor that contributed to the success of the/my workshops. I benefited from testing the activities online with Das Clarks – this also helped me to mentally prepare.
Development of my own art practice
Taking part in this project gave me opportunities to grow as an artist. I hadn’t taught groups how to paint flowers before and thought that the men wouldn’t like it, but I felt strongly about taking a creative risk. I also designed customised guided meditations to deliver at the beginning of each workshop, something I had never done before without a script. The experimental, non-judgemental nature of the project and working alongside GC allowed me to explore this. The energy and enthusiasm of the men with the subject matter and in how they painted, also contributed to a big change and development in my own painting style.
My role as facilitator
I became comfortable with being uncomfortable, especially within unpredictable situations. This enabled me to reflect in action and change the activities based on what was unfolding. I broke down the process into stages, giving the men confidence and encouragement without being over the top, which might appear unauthentic. I offered suggestions which the men could take or not. Sometimes they wanted direction and guidance, other times they were fully engaged and happy to work independently. This approach led GC to be able to independently make his own paintings, (he’d never painted before) and deliver a painting session to staff without me there. I learnt a lot from GC – the fast pacing and strategies to get the men focused if they became distracted.
Taking part in Creative Roots challenged my idea of what an inmate or prisoner is. I don’t like the term ‘resident’ – they are men, or people. I preferred not to know what the men had done in their previous lives to cause them to end up here. The men that eventually became the potential mentors were the ones that I least thought would fit into that role – this was a nice surprise. One of them created new rules and boundaries for behaviour in the studio, imagining himself in the role. Creative Roots offered the men ways to rehabilitate, try something new creatively and build in confidence, connecting with others to help change their idea of self. They said that they had made new friends as a result of participating.
The warden (Dai) said, “the amount of self-harm and drug-taking went down when you were both delivering the project. The men did not want to be excluded from taking part, and their behaviour in general improved.”
The resourcefulness of the men never failed to impress. I knew about particular forms of prison art but seeing it first hand was incredible. Without the distractions of smartphones, tiny origami pieces slotted together made a big paper bear; carved characters in soap and bread; matchstick trucks with fully movable parts; boxes inlaid with letters and patterns. The men also taught me painting techniques:-printing a flower with a crisp packet or rag; making a marble paint texture with a plastic bag and gloss paint. I would love to see these forms of creativity be included in the book we are planning to make.
Thoughts on Creative Freedom and Constraint
The men had impressive visual memory. The resource images were not even referred to in class. Their energy and joy using paint equalled creative freedom – something that I wanted to find more in my own art practice. Creative freedom needs balance and requires time or material constraints, it can’t be too overwhelming (in terms of too many colours or approaches) yet, still the men need to feel that they have been offered choices. This allowed them to collectively produce an incredible body of work that looked brilliant in the prison exhibition and the Riverfront gallery. They were proud of what they had achieved because they had had a say in how it had been produced. After demonstrating techniques, I let the men paint in any way they wanted. I offered one-to-one advice if it was requested. One of the men resisted guidance and tuition, purposefully doing the opposite to what was suggested. Eventually, he had a breakthrough one morning after being very negative, “My 5-year old could do better than this. I’m actually ashamed of showing this to him” This made him obliterate his painting and turned it into something completely different. I could see some kind of transformation taking place – he was on the way to finding his own creative voice. GC said that most of the men appreciated the one-to-one time that I offered, “because it was clear that you actually care.” Process is more important than outcome, and to be able to ‘play and explore what the materials can do’ but it was important to me that the men liked their work. I hope that as many men as possible will be able to see their work via photos and video. It was important that they were recognised in celebratory events, everyone received a certificate and were treated as equal to us, the artists coming in to work with them. Each painting represented each person that took part. It was truly authentic and meant something to them because they responded well on the creative journey. It felt a little emotional in the last session when GC and I received a Thank You card from the group. (DW, who was disruptive, mistrustful and, at times, angry, instigated the others to sign it and said that we were, “…good people – we really appreciate you coming in here and doing this with us.”
I have felt more connected to my colleagues and feel closer to them as friends. Some have started a regular singing group and I joined recently. It supports my mental and physical health. It is essential to be in good health to be able to deliver this kind of project in these circumstances. I’m feeling positive about the next development of the project and hope to continue this important work further.