I found my creative side about 12 years ago whilst I was serving a six-year sentence in a young offender institution. I was locked up for 23 hours a day, in a single cell, in HMYOI Brinsford and had minimal contact with anyone outside of the prison walls. But, I did have a pencil, and after seeing other people’s artwork on the wing, I began to draw on any odd scraps of paper that I could acquire, and when they ran out, I drew into bars of prison issue soap.
I was soon transferred to HMYOI Stoke Heath, and although I struggled to get into the art class, I did have access to more materials in my cell. I would spend my days working in the tailoring department and attended vocational training courses, but in the evening I would draw. I drew photographs for other inmates, mostly of their family members or pets, and charged them two shower gels for each one. I got pretty good. An art tutor from the education department had heard of me and my work, and when we met she gave me a 2009 Koestler Awards entry form. She explained what Koestler Arts was and encouraged me to apply. I did and six months later I received a letter saying my artwork would be exhibited in a Koestler exhibition in London.
At this point I had already been entrusted enough to be given day release, to work in the Staff Mess just outside the main gate. I spoke with Wing Officers, Senior Officers, the Education Department and the Deputy Governor to see if they would allow me ‘day release’ to attend college and finish an arts course that I had started before my prison sentence. I received the same response from each; ‘this isn’t going to happen’. So I went to the Resettlement Department and explained how far I had been rehabilitated, that I had this piece of work in an exhibition, explained my plans and asked for their support. They set up a meeting with me and the Governor, and somehow I managed to convince her to set up a ROTL scheme with a local college, something that hadn’t been done in that prison before. A month or so later I received an offer to interview with two art tutors at New College in Telford.
I was rejected from my first four university choices for having a criminal record. So, I decided to call up the fifth and final choice and plead with them to at least just meet me. I was offered an interview, and then a place, and I moved up north to study a BA in Fine Art at the University of Sunderland. Towards the end of my degree I received an offer to exhibit at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in a solo show as part of their New Talent programme.
I got back in touch with Koestler Arts, and over a period of time, they invited to take part in their trip to the Venice Biennale, gave me a mentor, invited me to curate a part of their 2014 exhibition Catching Dreams and gave me a job as an Arts and Exhibitions Assistant.
After a few years of working in this role I applied to study, and to my excitement and slight disbelief, was offered a place at the Royal Drawing School on their post-graduate programme. I worked part-time at Koestler, part-time on my arts practice and full-time on the Drawing Year. It was a very busy 14 months. At the end of the course I was awarded the Chairman’s Prize and one of my drawings was selected to join the Royal Archive at Windsor Castle.
I hadn’t made may pieces about prison after I left but for some reason, I felt it was the right time to explore some of those memories. During my time studying, I made 99 soap carvings about my memories of prison, and I decided to enter them into the 250th RA Summer show, curated by Grayson Perry. The piece was selected and went on display in the Summer of 2018. I had written a short story of each memory carving and after the success of the RA, decided to turn them into a handmade book.
Koestler gave me my first bit of encouragement in the arts, and this was all that was needed, for me to believe that I could build a second chance. I now have a voice.”
A Comment from Unlock
If you’ve been inspired by Lee’s story then you may be interested to know that the Koestler Awards 2020 is now open for entries. Find out more here.
Comment – Let us know your thoughts on this post by commenting below.