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University supports arts project at Cornton Vale Prison

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Prisoners at Scotland’s only all-female prison are taking part in an arts project run in conjunction with the University of Stirling.

The women at Cornton Vale Prison – just two miles from the University campus – are involved in “Create and Curate”, backed by funding from Scottish Government agency Education Scotland.

They have been creating their own artworks as well as curating an exhibition using works loaned from the University’s extensive art collection. The exhibition launched today (Friday 7 March) – International Women’s Day – and will be on show in the prison for six months. It will then transfer to the University for a public show from August this year.

The initiative was also supported by Artlink Central and New College Lanarkshire, which runs the Cornton Vale Learning Centre.

Sarah Bromage from the University said: “We’re pleased to be participating in the Create and Curate project, expanding awareness of our art collection with the local community.

“Women prisoners have been involved in every aspect of the project from choosing artworks from the University collection that they wanted to exhibit, to create their own art work in the form of 'poem-houses' (sculptures featuring poetry they have written) to responding to the collection through creative writing.

“They were also instrumental in the curation and installation of the exhibition itself. We are particularly delighted that the project has also resulted in the commissioning of work from artist Brigid Collins which will hang permanently in the Education Building at Cornton Vale as a lasting legacy of the work achieved by this project.”

Lorna Callery, Learning Centre Manager at HMP and YOI Cornton Vale, explained: “The goal of this project was to develop both creative and cognitive skills whilst improving literacy - and also encouraging those involved to take responsibility for their own learning and the production of the final outcomes.

“Most of the women involved had never accessed visual art or poetry before and constantly surprised themselves with what they had produced.

“Exhibiting the work in Central Block, the heart of the prison, to coincide with this year’s International Women’s Day 2014, was a unique chance for the women to work within their environment and share their learning experience with others who pass through these doors every day en route to other activities. 

“The theme for International Women’s Day 2014 is Inspiring Change – and I think our project certainly achieved this!”

Angie, a prisoner at Cornton Vale, said: “The best thing about the project is how inspirational I’ve found it. Writing your thoughts and life experiences down on paper makes everyone open up and get to know each other.

“Doing our creative writing I personally think is very therapeutic. It’s amazing when we read our work back, how far we have come.”

Rita, another participant, said it was “a way to unlock all sorts of emotions and feelings without judgement . . . an artistic breath of fresh air”.

It is hoped the display of the project in the prison will encourage other women in Cornton Vale to engage in education during their time in custody.

Allister Purdie, Governor of HMP and YOI Cornton Vale, said: “I was delighted to see the very high standard of work those in our custody have been able to produce, with support from our learning centre staff and our community partners at University of Stirling, Education Scotland Artlink Central.

“I hope that people in the community will take the opportunity to view the exhibition when it’s displayed at the University.

“The arts are a very important part of the learning environment in Cornton Vale and it’s fantastic to see first-hand the positive difference that such initiatives can have on the well-being of women in our care.”  

The project at Cornton Vale involved a number of strands.

  • Creative Writing Workshops: poet Evlynn Sharp led creative writing workshops at the prison. Evlynn worked with women prisoners to produce creative writing and strengthen their editorial skills by compiling the exhibition catalogue and preparing copy for submission to STIR, the prison arts magazine.
  • Curatorial Workshops: Sarah Bromage from the University of Stirling led a series of workshops to equip the women with the knowledge and skills they required to curate the exhibition. The women learnt how to negotiate with each other, speak up for the work they admired as well as negotiating how the artwork would fit into the space and how the selection of one artwork could have an impact on the whole exhibition.

  • Visual Art Workshops: artist Brigid Collins (whose work is part of the University Art Collection) ran a series of workshops, to create "poem-houses" in response to the artworks selected for exhibition and the creative writing workshops.

  • Exhibition Catalogue: the women were involved in every aspect of preparing this publication which detailed the project, documented the exhibition, and included creative writing and commentary to explain why specific pieces were selected by the group.

  • Final Exhibition at the University of Stirling: the exhibition will be sited in the University from August to December 2014, where it will be enjoyed by an entirely new audience, including members of the local community as well as the staff and students at the university.       

  • Postcards of "poem-houses": as a means of promoting inclusion, promoting the project further and maintaining contact with loved-ones, participants are receiving a set of postcards documenting their "poem-houses" (the sculptures developed to feature their poetry) and accompanying poems. These cards can be sent to loved ones on the outside (especially significant for family members who may not be able to make the exhibition launch) and provide a further sense of achievement for the women.

Prison art project

At the launch today (from left): Evlynn Sharp (Creative Writer), Brigid Collins (artist), Allister Purdie (Governor of HMP and YOI Cornton Vale), Lorna Callery (Learning Centre Manager at HMP and YOI Cornton Vale) and Sarah Bromage (Art Collection, University of Stirling).

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