My various (legal) activities in the UK's criminal justice system include curating exhibitions of prison art, particularly - when the opportunity presents itself - one man shows. It probably goes without saying that in order for an inmate to have developed a serious body of work, he or she will have committed a serious enough offence and be serving a longish custodial sentence.

Such is the case with Donald Grayson, whose work you can see at Garden Court Chambers, London, until March 23rd 2013. He is now half way through his sentence, and serving it in a London prison. Sales of work is providing him with art materials.

Other pressures and pursuits frustrated Donald Grayson’s early creative ambitions, but three years ago he received a lengthy custodial sentence and took up art again. Encouraged by sympathetic tutors in his prison art class, a vocation developed, shaped by the challenging circumstances life had now bestowed. Prison could be lonely, crowded, noisy, boring, traumatic, but it could also be funny.

Donald responded with brightly coloured paintings featuring storybook characters from English folklore, their narratives suggesting sitcoms or soaps, pub scenes from The Rover’s Return or The Queen Vic. Other paintings are more poignant; one showing Mr. Punch hanging himself in a prison cell upset some. Others found his colour garish. He was encouraged by these reactions - they suggested he was onto something.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, despite its apparently autobiographical references, he is reluctant to discuss the content of his artwork; he is after all in a place where you don’t usually say why you’re there. He talks more about colour, its personal value and - in the drab prison world he inhabits – its unrestricted freedom and power.

Donald knows his satirical and sometimes caustic vision is a peculiarly English one, naming Rowlandson and Hogarth as precedents, but is cautious about his own more limited scope; it is early days. His recent move to another prison meant a break from painting of several months because he had no materials and no art class to go to, but he’s painting again now. “I’m making pictures to cheer me up, poke sticks at society’s sensitivity and bring a chortle and grin to others”.

Stealing Apples

 

As a small boy I was unable or unwilling to read. My father was a Fleet Street printer, and each day copies of the daily papers arrived, including an occasional copy of The Times, though never The News of The World. My mother was a catholic convert and would not have that filthy rag in the house. Recent events seem to confirm her views.
We were also supplied with blank newspaper, and from an old biscuit tin crayons, pens, and pencils, and I scratched away. My mother – something of a working-class blue stocking - bought old encyclopaedias from jumble sales. I thrived on the pictures in them, also the pink bits on globes and maps, they took me to exotic foreign places. I developed an appetite and started to use my imagination; the images I saw helped create my internal world and the chaos in it.
In the world of post-war Britain, from where I stood, it was all grey: it was khaki, it was smoke. Back doors were green and the ground seemed always to be frosted.  But in books, at railway stations (I loved looking at the travel posters advertising the West Country, the Highlands and so on) and the cinema there were colours. One thing I noticed there was that those red London buses were redder, brighter and larger on the cinema screen. I was curious why their colours were different and brighter than my world. Dan Dare, Rupert many other comic characters shared this secret. So much so that I discussed it with my mother. She said little but bought me a paint box.
I would go anywhere to look at pictures and though illiterate was the only one in my family with a library ticket. I’d go to the library and plough through books, looking for pictures. Then I discovered the Art section- it took my breath away, and only then did I start taking books home. This was fine until the library lady, who was very kind, stopped me taking out a book on drawing nudes; she said my mother wouldn’t appreciate it.
By the time I was eight, I still could not read but could draw freehand a map of the globe, and name all of the countries. I finally learnt to read at ten. In my teens I became an apprenticed printer. I was fascinated by different printing techniques, and particularly admired the artists who made lithographic illustrations, working directly onto stone.
I attended art evening classes and got a couple of certificates.  Then, spurred on my friends, I illustrated record sleeves and magazines,  gaining a place at art school. Instead, I hitch-hiked round Europe. Marriage followed, and a job in the printing trade. I dabbled in art from time to time, but could not get a grip on it.
Custody cured this. I have always believed you have to play the cards in your hand: don’t complain, look around for something to do. After two years of art tutorials in the Iron Fist art academy I was back to basics. I could not draw, so reverted to childhood scribbling, and two tutors in particular gently encouraged me in my pointy-stick picture making. In HMP Iron Fist artists’ colony another tutor cared not for my style and use of colour. I continued without his approval. Others were encouraging, but clearly didn’t see my pictures as art, and some took exception to Mr. Punch, hands tied, hanged himself in his cell. Some prison officers peered at it, growled and disappeared. This reaction made me realise that my art could get a response. It occurred to me that my paintings could make and continue a debate, and that this was a way to have fun in prison. Most of all I make pictures to cheer me up, poke sticks at society’s sensitivity and bring a chortle and grin to others.
My style: if you can’t write or draw, what?  At my age I don’t feel I have time to study, when I can do this and feel an attachment to its essential truth. How do I come up with my characters? Well, who creeps into your dreams? When I see others I embellish their features: do they look like something else, do they mortify me so much I wish revenge? With a pencil in your hand you can re-arrange history. I don’t choose my characters, they choose me.
In a dream to escape the enemy I re-coloured the heavens and slipped in (mustn’t attract attention) a few new colours, so when they pursued us they were lost. But in our everyday, mundane lives it takes some work to dig out the colour because it all too often belongs with smell, sound, and location, and it belongs as much to our willingness to see it in our imagination and abandon a lot of safe social constructs. This needs some daring – can you go out and if need be add the 15-20% you don’t see?

 

Donald Grayson 2012