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Inmates make art debut at St Vincent’s Hospital

Inmates from Parklea Correctional Centre have made their debut onto the Sydney arts scene, with their inaugural exhibition now on show at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst.

St Vincent’s Health Network has been the provider of health services at Parklea since 2019, when MTC Australia began operating the prison on behalf of Corrective Services NSW.

The idea for an art show came about after St Vincent’s art curator Alice McAuliffe offered to display the impressive artworks created by the inmates in its exhibition space at the Darlinghurst hospital.

Parklea Governor Wayne Taylor said creative programs were an integral part of the prison’s education and reducing reoffending strategies, and they had helped to improve inmates’ mental health and wellbeing.

“Our mission at Parklea Correctional Centre is to run a safe, decent and secure prison that reduces reoffending and takes care of staff,” Mr Taylor said.

“It’s our duty is to support men of every background, and art allows people to express their feelings and creativity and gives them a sense of pride and improves their self-esteem.

“Inmates who participate in the art program are provided with equipment for free, as well as professional tutorials, help from specialised staff, and support from other inmates who act as peer mentors.

“This fantastic art partnership with St Vincent’s enables inmates to showcase their talents in the public domain and hopefully give them new avenues to use their skills in a positive way once they are released from prison.”

Anna McFadgen, St Vincent’s Health Network Sydney Chief Executive, pointed to the poignancy of the exhibition in the context of St Vincent’s five Sister’s of Charity who sailed from Dublin in 1839, specifically to provide care and ministry to prisoners in the new colony.

“Care for the marginalised has always been a priority for St Vincent’s. This initiative will go a long way to contributing to the wellbeing and rehabilitation of custodial patients. We are very proud to be hosting this exhibition and I commend the artists for participating,” Ms McFadgen said.

The exhibition features more than 30 artworks by inmates with a range of skills and cultural backgrounds, including 10 who are Indigenous.

One of the works is a turtle, made using a metal frame that has been welded together with painted panels, and individual paintings have been placed inside its body.

The sculpture was created by four inmates, with guidance from officers who provide training to prisoners in the prison’s metal shop. They provided instruction on how to measure the steel and weld the components together.

Three of the inmates have never created artworks before, while one has been artistic for most of his life.

The inmates have spent more than two months bringing the turtle to life and were pleased to be involved.

Oscar* said he had always appreciated art and had previously worked in the construction industry, so he had the basic skills to help create the turtle when he was asked to be part of the project.

“Working on this gets us out of the cells and keeps us busy and we feel pride and enjoyment knowing that someone will value the turtle like we do,” Oscar said.

“We are really proud, privileged and honoured for people to see something that we’ve created, so we wanted to put a lot of effort into it, and knowing hundreds of people are going to see it is pretty cool.”

Adam*, who is Indigenous, said he got fulfilment from using his imagination to produce something creative and he would use the skills he’d learned in prison, such as spray painting and welding, once he was released.

Dale* created the three paintings that sit inside the turtle as well as a painting of an echidna for the art show.

He is also Aboriginal and has been drawing, painting and sculpting since he was a teenager. He produces Indigenous works, after learning techniques and stories from Elders in prison, but he also dabbles in other styles, including the chicano style created by Mexican-American artists in the 1960s.

He said making art was a kind of therapy after experiencing trauma from family breakdown as a child.

“When I’m painting I’m absent, it takes my mind away from things and always gets me out of here,” Dale said.

“It’s getting rid of the old and bringing in the new.”

Dale did some tattoo work on the outside and is a panel beater by trade, but said he’s getting older and is a bit over it, and his involvement in art in prison was making him seriously consider doing it once he is released.

“I never thought I was any good, but my partner says I’m good and to keep doing it,” Dale said.

Like the other inmates, Dale has never displayed his artwork before, but said he was curious to see what feedback he gets and the level of interest from the community.

“My art is personal. I’m inspired by my mood, who the art is for and what it’s for and I always try to get a good meaning for it,” Dale said.

“I want to change Indigenous art and take Koori art into a new kind of area.”

Canvas Of Hope: Artworks and stories of inmates inside Parklea Correctional Centre is on now until 26 September at the Xavier Building, foyer level, main St Vincent’s public hospital building, 390 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst. Artworks are for sale and inmates receive the majority of the proceeds, which will help them establish a new life when they leave prison.

*Names have been changed.10