Alberta’s Drumheller Institution, Bowden Institution and Edmonton Institution for Women

In 2010, Elizabeth Withey of the Edmonton Journal in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) compiled a series of stories based around artwork being produced in area detention centres. These short video documentaries highlight some of the positive effects that the creative process has had directly on the lives of area inmates.

Bill Roy has experienced a gradual change in perspective through his paintings and murals. As an indigenous man living outside the reserve, he says, “I grew up identifying with both cultures, and I didn’t really get along with either one.” As such, his early artwork was full of rage and negativity, but over time, he’s found other emotions to draw upon, and he has realised that the darkness can be left in the past. Now, he feels himself moving away from “bad energy” and able to focus on the positive by making art full of color and light.

In making art, he is not only trying to change his own perspective, but that of his audience too. “Most of the art I created was for myself but also to help the other inmates in the institution by changing their outlooks on their daily life behind bars. … I’ve done enough bad and ugly things in my life that I wanted to create something beautiful that people could look at. To me, being an artist is what I can make you feel from what I’ve pulled out of myself.”

Likewise, Richard Mooswah has used painting and leatherworking to cope with with his emotions and create something useful out of what he describes as “nothing”: “Inside I have all these emotions that I can’t release because I have no tools; I don’t know how, and they’re stuck. I have anger, jealousy, bitterness, a lot of rage. … I try to combat that with the teachings I’ve been given, trying to find a relation in my life. … It’s tough, especially when you come from nothing.”

Teresa VanWyk has had the opportunity to take piano and voice lessons. She has found that music “takes you away from the everyday things in prison like aggression and frustration… You can escape.”

Like Teresa’s music, wood carving has helped Pete to “get lost” in the freedom of his own creativity: “I’m not in jail when I’m doing it… It’s like you’re free because … you use your mind to do what you’re doing. It’s good therapy for a lot of people to work with their hands.”

In mural painting, beadwork and drawing, Gloria Neapetung has discovered herself. She says, “What I’ve learned doing my time is that I’m an artist.” Developing these skills and generating a path of self-discovery will also help her once back on the outside too.

“I’m coming from a very rough lifestyle that people can turn into a good life. … I just know now that I’m on my healing journey. … My future is my art.”