Prisoners’ creativity on display at Queensland Art Show reveals peace in surprising places.

The theme of ‘peace’ is a challenging one for artists in prison cells. Art provides an avenue to explore deeper meanings and this year’s entrants gave us a close-up view of the search for peace that can transcend our turbulent circumstances and difficult emotions.

The prisoners were given this quotation to stimulate their creativity:

“Don’t worry about anything, but pray and ask God for everything you need, always giving thanks for what you have.  And because you belong to Christ Jesus, God’s peace will stand guard over all your thoughts and feelings. His peace can do this far better than our human minds.” Philippians 4:6-7

Dozens of artworks lined the Art from Inside exhibition at the ACU campus in Brisbane – paintings, mixed media, drawing and sculpture – as a select number of invited guests gained their own inspiration from each work. As we know from the Psalms, artists sometimes expose a disturbing inventory of their inner turmoil as a pathway to creative expression. A woman from a regional Queensland prison painted a river of tears beneath a maze of memories and barbed wire. She explains: “Pain and crying never ending. Unseen bruises are still hurting. Symbols and words represent trauma and pain. At the time you may feel that God is not there. He is. Catching the teardrops. Trust the Lord and he will give you peace.” Other artists depicted peace amidst brokenness. Some portrayed doves, eagles, sunsets, and soothing scenes from nature.

Brisbane art therapist, Sarah Tucker, who works with inmates, gave a powerful presentation about the connections between the Old Testament vision of ‘shalom’ and the bitter cry for wholeness and connection that is articulated by artists behind the steel prison doors. 

Through this exhibition these voices reached the suburbs of Brisbane.
Prisoner art may resonate more strongly with us this year, as the experience of isolation, disconnection and confinement has become uncomfortably familiar during Covid-19 lockdowns. We understand better how the search for inner peace is complicated when we lose our freedoms. What we see on the canvases shines a new light on the theme’s text – Jesus himself, provides a sense of belonging, emotional security and peace in the middle of our troubles. 

– Martin Howard, Prison Fellowship council member