Painting my experiences from Arba Minch Prison
Having spent another intensive period of time at Arba Minch Prison, documenting and teaching art, I was feeling the urge to paint myself. It has been many many years since I picked up a paintbrush for an oil painting. I remember returning from the first trip and feeling the urge to paint. On that occasion I got as far as buying some nice artist quality paints and some new brushes. By the time they arrived in the mail the desire had passed and I was absorbed in other projects. This time I was determined to get something down. I dug out the boards I had primed the previous year, ran through my photographs on the computer and set to work.
On this visit I was once again taken with the style of construction – the use of different materials and how they were combined. Woven panels are combined with sheets of galvanised steel, blocks, wooden posts, wattle and daub, concrete. All are melded gracefully and skilfully together to form all kinds of different structures.
The first painting is of the view directly outside the construction classroom – the room where the ceramics classes were taking place. As the documentary photographer on the trip I was in the privileged position of having to move around between the different areas throughout the day. This gave me the chance to observe life in the prison in quite a different way than the others. Seeing the same spaces at different times of day, observing and recording the differing light conditions was a real pleasure. The blocks in the lower part of the scene are those which were used to form the wind barrier for firing the ceramics.
So far in the painting I have used only five colours: Ultramarine deep, permanent intense red, light yellow ochre, titanium white and payne’s grey. I may introduce others further down the line but for now I enjoy the challenge of reproducing the colours as well as possible from a small base. The scale of these paintings is very small, no bigger than 20 x 20cm. I’m using a tiny brush.
The viewer must get close to the painting in order to see the details, forming an intimate experience. Each photograph I take is a thought, carefully observed and enacted. The painting is like a further evolution of that thought. While painting I remember the details of the experience. The feelings and thoughts I was having while taking the photograph become infused with the feelings around the whole trip. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the process of painting, the meditation and focus of the act.
The second painting in the series is looking down the path back to the main part of the prison from the construction room. There is an old broken down Landrover on one side of the path, on the other a leaning galvanised fence which was often used to dry laundry throughout the day. Smoke from the firing was billowing, enhancing the sense of distance and time in the scene. A child runs past the Landrover waving his hands in the air, an expression of joy. Hardly a scene one would expect to see in a prison!
The third painting is barely begun at this point. It looks again down the same path but from just beyond the Landrover. In sight are the backs of the buildings that form the kitchen area. Clothes are drying on a line and a woman walks past. It is forbidden to take photographs of the food preparation areas, although I am unsure why.
I am unsure at this point how long the series will be but it is certainly an exhilarating process, a rediscovery of techniques I once greatly enjoyed.