Armed robber who found 'miracle' of art while in prison featured in Koestler at 50 exhibition


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The Independent Culture

A convicted criminal who sought refuge in art while in prison has turned his life around with the help of a charity that helps prisoner rehabilitation through participation in the arts.

Jon Shaw, 50, was released from prison just five months ago after serving a long stretch for armed robbery and manslaughter. Now he is at university and his work is being shown at an exhibition to mark the 50 anniversary of the Koestler Trust, the charity which helped him.

“I’ve got plenty of form so it won’t be easy for me, but it’s not impossible. Who knows, I’ve got two years before I can make plans but I’m hopeful,” he said.

Finding art inside was a “miracle” and it had helped turn his life around, he said, adding that were it not for art he would probably still be in jail. “Without my involvement with Koestler, I wouldn’t have a portfolio, would not be at university and would be in the system because I would have gone stark raving bonkers and got myself in trouble. The art gave me an opportunity, something else to focus on.”

Shaw said: “On that last sentence, I was on a recall. I was properly lost. I was working on building sites and I really hated it. I’m getting old, I needed cortisone injections in my elbows, I thought: ‘What am I going to do?’ I was losing the plot, as I had nothing. I had no direction. The art centred me, it calmed me down. It’s wonderful. I’ve got stability, and getting an education.”

When he was young he was moved around schools, one of which would lock him in an art class to separate him from the other pupils. “I really enjoyed it, it was a liberating experience,” he said.

He worked on a building site at 15 and was in borstal a year later. Shaw said he did not come into contact with art for years after, when he was in prison.

Shaw had been sent to Wormwood Scrubs prison, which had an art department “and they encouraged you to take up an activity rather than smoking drugs and drinking hooch,” he said. “It was great, you could have as much paint as you wanted.”

Moving prisons curbed his renewed interest but six years ago he was given another chance. “I was going insane working putting bubble wrap in the bottom of fruit punnets. It was repetitive and boring. The officer got me into the art class in the next door workshop. That’s when I really got into it.”

That’s when he started producing work, and his tutor suggested he enter into the Koestler. “I didn’t know what it was,” he said. The first four pieces he submitted won three awards. He continued to do well in the subsequent years.

Shaw’s oil painting titled Fun to Do is part of the exhibition at the Southbank Centre has been curated by Sarah Lucas, one of the Young British Artists, chosen from 8,000 works submitted to the Trust’s annual awards.

Ms Lucas, who is also 50 this year, said it was a tricky job to whittle the entrants down to fewer than 200 from the thousands of entries “all of which, it seems to me, are valid”.

She raised qualms about “the impossibility of being fair” adding: “Most of the works are not abstract but my approach to selecting was. Colour, texture and so on.”

Koestler’s chief executive Tim Robertson said Ms Lucas had put a clear stamp on the exhibition. “She has more than done justice to the quality of work submitted and , with this year’s submissions among the best we’ve ever had, we couldn’t ask for more than that.”

Shaw is doing a foundation degree in fine art, and had heard of Sarah Lucas. “I knew she was a heavyweight in the art world. I’m not an expert by any means.”

“Prison’s a filthy, rotten place, and rightly so. I killed someone during a robbery and I have to live with that. It can’t be a cushy option. What art has enabled me to achieve is miraculous.”

He passed his first year at university. “I’ve had a really good response from my tutor and he’s not just fluffing my pillows. It’s good stuff.” His work is on display in Wormwood Scrubs.

Shaw works in painting, photography and fashion, and he recently made a dress out of screws. “I do a lot of conceptual stuff, and there is always meaning there. I have my own style,” and it has been influenced by his life. His favourite artists include Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko.

The Koestler Exhibition is at London's Southbank until 25 November 2012,