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Boyle moulds taut tribute to human spirit Killer turned sculptor moulds

Edinburgh Festival :

There is an endearing awkwardness about Jimmy Boyle, convicted murderer turned acclaimed sculptor and wine connoisseur. Here is a man who has achieved riches beyond an ex-con's wildest dreams, with his Rolls-Royce, second house in France, best-selling autobiography, and soon-to-be-published first novel.

Yet his late success has not brought vanity. Boyle, 52, is standing in front of his new sculptures, homage to his dark and violent past in the Gorbals, which form part of his first Edinburgh exhibition for 22 years, and his first in Britain since 1984. In Praise of the Human Spirit at the Demarco European Art Foundation blends humour and suffering in its muscular, taut depictions of people Boyle knew from those early days.

The most moving bronze, Towerblock, shows a man fighting to free himself from bricks that surround him to the waist. It echoes Boyle's own struggle, but hints at the reality for most of his contemporaries.

The exhibition springs out of the fateful meeting between Boyle and an artist sent into the experimental special unit at Barlinnie prison, where he ended up after being jailed for murder, and subsequently charged with the attempted murder of six prison officers following a 1973 jail riot.

"I'd been in solitary confinement for six-and-a-half years and I was put into the special unit. We wanted neutral people brought in to make sure there was no dirty work - we always felt there was a lot of brutality - so they brought in this woman. We hadn't seen a woman for years, so you can imagine what the screws were saying: 'You can't allow this, they'll rape her'. Meanwhile, we were getting our shirts pressed and our hair combed and saying to each other: 'Don't swear or she'll not come back.' She brought in 7lbs of clay and it was like a dam broke. I did a bust immediately of one of the other prisoners."

It was a revelation. Fourteen years after Boyle emerged from prison, his sculpture has won him an international reputation.These days, his limited edition bronzes sell for up to pounds 9,500.

But he has not forgotten his past. He has set up a trust to help up to 1,000 deprived children a year, and before that, founded the Gateway Exchange in Edinburgh as an advice and campaigning unit for young people at risk. His own son, James, a heroin addict, was stabbed to death two years ago.