Prison Arts at the Ontario Reformatory in the last decades of 1900

Arend Nieuwland, an accomplished professional artist was the art director of the prison arts program for the final 26 years at the Guelph Correctional Centre. He is currently a soapstone carver who shows his works in galleries across the country. He met with us recently and shared some details of this creative program at the institution.

Some of the inmates who were part of the art program were Indigenous young men. (Some Indigenous history is referenced in the Green Door newsletters 3, 6 and 11). Over the many decades of its operation, the prevailing social conditions in Indigenous communities resulted in a disproportionate number of their young men being incarcerated. These inmates were very supportive of each other regardless of their clan differences and were assigned the “Native Arts” room for their exclusive use.

“A Prison Arts Retrospective 1969-1982” was compiled from the works of inmate artists in prisons across the country and the inmates from GCC were well represented in this show. It travelled across Canada and was covered in major media at the time. The national paper, the Globe and Mail did a centre spread and TVO did a documentary of the program.

Arend’s advice to the prisoners was that “ there is a lot more of what we don’t know than what we do know in life and art can help you discover some of this inside yourself.”  He encouraged the inmates to be still and look inward after they put their first attempt on the canvas or white sheet… to sit in front of it and really look at it and think…. They were then encouraged to return the next day “to let your mind guide what you want to say with your art”.  He won an award from the Ministry of Corrections for the development and quality of the program he ran here. His guiding belief is that “ Art is an international language like laughter and loving” and “there is a spark of good in every person.”

The introduction to the retrospective by President of the Prison Arts Foundation, Kenneth Lefebvre, Q.C. states:  “In the thirteen years of its existence, Prison Arts has provided an avenue of escape for the creative talents which are locked behind bars in the many penal institutions of this nation. By encouraging, by exhibiting, by marketing and by instruction, Prison Arts has reached out to and assisted countless fellow humans to free themselves  through the medium of artistic expression, from the constraints imposed by their incarceration.”

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