The Koestler Trust
The Koestler Trust is a national charity founded in 1962 by Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian Jewish refugee who served time as a political prisoner in France and Spain, and — briefly — as an illegal immigrant in England where he fled from Nazi invasion. A complex, controversial character, Koestler and his third wife committed suicide in London in 1983. His legacy is committed to encouraging, exhibiting and selling art by offenders, secure patients and detainees, many of them dyslexic, most of whom have no prior experience of any artistic endeavour. The annual Koestler awards, ranging from certificates of commendation to platinum medals, are presented in 61 categories.
RE:FORM Exhibition 2015
RE:FORM showcases 200 of 2000+ award-winning artworks from over 8,500 submissions. Each is labelled clearly with a title, the artist’s institution, their first name – if given, some prefer anonymity – the award, the sale price and any artist or judge comments. A guided tour is offered twice-daily with Koestler-trained ex-offenders as another unique feature of this exhibition. The guides are often familiar with the work and include information on the personal context of many of the pieces, enriching the experience further. Profoundly personal pieces sit alongside graphic dystopian landscapes of violence, war, and depictions of consumerism and celebrity, for example featuring Nike, Coca Cola and images of famous models or singers.
As some artists use time to reflect, others use it to learn new skills or discover and express their new-found creativity. A short animated film at the exhibition entitled A Day in a Life features a prisoner’s daily activities in his cell: lying on his bunk, doing press-ups, rolling and smoking a spliff. A witty demonstration of the lure of mind-numbing drugs, the piece is evidence of an inmates creative use of time. There are of course more emotional pieces present such as You Don’t Have To Pretend To Care, a portrait of a young man with piercing eyes and a palpable aura of mistrust and disappointment. The paint used to create this piece was left to run as if tears are streaming down the canvas.
Sculptures in soap — birds, fish, motorbikes, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty — speak of hours and hours of patience and toil. ‘The odour of prison soap,’ one ex-offender writes, ‘hibernates in the psycho-olfactory system, waiting for that sniff [to] take you back.’ We were told by our host, Paul, that this inmate kept his prison soap; the smell staying with him as a reminder of his freedom. If materials are limited, however, time is not. Lump of Fortitude is an abstract sculpture in clay and glaze, its surface scattered with black tally marks representing the time and commitment the artist had to his piece. Most importantly we hear the creator’s view as he writes defiantly that the ‘piece is not looking for sympathy’.
Poetry and prose further convey the loss and regret that is felt upon walking through the exhibition, always authentically and often with a quirk. Two Years A Tramp describes ‘a second-hand pair of British Airways first-class flight pyjamas, an incredibly bitter loss.’ On the other hand, the piece Hero from the writer’s collection can be seen as a painful study upon bereavement. The variety amongst the pieces is truly astounding.
However not all pieces are claimed, some standing left or forgotten. Come Undone is a mangle of cassette-tape mounted on card, symbolising emotional turmoil. The artist, who made the piece in an immigration centre, doesn’t know that he’s won an award. He was lost in the system.
Women In Prison
Women comprise 6% of prison and secure hospital populations. In Lisa, Your Bairn’s Getting Taken Off You, a young woman is strewn across a sofa whilst her child crawls near the open door and a policeman peers through the window. The artist explains how she ‘wanted to show…the priority heroin can take over even the most precious of loved ones’. Parenthood is also central to Love and Life, a tender portrait of mother and child. The male artist discusses how ‘there’s not a day I don’t think about…opportunities missed, having kids…being married.’
Motivation For Engaging With Koestler Awards
Constructive criticism and pointers for development, not congratulations and platitudes, are the most frequently reported motivators for the artists. A prisoner quoted in the Trust’s annual survey has said that ‘feedback….boosted my confidence ..reinforced the change in ..my offending behaviour, [to] develop skills and talent in future.’ About a quarter of the entrants receive a prize of £20 to £60, or £100 for outstanding achievement. If their work is sold, 50% goes to the artist, 25% to Victim Support and 25% to the Trust. Giving money to prisoners is, however, controversial. The Trust argues that the small sums contribute to fostering the self-worth and motivation required to turn their lives around, but many pieces are not for sale as the artists keep them for their loved ones.
The Koestler Trust is funded by voluntary contributions and runs with only eight staff. A major phase of development since 2008 has witnessed the number of artworks received annually increase threefold, whilst visitors to its exhibitions now exceed 50,000, a tenfold rise.
If you like your art authentic, dark, poignant and witty, this exhibition is on display at the Royal Festival Hall until the 29th November 2015.