Three years ago, behind the bars of a federal prison, Brian Martland painted an oil portrait of his daughter.
The little girl’s hair is gently brushed away from her face. She is turned sideways, revealing freckles across her nose. In her hand she holds a gavel.
“This painting’s straight-forward. It pretty much means that only my daughter can judge me,” said Mr. Martland, who is now out of prison and will not discuss the crimes that lead to his incarceration. “I’ve been turned into a monster. But my daughter will prove that I ain’t.”
The painting hangs among scores of artworks by former and current Canadian convicts in a gallery at the Brampton, Ont., offices of The Bridge Prison Ministry, which offers outreach to people in correctional institutions and helps ex-inmates re-enter society.
Executive director Garry Glowacki advocates for and facilitates art workshops within federal and provincial correctional facilities. The Bridge’s prison art program has diminished in recent years, but Mr. Glowacki is trying to build it back up, in part with proceeds from the gallery.
Shuffling through pieces, he talks about the power of art as a tool for re-integration and an outlet for expression.
“The stories, frankly, I think really make it,” he said. “For me they do.”
One series of portraits was done by a 17-year-old Mr. Glowacki met while running a workshop in a juvenile detention centre. The faces in each piece are covered with scrawls of paint.
“She was this skinny little lively girl, just so lively,” Mr. Glowacki said. “She would sing and dance and tell jokes and get everybody laughing.” The young girl had been convicted of prostitution, which she had relied upon as a source of income since she was 12 years old. She died by suicide a few years after the paintings were done.
Correctional Service Canada (CSC) creates a plan for each inmate with programs in four areas: correctional, educational, social and vocational. Art falls under the social umbrella. Although the benefits of art therapy are well documented, Mr. Glowacki said supplies in prison are limited. Federal inmates have to buy their materials, CSC said, and they would be subject to safety and security criteria.
Mr. Glowacki said correctional staff sometimes seize brushes when they are brought in and cut the handles in half, even at juvenile detention centres.
“So at least if they stabbed each other, it’d be a two-inch wound instead of eight,” he said.
Items might also be taken away from an inmate who is perceived to be at risk of suicide or self-injury.
Artistic outlets are even more constrained in provincial jails than in federal institutions. The Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services wrote in an e-mail that art-based programs “vary.”
“Provincial inmates in administrative segregation would only be permitted art supplies on a case-by-case basis. The ministry does not offer art programs for community supervision clients,” it said.
In spite of concerns that art supplies could be transformed into weapons – or even poisons – Mr. Martland sees as much risk in taking away the creative outlet. His recollections of Brockville Jail and Kingston Penitentiary are vivid: beatings, brutal solitude, and inmates left naked in their cells. It is dangerous to underestimate the role of art within that system, he said in an interview.
“The inmates need this,” he said. “Especially when they’re locked in segregation, with a pencil and a piece of paper if you’re lucky. They need creativity. They need that outlet to reach out to, or else they go crazy.”
The work of prison artists is not always well received on the outside. Pieces by convicted murderer Peter Collins hang alongside those of Mr. Martland in The Bridge gallery.
In 1983, Mr. Collins shot Nepean Police Constable David Utman after a botched bank robbery attempt. During decades serving a sentence of 25 years to life in the federal prison system, Mr. Collins created drawings to advocate for prisoners’ justice and to depict the world behind bars.
The political motifs of Mr. Collins’ artwork – which has been exhibited across the country – caused an uproar among Canadian guards and officers. Many believed Mr. Collins should not be given a platform for his work, which portrays corrections and police officers as corrupt.
“Some of them are very provocative. You can see one of him basically screaming,” Mr. Glowaki said, pointing out a sketch of a man, hair-on-end, tilting his head back and yelling. “That could be anybody.”
A work entitled “What It Feels Like” shows a single figure in a straightjacket and muzzle looking desperately to a tiny source of light beyond their segregation cell. “If you’re not crazy going into segregation, you are coming out,” Mr. Glowacki said. “It’s a disturbing place, locked up 23 hours a day.”
Mr. Collins died behind bars in 2015.
A large portion of the art in The Bridge’s gallery reflects on time spent in solitude. A second piece by Mr. Martland was painted on a prison bed sheet for lack of supplies, and depicts the top corner of a cell with an embroidered angel from his mother hanging overhead. The piece, to him, represents the years he spent alone and staring at walls.
During his time at Brockville Jail, he became so desperate to leave that he jumped from the roof and shattered his leg. “I spent one whole year in a [cell] with a broken leg in a cast, and I couldn’t move out of the bed,” Mr. Martland said. “See, that’s what my artwork’s about. The pain and suffering of what they’ve done to us.”
Wayne Forest spent a fifth of his life in provincial jails for offences related to alcohol and drug addictions. His pen-and-ink sketches in the Bridge gallery are brightly pigmented, and incorporate his Huron Nation roots.
“I went through like 20 years of bad problems,” he said in an interview. He was in jail several times: 60 days here, 90 days there, sometimes up to nine months. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“Now I’m on medication, so everything’s kind of mellowed out,” he said. “But before I was diagnosed? I kept getting in trouble.”
In the federal system, he said, inmates incarcerated for “two years plus a day” could buy supplies. But in provincial jail, all anyone was allowed was a pencil and paper. Mr. Forest drew pictures for other inmates to send to their children –trading them for a bit of extra dinner.
He spent much of what he called “dead time” alone at night sketching. “I’d do some doodles or whatever and put it in my pocket, and then I’d transfer it to the stuff you see now,” he said. He believes art gives inmates a chance to re-connect with themselves and with the society from which they have been separated.
“Dead Heads” is his favourite piece – an interpretive look at the vibrant life beneath Ontario bog land.
“I use the ink because it’s definite,” he said, pointing out details in the piece. “I use that as a method for putting across on paper what I really want to say. You can’t change it. Everything’s different. It’s never the same.”