A prisoner’s journey of transformation through art

Article written by
March 17, 2024

Art can play a significant role in building resilience in challenging environments. It can also have therapeutic benefits and encourage positive engagement.

Incarcerated for half his life, Gary Mansfield discovered the transformative power of art while serving a 14-year prison sentence for drug importation. 

His story is one of redemption and resilience, proving how creativity can change lives in the most challenging environments.

Article by: Gary Mansfield

Awakening to reality

I had been an active criminal for exactly half my life when, at the age of 26, I was arrested for a £4.2m class A drug importation, for which I received a 14-year prison sentence. 

I saw how my actions had torn my family apart, breaking the hearts of those I loved, and was determined to walk out the gates a different person than that which entered them.

Discovering a hidden talent

Within weeks of arriving at HMP Swaleside, I joined the art class as a means for jumping the queue for the computer course. I'd not been creative as a kid, which was very much apparent when the tutor Dougie, set the first and very basic, entry tasks. I was frustrated by my child-like drawings, but persevered, as did Dougie, who showed me several different drawing techniques. 

The one just clicked, the eye I drew looked very much like the one I was copying, so I went back to my cell and tried to draw the rest of the person over the weekend, it was very recognisable to everyone on the wing, so I took it back in on Monday, called Dougie's name, when he looked I held it up and said "tad-dah!". 

Duggie's jaw dropped, he said that by the end of the first week, he knew there was something creative lurking within me, and he went on to say how proud he was of me. I don't remember anyone ever giving me such praise, it made me feel that I had a bit of worth after all. I signed up for the art course that week.

Aspiring to artistry

I figured if I could draw a portrait like that in about 4 weeks, what could I achieve in the five and a half years I had remaining? So I signed up for the art class and set my sights on becoming an artist. The only problem was, that artists were posh, middle-class men who spoke like poets, and I was a working-class scallywag from a council estate.

Dougie had recorded an art program off the TV and brought it in for me to watch; It was about a painter called Ray Richardson, and his work was right up my street. Then when he started talking about his work, he was a Cockney, it turned out artists can be anyone! I wrote to Ray via the production company, on the off chance he may receive it, just so I could thank him, for being him! That day I decided to be an artist.

Transformation and reflection

Within a few weeks, Ray replied, with a few encouraging words and books on his work, I ended up corresponding with many more artists throughout my sentence all giving support and reassurance that an ex-con from a council estate could fit into the art world very easily, many offering support upon my release. 

I realised that someone with the personality traits of a long-term criminal/prisoner wouldn't last long in this new world, so I set about looking at myself honestly in the mirror and attempting to change the parts of me that needed adjusting; which in a way is one of the reasons for prison... Lock someone away and make them reflect upon their actions and themselves.

A new beginning

On the morning of my release in 2001, I had my first lecture at the University of East London, as part of my Fine Art Degree. That was the start of a journey I am still on to this day. Discovering art was like a calling, I often [jokingly] refer to myself as a 'born again artist', because of the dramatic way and speed in which art changed my life and personality alike. 

More importantly, it changed the way I thought of myself, the world around me, and those within it. Most importantly, the children I had, after completing my degree, were lucky enough not to have been brought into this world by the 'old me', they would have been brought up with more negative views. Instead, by breaking that cycle, I have two marvelous children who are kind, caring, and generous; who wouldn't think of traveling down a criminal route.

I am still an artist, held in high regard by my contemporaries, with my work having empathetic echoes of political/social injustice. I often return to prisons, giving talks & creative workshops, and am often asked to participate in panels and lectures on the subjects of art, art in the criminal justice system, art & the working classes, and mental health. 

I am also a trustee of the UK's leading Prison arts charity Koestler Arts and a founding trustee of a young persons art/mental health charity The Drug of Art and a very different person to that who entered those prison gates half my lifetime ago.

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