I was first introduced to the work of York based charity STRETCH when I was living rough in London. I had always been into the arts and creativity, indeed my darkest moments were soothed by drawing in my sketchbook or writing poetry. So it’s fair to say I was gobsmacked by what I saw in London’s V&A Museum back in 2009.
Let’s get this clear. I love museums. I love classical, cultured art. This idea that all offenders, drug users or homeless people like graffiti is the most reductive and manipulative fallacy I can think of. To see prisoners’ work exhibited so beautifully at the V&A brought something home to me: there is redemption in art and creativity. Not in a religious sense, or a judgmental sense. More in that whatever demons, regrets or projected judgments I’ve had to carry around with me, they’re going to shrink from the joy and freedom that art can bring. And I’m not a hippy, let’s all hug each other. Rather I know what it is to get into deep waters. And when it’s sink or swim, something like STRETCH is the best lifeline to grab hold of.
Since ’09 I’ve kept a very keen eye on what this forward thinking, reassuring charity has been doing. The Landscape Photography project STRETCH delivered with professional artist Kay Goodridge at HMP Askhma Grange is exactly the kind of experience a prison’s inmates need to help them remind themselves of their own worth. The results are wonderfully varied: witty, dark, forlorn, defiant. Always guided by the gentle tuition of the STRETCH team. I saw some of the inmates’ work hanging in York’s contemporary art gallery According to McGee. The photos were as powerful as anything I’ve seen, a wonderful fusion of the artist and the choices made by the prisoners themselves.
I was due to meet for an interview STRETCH’s helmswoman, the fascinatingly ambitious Carlotta Goulden Allum. We were due to meet at Leeds Bradford Airport after she’d returned from giving a successful talk to delegates from social enterprises and charities working closely with prisons in Oslo, Norway. For some reason I bottled it and didn’t turn up. Whether it’s because I like watching the results of STRETCH’s wonderful work from a distance, or whether it’s because I never experienced the kind of sessions STRETCH offer the disadvantaged when I most needed it, I don’t know. Either way I told myself that I’ll continue to witness their much need work, whether it’s the pop-up museum in Leeds’ Merriot Centre, the work of a young man living in care beautifully hung in Otley Courthouse, the increasingly important contribution made by STRETCH to the prison arts programmes in Scotland. And I also told myself that when the time was right, and when there was a suitable platform, I’d tell the world just how much we appreciate the work done by charities like STRETCH. So here I am, courtesy of One&Other, itself a much needed blast of postitive energy (the ‘Hidden’ exhibition at According to McGee this year exposed the tragedy of poverty in the UK better than anything I’ve seen): thanks STRETCH, thanks Carlotta. I wonder if you know just how much good work you’re doing.
Paul O’Rouke is not the author’s real name.