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Unlocking the talent inside you

I was an arty kid in a non-arty home. I used to live in my own world. I would learn about life as I played. There was no stopping my imagination. It could run to eternity or fly as high as the heavens. It wasn’t boundaried, controlled or ordered.

When I was a little boy I was able to express myself creatively with whatever was around me. One of my all-time favourite Christmas presents was the huge cardboard box my mum’s freezer came in. It was a tank, a castle, a train, a plane, a boat, a submarine. For children creativity can be limitless. I used to explore the world rather than question it. My curiosity at the wonder of things got me into no end of trouble!

Somehow I grew out of this and lost the connection with my imagination. I became controlled, limited. ‘You do things this way.’ I got structured. On and off over the years I have really mourned the loss of that freedom. Why should art have rules? If art is an expression of who we are, why should we be constrained by someone else’s boundaries? Do we gradually lose that talent inside as we become an 'adult' through our adolescence? This is why people say they ‘can’t paint’ or they ‘can’t draw’. They all can if they refuse to be quashed by the boundaries. This was much in my mind as I visited an exhibition entitled ‘FREEDOM’ at the South Bank Centre curated by Ai Weiwei, a contemporary artist and activist.


As part of his involvement in the exhibition, Al Weiwei visited HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs. This is situated next to the Koestler Arts Centre who partnered with the Southbank Centre to put on FREEDOM. Having visited many prisons around the world (and experienced incarceration personally in China) this final visit to HMP Wormwood Scrubs strengthened his vision. Nearly 3000 artists working in prison have contributed to this exhibition. It seemed to me that every piece of 2D work was a joy for the person contributing to the exhibition. They might well have been limited in what they could do by the store of materials or the time available but, from an imagination point of view, they were free. There was talent - quite a lot of talent - on display and, hopefully, this gave some sense of worth and value to the artists inside our prisons. It wasn’t all dark and gloomy stuff at all (as you might expect). There were a lot of bright, happy expressions of life, experience and friendship. The diversity of the exhibition was huge and it was wonderful to know that, for this year at least, these men and women had the opportunity to send out something about themselves into the world.

I welcomed the fact that it was possible to give anonymous feedback to the artists - similar to a thumbs up on YouTube, or a love on Instagram. Exhibits were for sale, without any commission being taken, allowing participants to buy more art materials. Whether any of those taking part would go on to make a career out of art I cannot know, but I can only agree with Ai Weiwei who wrote,

“Expressing oneself is part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity.”


One of my main takeaways from the inspiring Cézanne exhibition at Tate Britain was to find out that Cézanne frequently heavily reworked his paintings. Was it to correct something? Had his response changed to his subject? Had new developments in paints, for example, made him able to unlock a different part of his creativity? Did he deepen his colours or make them brighter?

It set me thinking about making sandcastles as a child and to remember seeing them slip away as the sea comes in. That powerful sense of ownership can lead you to fight a losing battle against the waves, recreating the castle in new ways. I wonder, did Cézanne experience this zeal to go back to what he had produced, unlock a new wave of creativity and change it into something fresh?


There is a paradox within the life of Vincent Van Gogh. In order to unlock his talent he had, at one point in his life, to lock himself up. He came to a point where he felt unwell and not very safe emotionally. He chose to enter an asylum where he was physically locked away. From 1889 to 1890 he spent a year in a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. The hospital authorities there were enlightened enough to realise that, as his health stabilised, unlocking his painting talent would give him some fulfilment. A room was made available for Vincent to use as a studio. He painted over 150 paintings while at Saint-Remy including his beautiful almond blossom pictures. Those almond trees stood in the walled garden of the hospital. He was able to unlock his creativity, imagination and talent to produce some of his most well-known paintings. The therapeutic component of painting, recognised at the hospital, may be becoming formalised in time as art therapy.

What we need to recognise is that while our limitations are real (for some the physical confines of prison, poor mental health or access to good materials), that is no reason to feel that you cannot unlock the talent inside you.

So what do you see? How do you see it? What can you use to make it? My advice to you is as follows:

1 Slow down

2 Relax

3 Enjoy it – it’s your creativity

4 Don’t be judgemental

5 Don’t make any comparisons

6 Do it for yourself

7 You’re worth it!

NB Mark, please remember this advice for yourself! HeHe!

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