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November 21 2011

Greetings cards showcase prisoner's art - in pictures

A prison penpal scheme sparked the idea for Cards from Prison, a social enterprise featuring a prisoner's artwork

Prisoner's artwork spawns greetings card social enterprise

Widow sets up Cards from Prison after penpal's talent thrives behind bars

Cards from Prison is a not-for-profit initiative created by 72-year-old widow Hilary Peters. Peters, who used to work as a garden designer and once started a city farm in London, decided to act after witnessing the growing talent for painting in a prisoner she had befriended via a charity-sponsored penpal scheme. "Neville is just coming to the end of an eight-year sentence," she explains. "He's one of those chaps who has been in and out of prison nearly all his life, mostly for drug offences. Now he's in his early 60s and, hopefully, this is the last time [he'll be in prison]."

Neville (not his real name) sent her his first painting about four years ago. "It wasn't bad," she says. "But then he joined the art class in prison and started getting better and better. He was still on drugs when I began writing to him. But he came off them by his own effort when he started painting. I saw him progress at an astonishing rate from other pictures he sent me over the years, and then suddenly his talent just shone through and I thought, 'Yes, other people should be able to see these.'"

A year ago, Peters had the first painting made into a card. It was a picture of a polar bear. "It was beautiful," she says. Her pension and income support is her only source of income, but she managed to scrimp together enough money for her first foray into digital printing.

"I didn't know what I was doing at all at first. I just searched for a printing service on the internet," Peters says. "Eventually, I had the first batch printed, and sold them very quickly to friends and family, making enough money to print the second batch. In the meantime I set up Cards from Prison as a social enterprise. We now have five designs, with another three on the way, and other prisoners who want to paint for the cards."

Peters has never advertised the cards. All her sales are generated by word of mouth. But she hopes to generate enough demand for the cards to provide employment for ex-prisoners. "The more cards I print, the more I sell and the more work I have to do," she says. "Ideally, this could be a way of providing work for ex-prisoners who are finding it hard to get a job."

The difficulties she has encountered to see the project through have been draining. "The bureaucratic hoops I've had to jump through with the prison service have almost worn me out," she says. "And, of course, the prejudice towards people in prison is not very nice to deal with – society dumps all its bad feelings on prisoners. But this has made me more determined to show that, given a chance, people in prison can do some good and can produce some beautiful things that can bring a great deal of pleasure to others."

The cards are free. "People can have as many as they like," says Peters. All that is required is a £5 donation to cover administration and postage costs.

• For cards, write to Worcester Lodge, Didmarton, Gloucestershire, GL9 1AH. Cheques should be made out to Cards from Prison. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 23 2010

Points of culture

A series of debates at the Southbank Centre shows how Brazil understands things that supposedly 'developed' countries don't – not least about the transformative social power of art

Twenty years ago, it seemed as if Brazil couldn't stop dreaming about its future. Now the future has arrived; Brazil is an economic and political world leader with a seat at the globe's most influential table. Yet the country still faces the fundamental renegotiations of power – between rich and poor, women and men, black and white, indigenous and immigrant, city and rural communities. Recognising that without a new and radical approach Brazil will never achieve its promise for a just society, engaged artists in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Salvador and in rural areas across the country are pioneering new approaches to giving communities a real voice. But their work doesn't spring randomly from unconnected initiatives – it's part of a strategic plan to create an entire network of socially committed cultural projects.

In 2003, the Brazilian government created an initiative called Points of Culture: thousands of community and arts projects of all sizes and types that would work to strengthen people's involvement in the life of their neighbourhoods and the larger society. The idea came from the legendary musician Gilberto Gil who had agreed to become culture minister for a five-year period under President Lula. The very act of having artists in the centre of government sent a signal of serious intent. Throughout his ministry poets, playwrights and philosophers worked in the executive, bringing a new language of aspiration and inventiveness to that of government.

But what does it mean when politicians pledge to put "imagination at the service of the people", as the Brazilian government has done? First, it's a recognition that culture and positive cultural expression is the foundation of identity and pride for all of us. But culture isn't simple, and one size doesn't fit all – it's very personal, particular to individuals, groups, tribes, neighbourhoods and regions. It has to spring from the circumstances of place, economics and tradition, and be captured in vivid and powerful ways. Second, politicians in Brazil believe that professional artists can play a key role in developing people's confidence, happiness and sense of self. Third, it's a declaration of their respect and love for the people of Brazil – regardless of their economic or educational privilege – and a desire to improve the lives and opportunities of all those millions of citizens who remain marginalized and unable to fulfil their potential. It was a bold, demanding mission to launch and to sustain, but one that has proved so successful it is now spreading to other parts of Latin America.

When I was creating Southbank Centre's summer-long Festival Brazil, I wanted to reveal what Brazil was thinking about; how its artistic vitality is bound up in its democratic urge to transform and reinvent the world, and how much the artists of Brazil believe in the creative capacity of everyone. Tonight, in a debate entitled The Edge of the Future: Renegotiating Power, Jose Junior – who founded the powerful AfroReggae movement – discusses the choice of young people to turn away from drug and gun culture and towards music, dance and poetry as a way of finding status and "family". Tomorrow, Luiz Eduardo Soares, formerly Brazil's National Secretary of Public Security, a man who dealt with some of Rio's most alarming clashes between police and gangs, will talk about how hip-hop artists and photographers helped him forge communication between lawmakers and young people.

For both these debates, there will be weighty contributions from some of the UK's important cultural projects, too. We will hear from the Koestler Trust, who work with prisoners and young offenders, about why the arts serves as a unique tool of rehabilitation. And Camila Batmanghelidjh brings her experience and vision of Kids Company and the central role that the arts can play in supporting young people to manage their circumstances differently.

The UK currently has the finest arts ecology in the world, including many outstanding cultural initiatives that work at grassroots level. But it doesn't have a comprehensive programme that offers communities – and particularly young people – the right to work with artists in ways that would substantially change their sense of what is possible. Britain is a society in flux, and we need bold ideas that strengthen our communities. Brazil's belief in the importance of culture to the lives of its people is far-sighted, and can provide inspiration to us all. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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