Inspiring creativity and encouraging personal and social change through the arts

The Prison Arts Foundation is as important as it is unique. Thanks to our pioneering work with people with convictions lives are being transformed and patterns of behaviour changed for good.

Our team of experienced professional artists working across the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland are offering people with convictions a life-line, helping to improve their creative and communications skills, which is key to personal and social development, building self-confidence and unlocking people’s potential.

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Zara’s Story

Art is my lifeline

These words express the impact which art-making made on my sense of self and career while I was in Hydebank Wood College and Women’s Prison.  I used to tell my family there wasn’t enough hours in the day whenever I was inside, isn’t that ridiculous. You want the day to pass but I had so much painting to do, I just thrived on it.  Prison did me the world of good, I actually would say that prison saved my life.  For me to flourish while I was in there it’s nothing short of a miracle and miracles don’t happen to people like me.

For 6 years I engaged in Prison Arts Foundation’s residency programme and during that time Anne Scullin, PAF’s artist in residence supported me to enter a number of my art works to the Koestler Trust’s annual awards.  I won a number of these over the years including Gold, Silver and Highly Commended.  I also achieved a grade A in my GCSE Art & Design.

I am able to look at my art and see who I am through my art, I don’t know how but I realised that I’m not a bad person.  I’ve always wondered why people would want to be friends with me, and through my art I could start to see why.  Once I finished a painting, it’s out there and not in me anymore.  Sometimes I would just let the paintbrush do what it wanted and afterwards I would analyse it, I would look at the strokes, ask was I angry or happy.  I am able to reflect, yeah, I know exactly why I was feeling that way, and what was going on that day.  Once you’ve sort of figured it out, you feel better, even if you were troubled that day.  It’s given me something – I am able to look at myself and see who I am through my art.

Art provides a safe space into which prisoners can retreat when they are in their cells.  In my very early days when I came into prison, I was totally terrified. Doing art helped with the mayhem that used to start at night time until you’ve become accustomed to it.  So, if you’re sitting there and distracting yourself and focusing on what you’re doing, it helps.

Art gives prisoners a sense of belonging, any time you’re walking past something you’ve made, you think, I was part of that, there’s a lovely piece that me and the other girls did, it’s now in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, we donated it to them.  It’s about the very beginning of life, I am very proud of that piece.


After my release and with the support of my Probation Officer I applied to PAF’s mentoring programme and was matched with my Mentor Anne, we worked together for just over 6 months.  In my application I wrote “I would like someday to have my own exhibition”, and with Anne’s guidance and experience, I was able to stay focused and achieve my goals.   Anne structured some of our mentoring sessions around sourcing images to paint and looking at different styles of artists’ work.  We visited numerous art galleries throughout Northern Ireland including the Royal Ulster Academy’s Annual Exhibition and the True Colours exhibition in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.  I found the work of Northern Irish Artist, Colin Davidson, most inspiring.

She also planned some practical mentoring sessions in PAF’s Creative Hub in Belfast.  I found these sessions useful as Anne was able to give me feedback on the paintings I had been working on at home.  Being able to have discussions with my mentor gave me the confidence to expand my painting techniques and produce a final body of work for my exhibition.

I launched my first solo exhibition ‘Reflective Moments’ with a body of work that reflected on memories from childhood to present day, my subject matter incorporated humour and local surroundings.  I used mostly acrylic paint in the works, combining it with mixed media to create texture.  Engagement in PAF’s arts mentoring programme encouraged me to promote and sell my work to a wider audience.  13 of my original 16 artworks displayed were sold during my exhibition, and I was commissioned to paint a further 7 pieces of art for both individuals and local businesses.  Since completing my mentoring, I have continued to link in with my local arts club, and I have also taken on a secretary role within my local AA group which comes with a certain level of responsibility and commitment.

Contact, structure and routine is something the mentoring programme gave me, it also gave me confidence on many levels, a big step for me was travelling to Belfast for my mentoring sessions with Anne in PAF’s Creative Hub.  This was a real personal achievement.