Just Us exhibition – an artist’s perspective

Outside In’s Arthur Mactaggart shares his experience

Outside In artist Arthur Mactaggart, whose work is currently on display at Sussex’s School of Law, Politics and Sociology, shares his exhibition experience and advice to artists: ‘keep going – keep creating your truth for others to see.  You never know who it will connect with and what could come out of it.’

On a snowy morning in February, I received an email out of blue from Cornelia at Outside In.  The Law and Sociology department at Sussex University had seen my paintings on the online gallery and were interested displaying some of them as part of a module on law, exclusion and art.

I have been lucky enough to have a few of my paintings hung in exhibitions in the past, but never this many at one time.  More importantly perhaps, I had never had the opportunity to display my paintings in a space that wasn’t a gallery.  For me, hanging something in an art gallery sets expectations, and naturally limits who is likely to see it.  Who were these law students?  What would they make of my art?

I discovered art, and begun painting, during a prison sentence a decade ago.  The experience of being judged and imprisoned inspired many of my paintings, and more broadly the notion of being trapped or isolated is a common theme in my work.  Therefore, the interaction between the law and art was instantly a very interesting subject for me.  I accepted wholeheartedly, and set to work packaging up the 6 chosen paintings.

When I was then asked to participate in a seminar relating to art and exclusion, my instinct was to politely decline.  I sometimes suffer from overpowering social anxiety, I feel awkward talking about my work, and I didn’t feel I could represent either an artist or an ex-convict in a way that would be relatable.  However, after giving myself a stern talking-to, I accepted that it was an opportunity too good to miss;  a chance to speak out on the powers of creativity and to highlight some of the issues within criminal justice – and what better audience than the next generation of solicitors, lawyers, and barristers?

Despite a few butterflies, I arrived at Sussex to a warm welcome from Lucy Finchett-Maddock, a Senior Lecturer in Law and Art at the university.  She instantly put me at ease, showing great interest and understanding, and outlined the structure for the session.

The seminar itself was wonderful.  We discussed all manner of subjects relating to the law and art – What is ‘outsider art’?  How does the law affect art and vice versa?  How does art provide life-skills and rehabilitation to people who have broken the law?  Needless to say, as third-year law students they were switched on, and offered perspectives that I hadn’t considered, and Lucy deftly steered the conversation to cover the key issues for their module.

We finished the afternoon with a group visit to the exhibition itself, where the students were free to write or draw responses and to speak to me about individual paintings.  Their observations were genuinely fascinating – many of them picked up on aspects that I hadn’t even been aware of.  Some even saw the paintings as hopeful, which really tested the assumptions I make when I paint.  It reminds me of how once completed, a painting is no longer under your control – it moves out into the world and affects people independently of you.

One intriguing revelation was that one of the paintings (‘On the Act’), had drawn a couple of gentle complaints from people passing through.  I never set out to upset or offend, but actually I do want to challenge people, and where the subject is ugly or violent, I feel an obligation to portray that in a truthful way.  In all honesty, the fact that it had stirred someone in this way isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me.  The subject in this case is self-harm, and if people look at it and think ‘That’s horrific’, then that is absolutely the right response.

There was also a guestbook in which visitors had written a few comments.  To my delight, there were comments saying that my work had inspired people to pick up a paintbrush.  That’s a first, and completely unexpected.

All in all, my day at the law school stands out as being one of the most rewarding experiences in recent memory.    My message to all Outside In artists is to keep going – keep creating your truth for others to see.  You never know who it will connect with and what could come out of it.

Huge thanks to Cornelia from Outside In and to Lucy from Sussex University for putting it all together and offering me such an amazing opportunity.

Click here for more about the ‘Just Us’ exhibition

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