The Magic of Making

The magic of making:
Why art matters for prisoners

This week’s blog post is from Gerard Lemos from social researchers Lemos&Crane. His post focuses on the importance of creativity in the lives of prisoners – something Lemos&Crane have researched extensively.


“No rehabilitation programme, no journey away from offending, is likely to be fulfillingly encountered and satisfactorily completed without acquiring the methods and skills of ‘create-ability’, not for results but for effects.  Contemplation reveals meaning and turns to reflection; reflection may become action; action may become creativity and creativity may become expression. That is the magic of making. The object of art made is like a mirror held to the maker. The making and the object made makes meaning. The whole creative process is a metaphor lived out in real time of the journey of the offender away from offending. Additional benefits derive from collaborative creativity. Performance gives expression the frisson of reality. The creative artefact is not merely made. For the duration of the performance it is lived in the eyes of others.

This is the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss discovering his reaction to Picasso’s paintings.

‘Even prosaic objects – bottles, glasses and pipes – were somehow edgy and full of suspense, immersed in the still, apprehensive atmosphere that precedes accidents, riots and disasters.’[i]

In his own mind Levi-Strauss had gone from seeing even banal objects to a more threatening social reality – and the agent of that journey is art and the artist. This way of understanding objects in art as something else, something more than they seem and investing them with powerful resonances creates the possibility of a revealed meaning in art, which may even seem magical. Since some things will always remain inexplicable and incomprehensible, the idea of magic remains and finds one of its homes in art alongside religion, also important to many prisoners.  The belief that everything can be explained is itself a kind of magical delusion.


Beyond the contemplation and appreciation of art made by others, even the masters, is patient, planned construction of objects or things guided if possible by inspiration’s hand. Focused concentration on artistic striving, because it requires meditative patience and searching reflection, brings with it a calmer and perhaps more spiritual state of mind along with a more challenging sense of personal inquiry. That calmer mind after a period of uncertainty, confusion and even dismay that may accompany the experience of imprisonment, may bring forth a greater coherence or unity of thought.  The world can never fall into rational analysis but we can through reflection and creativity press the details of our thoughts into some less chaotic or arbitrary shape, which brings an undoubted uplift of mood and spirit.

Making things is therapeutic in itself. The benefits come from the intrinsic value of the task, its collaborative aspects and the status and reward derived from it.  The object created and the maker’s relation to it creates multiple opportunities for reflection and inquiry, creating a channel to a more profound insight for the offenders into their own motives and instincts, the behaviour these instincts initiate, their relationship to the world and, all taken together, that sense of meaning and positive purpose, which can seem so elusive. Arthur Koestler, whose experiences as a political prisoner gave him exceptional insight into the relationship between imprisonment and creativity, observes in The Ghost in the Machine:

‘There is no sharp dividing line between self-repair and self-realisation. All creative activity is a kind of do-it-yourself therapy, an attempt to come to terms with traumatising challenges.’[ii]


The connecting of thought and action is one way that problems are identified and then solved. This requires skill and that skill is derived from doing it. The skills are to specify, localise, contain.  The second stage in making things is reflecting, understanding, evaluating options and making choices, which contain harmony and the possibility of communication.  Skill is gained from knowledge, insight, practice and confidence.  Achieving excellence requires an overwhelming commitment to practice.

Practice needs to be a habit; repetitive action becomes a rhythm, as well as adding to the rhythm of the day; the rhythm of someone’s life. It is a counterweight to chaos, boredom, idleness, isolation, frustration and lack of purpose so characteristic of the lives of many prisoners – but by no means confined to them alone.


Turning the thought into an idea and then turning the idea into an object, as well as being creative is profoundly therapeutic. The act of realisation is a satisfaction in itself. More significantly, once the object is made, a distance is created between the person who made it and the thing made. That space between person and thing doesn’t break the emotional and psychic connections, but does create an enormously valuable space for reflection and deeper consideration. Does the thing I have made reflect my intentions? Were my intentions clear enough to begin with? Had I really decided what I wanted to achieve? Did I have the practical or technical skills to fulfil my aspirations? Do I need to learn some new skills? Am I satisfied? Am I disappointed? Should I have done better? Could I have done better? What will I do next? These questions are evidently existential, extending beyond the single creative achievement to the contemplation of the future and the meaning of life itself. This is one reason why artists, though often deeply troubled by these questions, nevertheless often seem to get more out of life, especially more extreme forms of joy and sorrow, than others.

Artistic practice can be a solitary, expressive activity, bringing together personal insight and reflection, objective qualities like shapes or geometry, or more subjective tastes like colour or texture.  But there is a special pleasure and satisfaction in collective artistic activity.  The choir requires harmony as well as melody; individual as well as collective effort. There is the added appeal of being with people with shared interests, perspectives and empathy; a new possibility of friendship. Joining a choir adds the benefit of performing and the recognition that comes from it to the joy of singing.  Above all there is the sense of shared creation which making music together brings, what Claude Levi-Strauss called the ‘feeling of simultaneity’; the sum greater than the parts.[iii]

Gerard Lemos is a partner at social researchers Lemos&Crane. He is the author of The Good Prison: Conscience, crime and punishment


[i]  Wilcken, P. 2010 Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory. London Bloomsbury, p. 33

[ii] Koester, A. 1967 The Ghost in the Machine quoted by the Koestler Trust ‘Arthur Koestler’ available here: (accessed 4th December 2013)

[iii] Wilcken, P. 2010: 270

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