In an extraordinary feat, incarcerated men with artistic flair who honed their skills in prison had the freedom to display and sell their work in a public exhibition, as well as interact with aesthetes in the community.
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About 140 paintings produced by inmates inside Macquarie Correctional Centre were exhibited at Wellington Arts Centre.
The works included portraits of famous people, landscapes, Aboriginal dot paintings, abstract work, animal imagery, as well as mixed media and surrealist paintings.
Food at the event was also catered by the inmates from the Grills and Gates café inside Macquarie.
Names of inmates have been changed and their faces blurred to protect any victims from seeing the offenders.
'Con Artists' exhibition in Wellington attracted about a 100 patrons on its opening night on January 6. Dubbo Regional Councillors Jess Gough and Richard Ivey were also in attendance.
Wellington Arts president Lisa Thomas told attendees she had seen incredible artwork on a tour of the maximum security prison. The murals had all been painted by inmates and Ms Thomas was convinced that people in the community needed to see their work.
"The opportunities with the workshops, art and creativity at Macquarie are quite unique and something new for Australia to be experiencing, and Wellington is, as always, first. Yay!" she said welcoming patrons to 'Con Artists'.
The exhibition will be on display until Wednesday, January 25.
At Macquarie, inmates had the opportunity to learn painting from inmate teacher, Robert (not his real name). He was among three inmate artists, out of the dozen that exhibited, who were allowed to attend the opening because they were considered low-risk.
Senior Assistant Superintendent at Macquarie, Philip Lindley, revealed that most of the artists exhibiting had never picked up a brush until Robert "got a hold of them".
Mr Lindley said this sort of exhibition had "never happened before" and was proud of the turnout. Several artworks had the coveted red 'sold' sticker next to them by the end of the night.
"I'm very proud of what the boys have churned out, the quality," he said.
"Wellington Arts is really quite amazed at the the turnout, a lot of people are interested. [Many] art pieces have already sold tonight, so very impressed."
Inmate Robert has been painting for the last 45 years and began as a teenager, however, this was his first exhibition outside Macquarie. He said it felt "surreal" interacting with civilians who were curious about his work and wanted to place bids on his pieces.
"I can't believe I'm standing here," Robert told Daily Liberal.
He was motivated to paint professionally when he was moved to Macquarie, where he has produced seven large murals averaging at 4x24 metres in size. He has also painted multiple religious figures and designs inside the prison's chapel.
"I've put out a huge amount of work in the last few years... and the jail's been very good in promoting creativity," he said.
Robert's favourite work is the painting of the train from Bondi Junction to Wynyard. He included fibres from prison blankets, money from Monopoly games and other found items in the artwork.
"It takes me back to happier times before I was incarcerated," Robert said.
Another inmate, John (not his real), used to paint around his elders, uncles and aunties at a young age. He said Macquarie had renewed his passion for art.
"Painting is a job in the jail. It's better than the other jobs [like] heavy metals, cleaning and stuff like that. I get to paint, research my history and that gives me a bit more purpose and meaning," he said.
Creating art made John feel good, he loved remembering and digging up old techniques he had learnt from his family.
"When I'm painting, my head's totally away from everything, and just totally into what I'm doing. Three, four hours can go and by the time you look up, people turn off the lights and it's time for bed," he said.
Being part of an exhibition was "unreal" for him, he called it an "eye opener".
The State Library of NSW is in the process of documenting murals inside Macquarie Correctional Centre as well as interviews of the inmates who painted them. Two inmates have been offered artist residencies with the library once they finish their sentences. They will have a chance to work with other artists as well as put up up another exhibition.
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