From Prison Cell to The Walls of The Royal Academy of Arts

Author: | 10 Jun 2019

From Prison Cell to The Walls of The Royal Academy of Arts

For the Longford Blog, scholar Paul Grady reflects on his journey towards last year’s prestigious Summer Exhibition

Do you know where you were on Christmas Day, 2012? I do. I was in a prison in Somerset, many years into my sentence and still a few more to go.


Working on a distance learning art degree, I was looking for inspiration. Trying to come up with a project that would take me away from traditional prison art: pencil portraits from burn (tobacco), painting landscapes from photographs torn out of magazines, sculptures made from bread or matchstick models of boats and clocks. I have always been interested in the process of art and how it can be created in so many ways. Wanting this project to last a while, with New Year approaching, I thought it would be a good idea to create something over the whole year of 2013, from January 1st to 31st  December, to mark the passing of time. Almost as if I was crossing off the days.


With this seed of an idea, I had to decide how to get it onto paper and let it grow. How often would I sit down and draw? When, and for how long? If I was going to use this project as a way of marking off the days, then it stood to reason that it would have to be done every day of the year ahead. To work around my job in prison, I came up with the idea of drawing as soon as I woke up and let the inspiration flow from that first day. See where it took me.


The first day of January dutifully arrives, my alarm rudely awakens me from my slumber at six a.m. and I grab the board that I use for drawing, tape a large sheet of paper onto it and reach for a black ballpoint pen. Now what? Do something. Start. Make a mark. So that is exactly what I did, right in the middle of that huge piece of paper I drew a shape, a small circle that looked so lost on that expanse of whiteness. I drew more shapes around this circle slowly spreading outwards, I was starting to enjoy this. Let my hand flow, make marks that follow on from the last one, allow the drawing to grow organically. After an hour or so I wondered how to bring this first day of drawing to a close and allow me to begin again the next day? A membrane! Small circles around this shape, with larger circular globules within the membrane. I’m done and the door is about to be unlocked ready for me to face another day behind the highest prison walls in the country.


2nd January and the alarm screams at me to wake up. I grab the board from under my bed, put it on top of my still warm quilt and reach for my pen- blue today. Starting with a part of the membrane next to my first day’s drawing I figure out what shapes to put in the middle. These are totally random, allowing my hand to control the pen and make marks. When I feel it’s done I close off the membrane and wait for the sound of keys in the door.

Day three, the alarm trills and I’m up. A green pen waiting, ready to be used, the rules have become clear. The membrane stays the same, inside I can let myself be free and put any shape that feels right that morning, no colour will touch itself and the minimum colours I can do this with is four. Tomorrow I will use red. The next hour and a half rushes by and before I am finished, I hear the turn of the key in the lock before the bolt crashes back. I close this cell, as that is what each day’s drawing resembles, making up what, I do not yet know. What I do know, as I head down for breakfast, is that I want six a.m. to come around again.


The fourth day. I’m awake before the alarm. The board is on the bed before it sets off and I’m there, red pen in hand making marks. I begin to get a sense that something is happening to me, that I am ready to invest in this artwork like never before. As the prison door opens for the first time that morning, I’m putting the last few circles on the paper, my first series of four colours is complete. Bring on the rest of the month.


The last day of January is upon me and I must bring this drawing to an end. I have marked the passing of one whole month. In that month I have learnt that the prison I am in is going to close. I will be moving, it could happen with very little warning and I must be ready for it.


February arrives and I get a new sheet of paper, the only one to hand, a smaller piece of watercolour paper. Over the next few days the rules make themselves clear to me. It is during this month that I get two days’ notice that I am moving. The morning of the move I get up as usual at six and get to work on my drawing, the only thing that I haven’t packed and sent to reception. I am just about finished, the key turns the lock for the last time in that cell for me, I have to go and complete this somewhere else.


I have no job in the new jail and as a distance learner I have been told I must be locked in my cell for the core day. It means I now spend hours each day drawing tiny circles on a piece of paper. It is at this point that the title for this project makes itself known to me, ‘Twelve Months Hard Labour’, quite fitting don’t you think?


In the next ten months I’m on the move again, this time to an open prison. I experience my first day in years outside prison walls. I can prepare for a future where there will be no more keys heard early in the morning.


In the open prison I apply to university to study art. I use the twelve drawings as part of my portfolio at my interview, the tutors are very interested in the concept and process. I find myself explaining each drawing, why I chose the medium, the colours and the two different sizes of paper. I carried on using the smaller watercolour paper for all the months that were less than thirty-one days. All because it was the only decent sized piece of paper that I could find on the first day of February.


Fast forward to last Summer. Released, I have completed my university course and with the help of The Longford Trust as a Longford Scholar I have gained a First class degree in fine art. Not only that, my ‘January’ drawing from ‘Twelve Months Hard Labour’ has been entered into The Royal Academy Summer Show. It’s made it through the first round of judging. I take it down to London; everyone is excited. I don’t know why, it’s not as if it’s in the final cut yet.


I arrive at The Royal Academy to drop off my drawing and see how many people are there, as well as the television cameras. Maybe this is a big deal afterall.


A few weeks later I get the email, Congratulations. I got in! I’ve won my place in one of the biggest, most prestigious art shows in the world. Thousands will see my work. It’s real. My drawing, completed on a bed in a prison cell, will hang on the walls of The Royal Academy of Arts. I’m a full-on artist now.


You can see more of Paul’s work here: