From rehabilitating offenders to assisting the disabled, art has a crucial role to play in WA’s community services.

On a dark wall in a cramped, cold cell in Fremantle prison there is a painting so beautiful it takes you to another place. A saturated yellow sky lights an outback scene, painted by the resident inmate just before the prison was decommissioned in 1991. Every time he looked at it he must have escaped this place of monotony and nightmares.

This prisoner wasn’t the only one to use art for expression; at Fremantle prison there are over 200 paintings on cell and yard walls that date as far back as 1860. They aren’t all beautiful, but every piece lays bare a prisoner’s inner world.
Art programs now run at all of WA’s 14 prisons, helping prisoners transition into productive members of society.

The messages behind the artworks that the prisoners create at Casuarina – the state’s maximum security facility – vary. Some prisoners have an axe to grind about perceived injustice, others paint pictures of places they’d rather be, and many of the Aboriginal prisoners use art to connect to country.  

“It takes you away from being in jail,” says one of the prisoners participating in the program at Casuarina. “Apart from just relief from the stultifying boredom of being in here, you engage yourself in other places and other times.”

“About 80 per cent of prisoners have the educational level of an 11-year-old or less,” says Department of Corrective Services arts coordinator Abdul Abdullah. “Education and training give them skills that are going to help them get a job, and that is the biggest factor in reducing reoffending. Things like music and art are often the gateway to further education.”

Prisoner rehabilitation is just one area of social need to which the arts are being applied in WA. Art psychotherapy is gaining ground as a less confrontational treatment for people with mental illness. Innovative arts outfit Sensorium Theatre stimulates the imaginations of young people with complex disabilities. And across regional WA, arts organisations like Big hART, Community Arts Network WA (CAN WA) and Disability in the Arts, Disadvantage in the Arts (DADAA) use art as their tool for developing stronger, united, more resilient communities.

This broad spectrum of artistic efforts makes it clear that in WA, creativity is as much about achieving social outcomes as it is about the aesthetic.

Fiona Gardner is an art therapist and has seen the positive impacts of art therapy on mental health first-hand. She works for Career Enterprise Centre, a specialised high school for students that have intellectual or physical disabilities, some with associated mental health issues. In art therapy, they use artistic metaphors and symbols to explain and express emotions and experiences that are often too painful to explain with words.

“What is important is that the experience of making art, and the interaction with the materials, enables a more open expression and connection to the subconscious,” Fiona says. “And that enables feelings, experiences and thoughts which may be difficult to talk about to come through.”


FROM LEFT CECAT therapists Ute Kruse, Andrea Pattison, Leah van Lieshout, Karen Cameron, Mark Brittain, Elaine Murphy and Philip Ward-Dixon.

The Creative Expression Centre for Arts Therapy (CECAT) runs art programs for clients with mental illnesses ranging from low-level anxiety to acute psychosis and schizophrenia, and the artistic process is critical to their work.

“Art becomes central in the exchange between the therapist and the client, and
a lot of the communication is done through the image rather than face to face,” says CECAT art therapist Mark Brittain.

Fellow therapist Leah Van Lieshout says CECAT’s group art classes relieve social isolation, among other health outcomes. “In our recent women’s textiles group there was that whole notion of a group of women sitting around together, as groups of women have done for hundreds of years. To sit and stitch together, to learn from one another, to share and to speak.”

Disability in the Arts, Disadvantage in the Arts (DADAA) works with people experiencing mental illness and people with a disability, but applies a community arts approach rather than art therapy. Their artist-led projects explore community concerns, reduce social isolation, expand art skills and practices, and provide clients with an opportunity for expression.

DADAA has partnered with Rio Tinto, the state government and local communities for its latest project, FIVE, which seeks to use the arts to address mental health stigma in Paraburdoo, Busselton, Geraldton, Derby and Esperance.

The Busselton community created a large-scale public sculpture made of suitcases donated  by the community – metaphors for concepts of belonging and place. Unique public art projects like this will be created in each of the FIVE communities and the social impact of the project is being recorded by DADAA with an extensive evaluation model.

At the conclusion of each project, in-depth interviews with individuals will be conducted and qualitative data gathered. In the end, over 3000 individual voices will form an evaluation of community mental health and the project.

“In community arts and cultural development work, ‘change over time’ is at the core of how wellbeing impacts come about,” says DADAA executive director David Doyle. “This idea that change is emergent and not a single, fixed end point makes a strong case for the use of new and flexible models of evaluation that can capture stories, relationships and impacts – rather than traditional quantitative methods aiming strictly to ‘capture data’ or ‘measure’.”

Sensorium Theatre co-founders Michelle Hovane and Francis Italiano seek to provide children with profound disabilities theatre that is tailored to them. They don’t set out to achieve developmental outcomes for the young people they work with, but that’s just what they’re doing.

“If you’ve got a kid caught up in a story, surrounded by this sort of stimulating environment of a magical forest or an underwater seaworld, you are going to be inspiring them to do the sorts of things the therapists are hoping they’ll do,” Francis says.

“That could be anything from reaching out to touch a puppet creature or actually learning vocabulary and learning the actions of a song.”

The duo explains that while the therapeutic outcomes of the Sensorium performances are obvious, the primary concern is to create high-quality theatre.

“If you don’t let the theatre have its own integrity and magic, you wouldn’t have those great outcomes,” Michelle says. 

At Casuarina Prison, art therapy is used as a gateway for further education; projection artist Craig Walsh has created a digital work for the FIVE project, using filmed interviews with community members; an example of prisoner artwork.

Big hART uses the arts to advocate for policy changes and is applying its method
in Roebourne, seeking to reframe the cultural narrative of the Pilbara community.
Its Yijala Yala program has manifested into a number of projects that include a digital comic and video game – Neomads – as well as theatre performance Hip Bone Sticking Out, which tackles the issue of Indigenous incarceration.

“The work in Roebourne is about trying to free the people who live there from this very negative reputation that their community has,” says Big hART producer Yolande Norris.

“We want to find ways to use what has happened [with Big hART] in Roebourne
as a best practice model. That is something we have been pitching to government.”

The arts have long been an effective method of empowering communities like Roebourne, and community arts group CAN WA has been working with disenfranchised and disadvantaged communities across WA for 30 years, using art to strengthen interpersonal and community bonds.

Two recent projects include the Yarns of the Heart initiative, which brought women together in Narrogin and Pingelly to re-establish traditional doll-making, and the Noongar Pop Culture project, which aims to make Noongar language relevant for younger generations through rap and pop songs.

“In the Noongar Pop Culture case, school attendance increased by 10 per cent,” says CAN WA’s managing director Pilar Kasat. “You’ve got increased self esteem, sense of belonging, sense of pride in these young Aboriginal people. All of these are indicators of wellbeing.

“With the dolls, apart from the wonderful art outcome and the recognition the women gained by being exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the impact on their lives was even greater. If you understand the stories told around that particular piece of art you would understand that dolls had an impact on someone’s mental health and wellbeing. Some women reported the doll-making project having had a direct impact on their healing.

“It’s about social cohesion and social capital,” Pilar says. “Communities that come together, create together, work together, dance together are the communities that respond well to challenges.”

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