Invercargill Prison Christmas treePrisoners from Invercargill Prison are helping spread cheer at Christmas, by supporting the Waihopai City Lions club "Light up Christmas" tree festival.

“It is important to the men and to our staff that we are involved in supporting local projects,” says Acting Prison Director, Mike Rongo. “The positive feedback to their work gives the men encouragement to continue with these activities and demonstrates that there are easy ways that they can engage and contribute to the community in a good way.”

The Lions Christmas Tree event works as follows; local businesses ‘rent’ a tree from the Lions Club, they decorate the tree and nominate a local charity to support. The public view the trees and ‘vote’ for their favourite by making a donation. This money goes to a local charity nominated by the business.

Sculpture of Mayor Tim Shadbolt.Corrections involvement began when the prison was approached by the Lions to build the ‘voting’ boxes.

“The 36 boxes were made in the prison as part of the men’s constructive activity programme,” says Katherine Sheriff, Interventions Co-ordinator Invercargill Prison.

As thanks for building the boxes, the Lions Club offered the prison a tree to decorate with donations going toward books for the prison library.

“Feedback on the prison tree has been very positive”, says Katherine, “People seem to be particularly taken by the caricature figures.”

The boxes, decorations and the caricature papier-mâché sculptures have all been created by the prisoners as part of the prison art and constructive activities programme.

Henry* is the sculptor behind the caricatures. In his late 40s, Henry had never done sculpting or art before coming to Prison.  He was also the lead for the decorations for the tree. Six prisoners made all the decorations from paper, using origami or paper cutting.

The Christmas trees project has offered Henry* a way to give enjoyment to the community and show off his new found art skills. Through the prison art programme he has discovered an untapped talent. It began with Henry attending the porcelain sculpting programme with sculptor and prison volunteer Helen Black, which he found “very useful and inspirational”.

Henry started working with papier mâché last year when he created an angel for the prison medical unit. “I was particularly proud of her,” he says, “her wings moved. I went on from that to decorate the wing with Christmas decorations made from paper.”

The caricature sculptures he has created recently are of well-known local and national figures, Minister Judith Collins, Mayor Tim Shadboltand ILT Stadium Southland General Manager, Nigel Skelt, who feature in the Christmas Tree display. He also completed another one of broadcaster Paul Henry.

Made from newspaper and toilet paper, they have each taken about 4 weeks to create. He has glued them together with soap and water and wall paper paste. Initially he was colouring them with coffee, until he was given access to paint.

He says he enjoys “turning something we have in prison into an outstanding piece of art”.

“Through art, offenders learn to express themselves in different ways,” says Katherine. “They develop skills around communicating with others, patience, discipline and perseverance. Art is a great outlet for a person’s emotions and ideas,” says Katherine.

“Additionally, many prisoners discover skills and interests they never thought they had and some offenders go on to develop their artistic skills as recreational, or even professional artists post release.”

For some men, like Henry*, the Christmas trees project has offered him a way to give enjoyment to the community, show off his new found art skills and to hopefully ‘earn’ some money for books in the prison library through his art.

“Christmas in prison is awful” says Henry. “You just want the day to hurry up and be over. There is more disruption and unrest in prison over the Christmas period because we are all upset and angry, the sense of aloneness is heightened.”

The men have enjoyed giving back to the community and helping out the Lions Club, and have loved the opportunity to artistically express themselves.

The men involved hope the community will enjoy the tree and make a contribution toward art books. After the Christmas Tree event, Henry is keen to sell the sculptures and that money will also go toward books for the Invercargill Prison Library.

For his next project he hopes to get a group of prisoners to do super heroes for the visits hall of the prison, for a children’s charity or Starship hospital.

The Christmas tree display is at ILT Stadium Southland until 24th December.