“I was in living Parker Street supported hostel. They call it the drugs den,” 51-year-old artist Lanre Olagoke tells Danielle Aumord, as he explains how the charity ‘Arts Alive’ was set up. Olagoke began painting at the tender age of 5, and set up ‘Arts Alive’ as a prison and community based arts organisation in 1996.
Initially they functioned as a trust with a collective of artists drawn together by Olagoke to undertake painting, ceramics, poetry and drama workshops as a creative outlet for inmates within Wandsworth prison.
The charity was registered at a later date (in 2001) and interestingly, it all started from a chance encounter in a filthy, squalid hostel.
An addiction to both cannabis and cocaine, combined with a gambling habit lead Olagoke from being a promising student to sleeping rough on the streets of the capital. “People, including family, thought I had gone crazy”.
He ended up in a hostel in Holborn where syringes and blood splattered walls were common place.
Whilst residing there the idea of ‘Arts Alive’ came about: “One day I said if there is God, why are we all in this place? I was screaming out in my little room. I was feeling the pain of the other residents’ aswell as my own. An Irish guy called Perry knocked on my door; he said he could hear me praying.
“I asked where he came from. He said he’s been in and out of prison for 30-years. He asked what you do? I said I’m an artist,” he adds, chronicling their conversation. “He said they need you in prison. I said what you mean? He said you can teach art in prison. I said ‘yes’ I’d love to do this.”
It made sense to Olagoke. Painting had always been a source of joy for him and helped him in his pathway to recovery from addiction.
He wanted to share this, and so off the back off this conversation, turned to his hostel based support worker for help to gain access into prisons. “They introduced me to a Labour Politian called Paul Boateng who set up a meeting for me with the units for arts and offenders. From there, the first door that opened up for me was to Wandsworth prison.”
Today Arts Alive are have their home in a gallery at the epicentre of Soho (in Kingly Court). They have also been running workshops in Brixton and Belmarsh prisons. Olagoke believes that these workshops provide participating inmates with self worth, a sense of identity and even a sense of freedom.
“My work now helps others who, like me, didn’t think it possible for their lives to be turned around. Whenever I paint I am happy, and if I’m going through pain all I need is a brush and paint. I no longer need drink or drugs – I have found pride in my creativity.
The inmates that I work with, although they’re in prison, they can have freedom of mind, “he adds expressively. “Art has given them that freedom, to release the pain through creatively. It’s self-expression, from the inside out.”
Olagoke’s own paintings tell of a journey from homelessness to hope, and
‘Arts Alive’ tells a similar tale.
Arts To donate to Arts Alive or to find out more information click onto: www.artsalive.org.uk