Unlock the talent inside

Since 1962 the Koestler Awards have played a unique, national role in motivating prisoners, secure hospital patients and immigration detainees to take part in the arts. The awards are simple and powerful – we reward achievement, build self-confidence and broaden horizons for some of society’s most disadvantaged and marginalised people.

Our work harnesses the uniquely transformative power of the arts to help individuals learn the skills and gain the confidence to live creative, positive and productive lives. Each year we receive more than 7,000 entries from over 3,500 entrants across the UK in 52 categories. More than 2,000 Awards are granted by over 100 esteemed judges, and each year culminates in a curated exhibition at Southbank Centre which showcases the incredible power of the arts to transform lives.

  • John's Story

John’s Story

From a young offender institution to the Venice Biennale

I first came across Koestler ten years ago while awaiting sentencing in Feltham Young Offenders Institution.

I got into art through graffiti. I always loved art but no-one in my family is artistic at all, and growing up it was kind of alien. I couldn’t say, ‘I’m just going to pop to the Tate Modern’, people just wouldn’t have it. You could paint graffiti though, that was acceptable, and everybody was MCing because Grime was just forming.

When I first went to prison I was angry and messed up. I did a bit of art therapy and found that helped. I remember being in my cell the first time I wrote something like an actual poem. It was for my sanity and it was a list of things that I shouldn’t be, or shouldn’t be happening, and then a list of things that should be happening. Like, ‘you shouldn’t be awaiting sentencing, you shouldn’t be banged up for 23 hours a day, you shouldn’t be in Costa del Feltham’. And then it said, ‘you should be in your Central St Martins studio, you should be making artwork, you should be on your way to success’.

I signed and dated it and then, five years later, when I was in my Central St Martins’ studio, I found that letter and there I was!

The Koestler Awards helped me kickstart that journey. I submitted a poem and won a Commended Award. Having someone outside redeem your talents is crucial for artistic growth in such hopeless conditions.

I was encouraged to apply to a fine art course at Kensington & Chelsea College. The prison gave me leave to go to the interview, and once accepted I went each day to college and returned each evening to my prison cell. My final piece was an installation which included all the letters I’d written to my mum while inside.

After release I was accepted onto the Koestler mentoring scheme, and paired with an inspirational character that convinced me that galleries and the like WERE for me. When you come out of prison you are sure everybody knows it, like there’s a sign above your head. Going into environments that are typically reserved for the middle and upper classes was a daunting prospect. She helped me dissolve that idea and was an all-round great influence and source of support.

I started my BA at Central St Martins a few months after I got out of jail. It was quite an experience having just spent three years in an environment all about oppression, to now be in one all about expression. A lot of other students had never lived away from home and I’d just done three years in prison. I loved it, some other people found it quite intense but I was like, come on this is nothing!

I’d just smashed my degree show and the very next day I got the phone call from Koestler saying I’d got a job there as an arts worker, and then they said, ‘and do you want to come to the Venice Biennale with Jeremy Deller’? Jeremy Deller was my favourite artist, he still is. I thought someone was pulling a really cruel joke on me but it turns out they weren’t!

Venice is a whole other story.

Working at Koestler was amazing. To be invited back was truly humbling. To hand out awards where I was once an awardee was elating.

The art work I was privileged to see was constantly surprising, with feedback key to the process. When I looked at the art I wouldn’t see an image, I would see healing through art. Something I’m still doing today.

Art’s the closest thing to magic for me. I really like how it can heal and how it can make me feel, because I’m not happy if I’m not making art. It helps people address root issues and uncover the archaeology of their past behaviours that got them in to trouble. We all know this.

Thank you Koestler. You have had such a profound effect on my life, and to look at the journey from prison cell to now has helped me realise just how much you can achieve with care and guidance.

Help us support more people like John to turn their lives around.

Art’s the closest thing to magic for me. I really like how it can heal and how it can make me feel, because I’m not happy if I’m not making art.