Christian artist is drawn into journey of transformation with prisoners

Johannesburg artist Lisa Crumpton conducts an art workshop with prisoners in Cape Town.
Johannesburg artist Lisa Crumpton conducts an art workshop with offenders in Cape Town.

What happens when an artist who loves Jesus and believes that art transforms people is invited to conduct a 3-day art workshop for convicted criminals under the watchful eye of Correctional Services officials?

God is present and lives are touched, answers Lisa Crumpton, a Johannesburg artist, after her latest interaction with prisoners during an art workshop in Goodwood, Cape Town. The October workshop with about 30 offenders chosen from art clubs in 10 prisons took place in the Goodwood Gallery of Hope which showcases offenders’ art and help inmates sell their work. 

Crumpton, who co-leads Breakthru Life Church, in Weltevreden Park, Johannesburg, with her husband, John, says she plans to return to the Goodwood Correctional Facility early in 2015  “to do art training and promote internal transformation in the offenders”.

The journey begins
Explaining the roots of her prisoner art journey, Crumpton says: “Years ago, I came into contact with a family friend who had served four years in jail for fraud. I had been told he was quite sick as a result of his incarceration, but as I saw him for the first time in over a decade, I saw something else – an internal transformation. There was no bitterness, hatred, resentment or revenge, but a transparent pureness. As I learned later, he had experienced true forgiveness while in jail. Jesus had forgiven all his wrongdoings, not only the ones that landed him in prison, but given him a clean heart, salvation and everlasting life. This brief encounter stayed with me.

“A few years ago I was asked to do art workshops with sexual offenders, who were doing a 12 week rehabilitation course. These men could not be stereotyped and came from all walks of life — privileged and underprivileged. I had strict instructions not to bring any religion into the classes. One of the offenders revealed through his artwork that he had had an encounter on the streets of downtown Johannesburg that had changed his life. He said, ‘God has come into my heart’. I concluded that even though this did not happen in the class, it occurred between the  two classes; the Holy Spirit was faithful to answer the figurative question I had asked the offenders: ‘Where are you now, and where would you like to be?’

“One morning in 2012, I was in the kitchen preparing to send my boys off to school. The TV was on and they featured an interview with the Minister of Correctional Services, who had just opened an art gallery in Cape Town for offenders to display their artwork. I emailed to congratulate Minister Sibusise Ndebele on this achievement and commended the Correctional Services for having a value for art opportunities and training. I also added that if I could help in that process, I would be willing.

Lisa Crumpton poses with two offenders on the last day of the art workshop.
Lisa Crumpton poses with two offenders on the last day of the art workshop.

“And so those were some of the experiences and events that shaped my motivation in deciding to buy an air ticket to Cape Town, to develop art skills with offenders in prison.

“On the way to the airport I began to second guess myself and said to my husband that I was not sure I was the right person for this task. His reply was clear, ‘You are the right person!’

“I looked for the Gallery the day before class began, but with the information I had I could not find it. I checked the Internet that night and still could not locate this venue. So the day of the training arrived and my thought was ‘this gallery is a phantom!’

“But with a little more vital information like the correct street name, I arrived at a colourful free standing hangar. I met Mr Nelani, head of Correctional Education, who had made this event happen. All my thoughts of doubt were erased as I discovered how much organisation had gone into this moment including the Cape Times Newspaper doing a story.

“There were as many officials as there were offenders. We began the class with little introduction, except a feather appeared at my feet, in the middle of the room. I picked it up, and continued teaching. A moment later I looked down and another feather appeared. For me this was a positive sign that God’s presence was in the room!

“Throughout the morning I was politely interrupted by officials making speeches. I was asked to respond to this dialogue, and responded as best I could, given that this was a very different world to mine. My plea was that good art materials would be supplied to the art clubs in the regional correctional services, and then they would see the results they were looking for — saleable art.

“One of the security officials did the art training because he was an artist too. When he stood up to contribute to the dialogue, he said that he did not expect a woman to be the art teacher.

“Later, in one of my text messages with family, someone asked if I had shared the Gospel? Apart from that not being my brief, my response to the text was that I had told the group that they have a D e s i g n e r, and that their creativity came from somewhere. Secondly I told the delegates that I believed in miracles, and we needed a miracle in the multiplication of art supplies.

“On the third day we did see the miracle as turpentine appeared, which enabled the class to do an oil painting!

“We achieved another feat in that only five per cent of the group had ever done an oil painting before, and in one hour everyone had completed a painting. I told them I would teach them ‘freedom’ in creative expression, through paint. Mission accomplished!

“I also found myself making some links between creative development and self-worth, adding, that having a skill AND self-worth would be a very positive way of going back into society after they left prison. Art had a purpose, more than just creating a great picture.

Artwork by offenders -oil paintings created in one hour, charcoal drawings complete in 15 minutes.
Artwork by offenders — oil paintings created in one hour, charcoal drawings complete in 15 minutes.

Memorable last moments
“I required some help getting all my things to the car after the last day. T and L volunteered and we engaged in a conversation. We were now outside of the gallery which probably created some new security risks.

“As T spoke, something made me ask, ‘T, are you saved?’ He said, “Yes M’am, since 2009!’ I was delighted and intrigued. As I looked at him continuing to tell his story, I noticed the security officers discretely gathering closer.

“T said that on the first day [of the workshop] he could see God in me. He also mentioned that the night before the art training he had had a dream that a white woman was going to do the art training. He is the leader of the art club in his regional correctional facility, and on the morning of the event the authorities said he was not going. There was no obvious reason for this mystery, but thankfully within an hour the mistake was corrected and he was part of the group which arrived for the training. And there I was, just like in the dream.

“T continued: ‘There was a lot of valuable stuff, direct into a guy’s life [during the workshop]. I am thankful and grateful for what God did, if we can do more like this and send more people in, like yourself, really, then all the guys in prison, and even the Department, will be a better place. Really!! There is potential here; God bless you richly, God sent you … Mrs Lisa. And you yourself are indeed, a work of art.

‘I said to Lee-Roy yesterday, as we were cleaning, there on the inside, no really, God sent this lady, to polish and to release and unlock certain things in our lives. Really Mrs Lisa, I pray that God will continue to, keep you, to mould you, and use you. In Jesus name, God bless you.’

“The transformation in this man became evident as he spoke about his Saviour. I was overjoyed at hearing his story. As I know the love of God is often expressed though hugging someone, I stepped forward and hugged him. This exchange was to celebrate that true salvation and forgiveness is real, even for a murderer. This was fairly spontaneous and made sense in the moment, but was probably misunderstood by the vigilant security officers.

“I was also pleased after hearing T’s story, because I had intended on the last day to ask how many people knew they had a Designer, and that their creative gift came from somewhere. It didn’t happen like that, but realising that not only reformation was happening in prisons but true transformation, made my heart happy.

“To answer the question ‘Did I share the Gospel?’ I think I did, even if I didn’t use words (‘Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words’ – Francis of Assisi). In this case I used art. And I showed up.”

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