Prisoners and nursing home residents communicate through art

Global Cultural Alliance director Phan Ming Yen (left) and artist Sun Yu Li with an artwork, Colours of Joy, by an inmate in prison.
Global Cultural Alliance director Phan Ming Yen (left) and artist Sun Yu Li with an artwork, Colours of Joy, by an inmate in prison.PHOTO: GLOBAL CULTURAL ALLIANCE

SINGAPORE - Inmates in prison and residents of nursing homes inhabit vastly different worlds, but share a common bond in being largely segregated from the rest of society. For a month last year, however, a few members from the two groups got to communicate with each other through letters and paintings.

Facilitated by artist Sun Yu Li, five prison inmates and nine nursing home residents shared treasured memories with each other through letters and created paintings as a gift for the other.

This was done as part of a new initiative by the non-profit organisation Global Cultural Alliance (GCA). The resulting artworks are currently on display at arts centre Temenggong 18/20.

The inmates, who all have a background in art, were selected by the Yellow Ribbon Project for the programme, while the nursing home residents, aged between 60 and 70, were picked by the home.

The programme aimed to create greater awareness of the lives of inmates and elderly residents and bring the communities together, said GCA director Phan Ming Yen. He noted that the initiative as a whole aims to explore the healing properties of art, and in this case, allowed the participants to rediscover a sense of self worth.

"We don't see (inmates and nursing home residents) much and we don't think much about them, but they do have needs too," said Mr Phan.

The programme is empowering as it gives their art a sense of purpose, said Mr Phan. During the multiple three-hour long art sessions at their respective facilities, participants jotted down things or memories important to them in journals. They were then matched with a partner from the other facility, and created paintings based on their partner's notes.

In a particularly memorable incident, a nursing home resident had tears in her eyes after receiving her painting, said Mr Phan. She had written about how she wanted to go to the beach, so in response, a prisoner drew a colourful painting of the sea for her.

Mr Sun said the prisoners were often eager to find out how the other parties received their artworks. While the artist, who works mostly with sculptures, has worked with GCA before, this was the first time he had worked with inmates and nursing home residents. He said the prisoners in particular left a deep impression on him.

"I was surprised and shocked to know that some of them had been in there for over 10 years, they seemed full of hope and interest in the outside world,"said Mr Sun, 70.

"Many times I felt like they were just any one of my younger friends."

Correction note: An earlier version of this story said the name of the arts centre was Temenggong House 18/20. It should be Temenggong 18/20.