All Human - touring the Koestler with Julio  

21 Oct 2016

The image that features on the poster for this year’s Koestler Trust Awards is taken from a painting of dandelions at sunset – some in seed, others in bud.  Turn the canvas over and there is, stitched into the back, a label reading “property of HMP Highpoint” – a prison-issued laundry tag that serves as a reminder of the painting’s inauspicious origins.

The stitcher – and painter – is Julio Osorio, a Colombian-born artist who learnt to paint while he was in prison and received funding for arts materials from PET. "To me this painting represents hope,” said Julio. “I did it soon after I moved from Wandsworth to Highpoint prison. At Wandsworth I didn’t see any nature – no grass, no flowers, no nothing. Then suddenly I was in the countryside, with green outside space and windows.  It made me finally allow myself to think about my release.”

The works of art displayed at the Koestler Trust’s ninth annual exhibition – “We are all Human” range from fine art, to crafts, to film, animation and poetry. Some are provocative – a man with a HMP-issued plastic bag over his head is painted in photographic detail - others are vividly imaginative and others are examples of meticulous craftsmanship. Uniting them is the fact they were all created by people in custodial environments – in prisons, secure hospitals and detention centres around the UK.

Julio’s dandelion picture - Sunrise - is one of three of his paintings on display. Fragmented Life,depicting a black-and-white prisoner surrounded by multi-coloured shards reflects “how when you land in prison everything shatters into pieces”, while Childhood Memories is inspired by memories of the river where, as boy in Colombia, he used to try and catch miniature fish with his hands. “To me it’s a very optimistic painting, full of bright colours. It also reflects how as human beings we are always searching for something, particularly if we are in a place like prison.”

Julio had not painted before his time in custody, but joined an art class simply to pass the time. “I was totally transported for two hours,” he said. “And when I finished I thought: ‘well that’s not bad’.” Later, he applied to PET for funding for arts materials so he could produce work in his cell.

Many of the Koestler pieces reflect ingenious ways of skirting a lack of resources: a satirical cartoon about Holloway’s closure is painted on a discarded notice board; a model of a prison therapy group is made partly from bread; a huge bouquet is assembled from tiny strips of newspaper and a working key and padlock is constructed entirely from matchsticks. One of the most evocative works - a six-foot image of a flower in the middle of a flame - represents the White Rose anti-Nazi movement. Look closely, and it is made up of hundreds of tiny pictures of people, all of whom were victims of the Holocaust.

Painting in prison presents its challenges, says Julio – the poor light, the inability to stand far back to view a piece of work, the limits of canvass size – not to mention the wider institutional difficulties. But in some respects it also made him a better painter. “I didn’t have many choices of colours so I learnt to mix them really well,” he says. “The less you have, the more creative you become.” 

The Koestler Trust exhibition “We are all Human” is showing at the Southbank Centre until 13 November. More of Julio’s art can be viewed at: This year’s exhibition was curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, who also featured in PET’s film ‘More than just a prisoner’.

Every year, PET provides around 500 arts and hobbies grants to people like Julio. Your donation could help develop skills, improve wellbeing, and potentially fund a future artist.