It is no understatement to say that former heroin addict Steven Ellis's life has been transformed by learning. After studying Art and Design with Novus at HMP Humber, Steven applied to Leeds College of Art, where he is now in the final year of a BA (Hons) degree in Fine Art.
Steven, who runs a weekly art group for users of Leeds Community Drugs Partnership, won a Butler Trust Award for his work with offenders and people with drug problems and was presented with it at Buckingham Palace.
Steven says his background hasn’t been a barrier to his success: “I’ve got an interesting background, but interesting people produce interesting artwork.You also get secondary learning from a subject that gets no credit for it. My literacy skills have improved dramatically.
“When I was due for release from HMP Humber, the art tutor came in and gave me a portfolio. In their minds they already had the interview in mind that I’d need to do to become an art student. So I left with my licence in one hand and a big portfolio of work in the other. If you’d told me at that time that portfolio would get me where I am today I wouldn’t have believed you. That’s the truth of it.”
Steven firmly believes in the power of art to change offenders’ behaviour. He says: “In the 22 months I was in art classes at HMP Humber, there was only one scuffle. There’s something interesting about the environment. People start to respect the art they’re making and see it as precious, then they know the art the guy next to them is making is precious to him. They know if they break something they’re hurting someone. The environment becomes self-policing.”
Art took Steven to new heights when he was asked to be involved in a project with Turner Prize-winning artist, Jeremy Deller. He also has his own website, stevenellisart.com, and can look forward to a future full of possibilities. He adds: “My options are open. I’ve been given opportunities to do several things. My ambition is to become a fine artist with my own artistic identity, but if I can do something to use my life experience and skills in art to help other people, I will be happy.”
There aren’t many people who have recovered from a long-standing heroin addiction, though. There aren’t enough people like me who have reached total abstinence. Art did that for me. Art was the missing piece.