Real Matchstick art at the Koestler Foundation


Today I volunteered to give feedback on artworks made whilst in detention by offenders, detainees and secure patients. Every year, the  Koestler Foundation, invite volunteers who have an interest in the arts to come for a few hours on a weekday and give written feedback on the artworks sent in. They then invite a well known artist to select pieces for a summer exhibiton that takes place in London each year. Judges have included artist Jeremy Deller, Grayson Perry, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, representatives from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Council, the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, Louise Galvin, Speech Debelle and Hot Chip.

It was an opportunity to do some depth research into matchstick art but also gave me an opportunity to give back. It is an initiative of the Koestler Foundation and is part of the annual Koestler Awards. 

“We’re the UK’s best-known prison arts charity. We’ve been awarding, exhibiting and selling artworks by offenders, detainees and secure patients for over 55 years.

Our awards receive over 8,000 entries a year – inspiring offenders to take part in the arts, work for achievement and transform their lives. Our national exhibition attracts 20,000 visitors – showing the public the talent and potential of offenders and people in secure settings.

We have no endowment or capital – our work depends entirely on donations.”

Housed in a building next to Wormwood Scrubs, every room on both the ground and the first floor were full of racks, every shelf packed with artworks send in from all around the UK.  I learned that that they split the artworks into 51 categories ranging from ceramics to sculpture, fashion to soap carving, painting to paper cutting and of course matchstick art.

The opportunity to do this kind of research was invaluable as the history of matchstick appears  to have its roots in art made by prisoners,  matchsticks being a cheap, versatile and readily available material.

Directed to be encouraging at all times we were also encouraged to apply some critical theory to the work, explaining why we liked it and why.  Suggestions of how people might make different choices next time and if appropriate other artitsts work they might like to look at. I was very focused on saying positive things, (and there is not a lot of space to write much) but I do feel I was able to  offer some construction feedback. It is something I will definitely do next year. 

“Feedback from experienced artists/writers is very valuable because it’s genuine, practical and focused. It’s not sugar-coated or a platitude. In many ways it’s the best thing about the scheme.”  Koestler Awards Entrant

Time featured a lot in the work by way of clocks, many of which worked but had had the batteries taken out of them. Some of the entries came with supporting documents stating what had motivated them to make what they had made.  Reasons were driven by fantasy of what it woud like to own that boat, that car, that these represented  freedom. One entitled Rebirth used well understood symbols of an egg and a butterfly and another Keyhole showed great use of colour, the outside world, the world through the keyhole appearing in technicolour. The one that struck me the most and almost certainly because of its connection to my work was a jewellery box, but not the box itself it was the supporting document that interested me a small booklet that explains his interest in matchstick art.