Journey in art started in jail

Over the past 20 years former republican prisoner Raymond Watson has used his art as a tool for promoting peace. Jenny Lee chats to him about his new book which tells the stories behind his artworks

RT is the antithesis of conflict - conflict causes destruction; art is about creation."

These words from Belfast-born artist Raymond Watson sums up "his personal peace-process journey" over the past 20 years as an artist.

Just like his artwork, Newry-born Watson's life could be described as colourful. Born into a mixed marriage, he joined the IRA for a brief period in his youth. He was involved in planting the Newry Bus Depot bomb in 1978 and spent seven years in prison at Crumlin Road and Long Kesh/Maze.

After release he gained a degree in media studies and worked as a lecturer and journalist before being drawn into the world of art, initially in wood sculpture. It's a world that has helped him explore notions of cultural identity and address issues of political and social discord at local and global levels.

His new book, The Cell Was My Canvas, is a personal, reflective account of his life and artwork, illustrated with more that 100 photographs of sculpture, installations, paintings and community projects. Watson felt it was important to document his personal background as it gave him a first-hand understanding of conflict. "It's not a career path I would recommend to anyone but it later enabled me to explore controversial issues through art, to explore life and our very human motivations, with the aim of helping to heal our troubled society," he says.

His experience in Long Kesh was the starting point for a series of paintings, The Shot Lock. He says he is disappointed about the collapse of plans for a Maze conflict resolution centre. "I think it's a real missed opportunity to show we are a mature society. Maybe what it shows is that we aren't just yet."

His sculptured bronze Hands of History, where he persuaded the politicians who brokered the Good Friday Agreement to have their hands cast together, is the piece Watson is best known for.

But it is the community art project The Belfast Flags of Hope that he's most proud of.

It came about after the parents of 16-year-old Thomas Devlin, who was murdered in north Belfast, asked him to lead a art project that would leave a positive legacy.

Having travelled all over the world to promote peace through his works, Watson drew inspiration from a visit to the Himalayas in north India where he witnessed thousands of prayer flags being flown between buildings and mountain tops. "They reminded me of Sandy Row in the middle of July. Only their flags were about harmony and goodwill," he explains.

What followed was a world-record breaking 10,000 small pieces of artwork flying across the symbolic site of the Belfast peace line. "The Belfast Flags of Hope project wasn't about stopping people flying their traditional flags. It was about using art to portray our common humanity, instead of our divided cultures."

In 2006 Watson spent time working with street children in Calcutta, creating a 12ft-high Helix of Hope, incorporating their handprints. He says the experience played a crucial role in his arts journey. "I feel a sense of pride and privilege to have witnessed the unique way in which art can capture the imagination, challenge thinking and creatively engage a community," he says.

Now based in Antrim Glens, he increasingly focuses his art on other parts of the world and as well as a presentation at Barcelona University, he has been invited to Rwanda to work with survivors of the genocide.

* The Cell Was My Canvas by Raymond Watson is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: