A New Chapter

Former female prisoners open their hearts with hand bound book exhibition at the Linen Hall Library

A combined group of female ex-prisoners and community workers have found an artistic voice and are currently exhibiting a collection of hand bound books at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast after taking part in a 'Bind Books and Bond' programme delivered by the Prison Arts Foundation.

The exhibition is the final stage in the PAF Inspire Women Project, and each of the budding artists featured shared the same goal of creating handmade books, the content of which is based on real life experiences and memories that have influenced their life choices. The group worked with artist and facilitator, Lucy Turner, and poet Chelley McLear, who helped with the creative writing element of the project.

This thought-provoking exhibition – which is housed in glass display cases and cabinets dotted throughout the library's three floors – is an inspiring example of what disadvantaged members of society can achieve through the arts. It displays snapshots of raw emotion and candid revelation that inspire empathy.

Various themes are explored in the books, including death, politics and love. Also exhibited are sets of button badges, which make up phrases like 'My Life', and represent the sense of pride and well-being felt by those who attended the workshops.


The first piece I come across, entitled 'Poster Girl', is a poignant work. It is concerned with politics, and recalls how one of the participants, Helen, previously ran for local election – her process of taking part in the male-dominated arena of Northern Ireland politics was exciting but daunting.

Some of the most striking books, however, are those that explore the meaning of love. One book simply reads 'Love is: Listening', while another states 'Love is: hugging treasure in an Earthern Vessel'. Each participant has their own story of love, life and lose to tell.

Another stand out piece is titled 'Red and Green should never be seen'. It explores heart-warming memories of parents who grew tulips on their front doorsteps of houses in urban settings, and how the tradition is dying out; tulips are now generally shop bought instead of homegrown.

An interesting display of poster art is also included in the vertical gallery, following a creative writing session with poet McLear. Assertive, positive sentences are written in pen, complemented by images taken from the books. It is uplifting to read each one aloud: 'I make my own History', 'He has Gone, Lucky You', 'I have no regrets, it was worth it' and 'She was a beautiful person, I miss her'.

This colourful and honest exhibition, sponsored by Business in the Community and Lloyds TSB Foundation, has a real cross-community feel to it, and shows how positivity can ultimately instil hope and bring about change in the darkest of circumstances.

Many of the women have documented a change in their lives and the start of a new chapter, and it is clear that those who took part in the project bonded by working together as a team to create beautiful and unique works of art, hand bound books that they can cherish forever. It is a rare skill they will now have for life.

A New Chapter runs in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast until December 17.