Melbourne artist Thelma Beeton has gone from doing time to selling her emu-totem paintings for thousands of dollars.
The 36-year-old Palawa woman had been living on the streets and in and out of jail since 2014 for minor offences such as shoplifting, before finding an Indigenous arts program called The Torch.
"I rang up two weeks after I got out of prison and asked if I could still do my art, I just figured that the more I paint the more money I make," she told AAP.
As well as encouraging her painting, The Torch helped her to get in touch with indigenous culture and her family history on Cape Barren Island, off Tasmania's north east coast.
She knew little cultural heritage and had not seen her family for six years, as she struggled with an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
"I felt too embarrassed to let them look at me or see me that way, but my art connected me back to my family and I feel more at peace now," Ms Beeton says.
She now paints her totem animal, the Tasmanian emu, in bright tones with large expanses of sky and bold flat colours.
Ms Beeton's paintings, which sell for for about $2000, have helped her find a path to economic security. In 2021, Hobart's Dark MoFo festival commissioned one of her works.
The Torch program supports Indigenous people who have been jailed or recently released, giving artists materials, training, and support to discover their heritage.
Its annual exhibition, Confined 13, features more than 400 works this year, and has so far raised more than $150,000 which goes directly to artists. The works are on display until June 5 at the Glen Eira Town Hall Gallery.
That money is life changing, according to Gamilaroi man Sean Miller, who co-ordinates The Torch's public mural program.
"Instead of leaving prison with no money or place to stay, participants are able to build up a bank account for when they are released ... for accommodation, food and family," he told AAP.
Since going through the program himself, Mr Miller has become an award-winning ceramicist, with works acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria.
"It turns a person around and makes them feel value in life, they're not feeling like they're at the bottom of the pile," he said.
More than half of the Aboriginal people who've been jailed in Victoria will find themselves back in custody, but the recidivism rate for those in The Torch program is just 11 per cent.
The walls of the Confined 13 show, currently underway in Melbourne, are crammed with talent almost from floor to ceiling.
But Mr Miller pauses for a long time when asked if the show will need a bigger venue next year.
"I'd like to see it get smaller and less of our mob going to jail. It's unfortunate that to be a participant in The Torch you have to have gone through the system."
In the 30 years since the Royal Commission into the issue, almost 500 Indigenous people have died in custody nationally, with 15 deaths in 2020-21.
Australian Associated Press
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