Bernie Masterson. Flight, 2020. Frame.

Behind Prison Walls: An Interview with Bernie Masterson

In the 1980s I heard about an extraordinary art teacher working in the prison service. Since then I have had the privilege to meet Bernie Masterson and to write about her practice as an educator for the Lifelines exhibition in 2004 and her artwork for the exhibition Invocation in 2014 and again this year on the occasion of her winning the inaugural Janet Mullarney Prize at the Highlanes Gallery in Co Louth, for her film work Flight.  

Well known and greatly admired by educationalists, as an artist/educator her practice is an example of what the educator and proponent of critical pedagogy Henry A. Giroux describes as border pedagogy.”1 As an adult educator in arts practice, Bernie’s work in the prison service has a reputation for its high-quality methodologies. Many public exhibitions of the work of the men she taught have elucidated this. Bernie is amongst a generation of artists/poets including Maggie Deignan, Mary Kelly, Brian Maguire, Paula Meehan, and Mick O’Dea who have worked in the prison service and whose work has contributed to the humanizing of the individuals that society often shuns and puts out of sight.

Bernie Masterson. Flight, 2020. Frame.

Bernie comes from a painting background and has worked extensively as an art teacher within the Educational Services in the Irish Prison System. Over the last few years her work has developed via her embrace of socially engaged practice. It is interdisciplinary in nature, sometimes collaborative, and often deals with the challenging subject matter of the prison system as she has experienced it through her work as a teacher. Bernie’s transition from artist/educator to artist who folds the politics of her work into her practice is explored in the text and interview below.

This interview is the result of conversations held over many years between myself, Helen O’Donoghue, Senior Curator, Head of Engagement & Learning programs at the Irish Museum of Modern and Bernie, informed by a more formal Q&A in August 2020.

Helen O’Donoghue: The theme of this magazine is “Hidden Lives,” and Bernie, I selected you and your work as I feel that the heart of your practice is embedded in a system that is inherently hidden from most of society – the prison system and its inhabitants. Prisoners are stigmatized and kept away from society, but you have dedicated your career alongside your studio practice to working with male prisoners as an art educator in the prison system and in recent years you have begun exploring themes such as incarceration and injustice in your film work, placing empathy and respect for humanity into a system that often dehumanizes its residents.

Bernie Masterson: Working and being a part of that prison community brings its own personal responsibilities, everybody working in that area deals with the realities of prison life in different ways.  Mine has been to elevate the status of the creative arts in prison education and subsequently to develop creative projects that investigate our role as individuals and to validate the prisoner as an integral part of the community.

McD, Mountjoy Prison 2008, coloring pencil on paper. The Training Unit Prison – Mountjoy Prison Campus.

Helen: Is social justice a driver in your work?

Bernie: Social justice speaks for those individuals who have no voice, like prisoners and those on the margins of society who are unseen and unheard, it is about human rights, dignity, fairness, and respect.

Nick Stevenson, sociologist and senior lecturer in the University of Nottingham argues compellingly about the need for careful thought on how “to promote a culture of human rights through more educated forms of dialogue and concern.”2 Such dialogue can offer critical standards and judgment that embarrass and question those that have political and economic power and can help ensure that human rights standards are adhered to.3

As an artist I feel that responsibility and try to respond appropriately through the platform of the arts in order to affect positive change and challenge the negative stereotypical assumption of the prisoner. Social justice is a right for all, so yes, it is a feature of my work.

EB, Cell Door, 2013, oil on board. The Training Unit Prison – Mountjoy Prison Campus.

Helen: Can you describe your journey as an artist from painter to educator to that of socially engaged art practice?

Bernie: In my students days in the mid 1970s and early 1980s, I worked on a voluntary basis with the Neighbourhood Youth Project in South Hill in Limerick [on the West coast of Ireland] that was a very disadvantaged area at the time and I witnessed firsthand the benefits of the creative arts in community and social development.

It was extremely hard in the early eighties to get any kind of employment, so after college I went to Dublin for an interview for a teaching post in Coláiste Dhúlaigh (College of Further Education) with the Principal, John Burke. On reading my references he recommended me to the prison service, saying: “I know exactly where you would make a difference”. The co-ordinator of Prison Education, Vincent Samon, was looking for a creative arts teacher.  At that time formal prison education had been in existence for about five years so it was early days and an exciting time to get involved.  Prior to that prison education was ad hoc and taught by kindly prison officers, so this was a very welcome change. I got the job in the Training Unit, in the Mountjoy Prison Campus for men, a position that was made permanent in 1986.  At that time any permanent jobs had to be sanctioned by the Department of Finance as the country was in a serious recession. So I was a part of the first generation of educators in the Irish Prison Service and employed by the Department of Education. We were a guest agency in the prison environment and progress was slow, but it was steady.

The first thing I noticed was the extreme lack of the arts in prison education.  The main emphasis was on the three R’s, reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Literacy levels back then were pretty basic, and a lot of resources were put in place to address this. However, I made it my mission to set about highlighting the importance of art as a foundation to all learning and to addressing the imbalance.  The experience of culture was non-existent in that environment so I set about scheduling a calendar of artistic and cultural events for the students to experience, like drama, classical music concerts, exhibitions belonging to the Arts Council etc., in order to stimulate dialogue and bring that experience to as many as possible.  That was in 1986 and since then most prisons in Ireland to this day celebrate either an arts’ week or an arts’ day to celebrate the creative arts coinciding with in-house or in-prison activities / exhibitions.  This form of addressing educational needs evolved then to other areas of importance, such as health and well-being, which is an International Red Cross initiative. As the needs of the student-going prison population emerge educational responses are developed and put in place.

The early Neighbourhood Youth Project experience along with the years in prison education were invaluable and have informed my own personal development as a human being, as an educator, and as an artist evolving toward a more socially engaged practice.  That process came about gradually as a way of substantiating the prison community, giving voice to new and different perspectives, increasing the visibility of a disenfranchised group in  society, and working toward greater visibility and inclusiveness.

DC-D1, Landing Mountjoy, 2012, acrylic on canvas. The Training Unit Prison – Mountjoy Prison Campus.

Helen: How has the shift in medium from painting to film contributed to the work?

Bernie: As the American installation artist Robert Irwin, says: “To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects at all. What we are really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perceptions.”4

I believe that to be true albeit from a subjective point of view one has to seek out multiple perspectives and forms of expression. Adding another layer of methodology to my practice such as video and film has provided a new set of tools to further explore and investigate issues that concern me in a new and diverse way. It can also bring the work to a much wider audience.

I recall Maire Collins (who was elected by Pope Francis to be the Irish representative on the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors in 2014), saying at the opening of my exhibition Invocation, a project that explored institutional abuse of the church and state, that such causes need artists to continue the conversation by using different approaches and perspectives in order to engage the civil imagination, and address the issues in a holistic and multi-faceted manner. 

Feedback from a panel discussion on the exhibition highlighted the power of both visual imagery and use of audio in triggering memory for many of the panelists, some of whom had been victims of church and state institutional abuse.  The panel discussion was centered around responses to the exhibition.  The discussion was recorded, but it was felt by the panelists that the disclosures belonged to the group at that time and place only.  It was a sacred…shared moment.

Helen: Yes, I recall that evening and it was a moment when the transformative power of the arts was evident. The conversation slowly evolved, initially speaking about your work, when everyone began to talk about their responses to that it naturally opened up a safe space for the sharing of personal stories and experiences. The interpersonal energy in the room was powerful and very emotional. I was struck by the capacity of people who are survivors of institutional abuse to be able to step out of that vulnerable space of the victim and to share the power of being open about their experience.

Bernie Masterson. Shrine, 2014. Frame.
Bernie Masterson. Shrine, 2014.

Helen: How do you see your role as a teacher?

Bernie: I see my role as a facilitator, assisting students to find their own unique form of expression. The arts give the prisoner a direct and intimate opportunity for self-encounter and reflection. By learning skills associated with the arts, prisoners experience aspects of their own potential as creative persons. Coming from an environment that may have encouraged them to be hostile, they find themselves in the humane environment of the prison art class, which allows them to be creative.  It is a world that can reflect back an image of themselves that only they can see, a world over which they have control.

MOC, Between Two Worlds, 2010, oil on canvas. The Training Unit Prison – Mountjoy Prison Campus.

Helen: Do you see yourself as an advocate for the men that you work for/with or do you rather see yourself/your work as a witness?

Bernie: Both really, as witness and advocate.  The relationship between student and teacher in a prison environment is an important one and based on respect and civility. The schoolrooms and the art room in particular become an intimate space where you learn about your students and consequently their lives. Life stories are shared. Life traumas and fractured family relationships are discussed.  A trust builds up. Listening to the men is important in that student teacher exchange. It can sometimes be very difficult to listen, so it can be both a privilege and a burden. My work draws on that experience. I process, ruminate on ideas, and develop a personal response when I’m ready.  The resulting expression is a way of assimilating all that information and as advocate and witness attempting to present it from a shared point of view.

Helen: Does critical pedagogy inform your work?

Bernie: Writers and philosophers like Paulo Freire, Hannah Arendt, bell hooks and Henry Giroux provide a framework from which to navigate the complexities of the human condition and the oppressed in the context of the classroom.  The classroom experience is a journey that allows students and teachers to evaluate the knowledge, power, and experiences that exist between themselves, place, and community. The learning is two-way and very much a combined experience between teacher and student.

Identity and the self are recurring themes within the prison environment. Paulo Freire defines praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as:

[…] reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. Through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition, and, with teacher-students and students-teachers, struggle for liberation.5

According to Arendt, our capacity to analyze ideas, wrestle with them, and engage in active praxis is what makes us uniquely human.6

The prison art room affords students the opportunity to reflect and develop a means of self-exploration aimed towards personal development and awareness. For me the analogy of the poem comes to mind. Paula Meehan, one of the forerunners of the artists-in-prison schemes and recently Ireland’s Chair of Poetry, expresses this potential beautifully when she writes:  

There are poems that tell stories but there are also poems that just give you a moment of vision or transcendence or colour even, or just an image that you can carry around with you. Two lines. Two lines can save a life, I believe it.7

Helen: Besides focusing on prisoner needs, what about your own interests as an artist?

Bernie: For years I kept my own needs as an artist separate. But a change has happened, unwittingly, in recent years, I took time out to care for my mother in her later years. This led to a collaborative project between my mother and me called Drawing on the Body, presented by Tallaght Community Arts and shown in Rua Red in 2010. It was a very emotional experience. When I returned full time to education, my new artwork evolved as a personal response to years of hearing about institutional abuse from my students, resulting in the exhibition Invocation held at Rua Red, 14 November-20 December 2014. This was essential, both for my students and myself facilitating a personal process that was imperative to my well-being. So in answer to your question, sometimes both the students and I are intertwined in a creative process. 

Bernie Masterson. In A State of Grace, Invocation (cena 2), instalação em Rua Red, Tallaght, Condado de Dublin, 2014

Helen: Do you see yourself as creating an archive from the stories that you have heard and been told by the men you work with?

Bernie: I have previously documented a series of Prisoner’s narratives in an installation called Incarceration Altars through the Grangegorman (Technical University (TUD) campus) per cent scheme for public art.  [The Per Cent for Art scheme is a government initiative, first introduced in 1978, whereby 1% of the cost of any publicly funded capital, infrastructural and building development can be allocated to the commissioning of a work of art.] This new development is a renovation of a former Mental Health Hospital, which carries with it a history of incarceration of many impoverished and mentally ill people.

This work features ten narratives from the men in the Mountjoy Prison Campus presented in a five-channel video installation. It investigates the relationship between person, place, and object through a series of images and prisoner narratives that seek to contextualize the different worlds of prison identity and private identity. The words and objects of Paul, a longtime institutionalized prisoner, come to mind as he reflected on his personal object, his cutlery: “…when I was a young lad I learned what to do in the homes, have your own cutlery, always keep them clean…” Others chose candles, model airplanes, and paintings. Objects provide links to those identities and are also used to reflect on other themes such as mourning and memory, transition and passage, mediation and new vision, and how they serve as markers in a significant life situation such as incarceration.

My partners in the project were Irish Prison Service (IPS) and the City of Dublin Educational Training Board (CDETB) as well as the Grangegorman Development agency.  The exhibition and videos were presented in art centers both in Ireland and abroad and as part of prison education conferences. I think it’s worthwhile here to cite from the catalogue.  Speaking at the opening Professor Ciarán Benson, the Chair of the Grangegorman Public Art Working Group, spoke so eloquently about the interconnected and contained worlds of prison and private identity:

Being ‘inside’ is the euphemism for being in prison. Inside spaces are mostly small, enveloped, sometimes pushing against their walls, other times a refuge from all that is outside. What Bernie Masterson explores so astutely, and with such palpable sympathy and skilled restraint, in her Incarceration Altars is how troubled – and sometimes troubling – people can fashion unique and deeply personal islands of meaning, fuelled by memory and imagination, from the tiny spaces to which they have been confined. In this memorable and moving project, she shows how self-in-space can visibly extend the person and create a humanised place, however spare. 

Anon, Writing From the Cell, 2013, oil on canvas. The Training Unit Prison – Mountjoy Prison Campus.
Bernie Masterson, Incarceration Altars #3, 2014.

Helen: How do you position the ongoing self-portrait project in your practice?

Bernie: Identity has been a feature of my work for a considerable time now. In prison, the true identity can shift in order to protect the self, and men can sometimes develop this hyper masculinity that is another form of a mask. The objective of developing this prison mask could be compared to Winnicott’s description of the False Self, whose defensive function is to hide and protect the True Self.8 Self-portraits allow the prisoner time to reflect and explore his identity in a hostile environment bereft of personal identity.  The self-portrait project allows time to explore the different facets of the self and is a humanizing experience in the context of prison. It is a project that is ongoing and a practice I started from the outset. Originally it was a way of signing into the class, a mark to say you were present, like an icebreaker, but it developed into much more over the years, resulting in hundreds of portraits. That’s a body of work that I intend to come back to in the not too distant future hopefully. In my own practice identity has always featured in a variety of ways, from cultural and national identity, to personal identity such as my project Drawing on the Body exploring the relationship of mother and daughter. We are not just one identity and exploring that offers many insights in to the human condition and the evolving self.  My current work is also about exploring identity, but in this case, it is about not letting one identity define us.

Anon, Fence (Self Portrait), 2006, charcoal on paper. The Training Unit Prison – Mountjoy Prison Campus.

Helen: As you developed your film work you have also used archival materials from the Prison Services’ archives. Can you talk about this?

Bernie: Again, this work is about identity…the loss of identity.

The Mountjoy Prison Museum has been a source of inspiration.  It was there I came across the Vere Forster Bold Writing or Civil Service copy book in the late 1990s.  This copy book was used to teach handwriting by using proverbs as the text to be copied. The last print run was in 1957, but even in today’s writing copybook some of those proverbs remain.  I saw the proverbs as another way of controlling a subject nation in terms of culture, language, and morality. These books were dispatched all over the British Empire, India, Africa, etc. The Irish poet Máighréad Medbh collaborated with me on the project and turned the proverbs into dialogic anagrams. Together we presented another perspective. Bold Writing is our response in poetry and visual art to this copybook and to imperialism. As we wrote in our artist statement it is a meditation “on subjugation and dispossession.”

Helen: How do you understand the parallels between past histories and present realities of social, political and cultural injustice in this work?

Bernie: Remembering the past affords us the opportunity to reflect, to take account, to change; it should inform the present. By focusing on the past through the collective consciousness of a repressed national psyche, we are confronted with not just our own visceral national reality, but with the reality of others who have become displaced and dispossessed – the profound stigma that remains and the confused nature of identity.

Vere Foster Copy-Book Front Cover.
Vere Foster Copy-Book.
Bernie Masterson, Bold Writing, 2016

Helen: You have built up an extraordinary trust between yourself and the men that you work with. That they were quite willing to share their stories is a testament to that trust – an essence of humanity that social engaged art practices can enable. What was it that that got you into art?

Bernie: As a young first year student in the Marist Convent in Carrick on Shannon I heard a visiting lecturer Professor Richard David Ingalls (1932-2016) from Spokane University in Washington talk on “the role of the artist in society”, I was immediately struck by the power of that statement, and listened intently! The power of the visual image from the popularity of television and advertisements to cinema had a big impact when I was a thirteen-year-old girl.  Visual images were another language, another way of connecting with people, another way to say something without having to speak it.  In terms of prison education that makes it enormously important as a means of connecting and communicating with students without having to use words. In the art class in prison the visual stories come first, then the words follow…it’s easier that way for the majority of students and through that experience and sharing comes trust. I like to cite writer and activist bell hooks on this aspect:

As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.9

Helen: bell hooks also talks about the importance of love and of self-love when one is working in a teaching capacity. What about yourself? I can imagine how intense this whole process must have been for you. What do you do to nurture yourself, to take care of yourself?

Bernie: I immerse myself in my own work. I walk, paint, and find comfort in the landscape.  I enjoy its open vista and particularly, I appreciate a horizontal landscape view.  The windows in prison are vertical strips (designed to oppress) and I find that very disconcerting.  It took me a long time to get used to that, so I immerse myself in healthy walks and big panoramic views.  I am also fortunate that I have my own studio and can continue with developing my practice and methodologies in my own time. My studio is my sanctuary.

Bernie Masterson, Flood Fields (Co. Clare, Ireland), 2014, oil on board.

Resources on Human Rights Education



The role of the arts in promoting a culture of human rights – RSA


Bernie Masterson
Born in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland.  She lives and works in Dublin. She qualified from the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) with a first class MFA honor. She has extensive experience with educational services to prisons in Ireland as both teacher and artist. She is also the recipient of the inaugural Janet Mullarney Prize 2020 for her video work Flight.

Helen O’Donoghue
Senior Curator, Head of Engagement & Learning at the Irish Museum of Modern Art since 1991. Recently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship she spent three months at the MoMA. Trained as a Fine Artist, she is committed to socially engaged practices and critical pedagogy both of which inform her curatorial work and writing.

1 See Henry A Giroux and Peter McClaren eds., (1994) Between Borders, Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies (New York, London Routledge, 1994) and Henry A. Giroux, “Travelling Pedagogies -interview with Lech Witkowski” in Henry A. Giroux ed., Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture (New York, Routledge, 1994) pp.153-171.

2 Nick Stevenson, “Human(e) Rights and the Cosmopolitan Imagination: Questions of Human Dignity and Cultural Identity,” SAGE journals Volume 8 issue 2, p. 193.

3 Ibid, p.182.

4 Robert Irwin, The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights (New York: MoMA, revised 2004, originally published 1999) p. 269.

5 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (? City: Bloomsbury Academy, 1970) p. 126.

6 Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

7 Paula Meehan, “I Believe that Two Lines of Poetry Can Save a Life,” Irish Independent, 6th May 2018.

8 Donald W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, Studies in the theories of emotional development. (Madison, CY; International Universities Press, 1963) p.142.

9 bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress  (London & New York,  Routledge, 1994) p.8.