“German court sentences 94-year-old ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ to four years in prison.” Is this Justice? Or is this the German Judicial System’s attempt to atone for its appalling failure since WW2 to bring more of the real culprits to justice?

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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.

What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.

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“How do you tame the prisoners in your art class?”

low res 009 prisonPortraits by prisoners in my art class, Cologne Prison’96

I was asked a very interesting question in one of my talks to sixth formers last week. I had just delivered my lecture on ‘Crime, prisons and offenders – the role the arts can play’ describing why prisons aren’t working and what art projects with inmates can contribute towards their rehabilitation. As usual the questions were all interesting, but one in particular struck me. A young man asked me what I did in my initial classes to “tame” the prisoners with whom I was locked in a room. A brilliant question in that it seemed to highlight precisely the misconception so many people have about who prisoners are and what they are like.

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Why chairs…?

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Thoughts can fly (2012), 100 x 100cm. Mixed media and oil on canvas

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Re-dressing absence, Stroud Cemetery (2009) Collaboration with Shirley Margerison

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Him undressed (2013) 60 x 60cm. Mixed media and oil on canvas

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Untitled – 3 (2010) Installation in vault. Armchair with cigarette packets

I have just returned from a trip to the Cinque Terre in Italy. People always ask if I take my paints, assuming painting is something I love to do all the time. Actually painting is hard work and painting a painting invariably involves being confronted with oneself. So I like having breaks from that. But I can never get away from being inspired. From looking at something and having ideas about what I could do with it. I can’t imagine ever being able to switch off the desire to create out of the raw material I gather.

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