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First Person: Raymond Watson

People recall extraordinary events... in their own words

The 55-year-old artist was born in north Belfast but moved to Newry after his family were forced from their home, where he joined the IRA. In 1978 he was jailed for 12 years at the Maze Prison where he took part in the blanket protest. After his release he became a sculptor and painter and has written a new book called The Cell Was My Canvas

I decided to write the book at a time when I thought that conflict – or peace-building – art and community art were reaching the end of an era even though, as things have transpired, I am still involved in them.

I wanted to record what I'd done but then I realised I needed to explain my own personal history as well as my work.

To explain my Long Kesh paintings and my installations like A Cold Floor I had to write something about my imprisonment and how that came about.

The same went for the community art which I undertook in the hope that it would make this part of Ireland a better place.

My last exhibition was about the Broighter Gold hoard, which was found near Limavady and which was part of my attempt to create beautiful things as opposed to just making stuff that dealt with the harsher side of Northern Ireland.

Probably my best community project to date was the Belfast Flags of Hope in memory of murder victim Thomas Devlin. In the Himalayas I'd encountered the Tibetan prayer flags which were believed to spread harmony and goodwill. In August 2011 a line of almost two miles of bunting was hung along the Belfast peace line in the biggest outdoor community exhibition ever seen in the city.

I've never had any formal training in art. After prison I went to university to do media studies. I taught for a while and worked as a journalist but my artwork, which started as a hobby at university, saw me having my first exhibitions in the 1990s.

By the end of that decade I was a full-time artist and it all coincided with the Good Friday Agreement and the working out of the political process.

I felt compelled to make stuff that was about my own experiences and about this place and that reflected it in a positive way. I became more aware of what art could do as a social tool. I've had exhibitions in and worked all over Ireland, England, India, Australia, France, Spain and the USA.

I'm part of a loose network called Arts and Social Justice and we have artists in 20 countries who are all concerned with peace-building, human rights and social justice.

I'm going to the Sahara in Algeria in October to work with displaced people in some of the refugee camps. It's about working with people who are in a negative environment to give them a way to artistically illustrate something about their lives and their future.

I'm also involved in a project called Kids Guernica which is about getting young people to use canvasses the same size as Picasso's Guernica to create their own versions of his work. It's amazing when you present them with a canvas and ideas and a wee bit of direction what individuals with very little training can do.

After my visit I hope to return with a lot of inspiration that will feed into my own work as an artist. It's a two-way street.

The best thing I ever did during my early days as an artist was getting a unit in Conway Mill in Belfast. It was a fantastic place to work, to have a dedicated space to make what I wanted. I stayed there for 13 years but I now live in Cushendall where I have a workshop at the back of my house.

Artists from around the world also visit and work in a small space here. It's like a retreat house for them to come and do their own thing but I also organise for them to meet community groups. I love living in the Glens and after getting the kids off to school on the eight o'clock bus I do a morning yoga session and head to the workshop before walking around the fields and up to Oisin's Grave, which is an old court tomb and noted as poet John Hewitt's favourite place.

Inside story on our troubled history

The IRA hunger strikes began as a blanket protest in 1976, after the Government withdrew Special Category Status for convicted paramilitary prisoners.

The dispute escalated into a 'dirty protest' two years later, in which prisoners covered their cells walls with excrement.

In 1980, the first hunger strike, involving seven prisoners began, and ended after 53 days.

In 1981, a second hunger strike took place, this time with greater media interest due to the participation of Bobby Sands, who was elected a Member of Parliament during the strike. He became one of ten prisoners who starved themselves to death.

While some saw it as a victory for the Government under Margaret Thatcher, the episode helped galvanise Sinn Fein into a more electoral-based strategy.

The Cell Was My Canvas is available now from Amazon or from raymie.watson@gmail.com

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