The first time I came across a Michael Stone piece of art was at a party, in a prosperous area of north Down. It was large and colourful, festooned on a pale wall, with nothing impinging the brashness of its statement. Obscure blues was playing, and brandy was being sipped while people mingled. The owner informed me it was a “Stone” in much the same way guests in different scenarios would be informed that a “Connor” or “Lavery” was on the wall in previous decades. It was the topic of much debate, the infamy of the artist not mentioned, just merely a spectre to the vivid colour that drew the eye no matter what your position in the home’s main reception. In this, the work had fulfilled its brief.
The work was not of my taste, but many acquire a liking for the bright and vivid nature of Stone’s art work. Does his past have a bearing on this, perhaps? Doctors, newspaper editors, bankers, security figures, and working-class house wives own creations produced by the hands that the world watched toss RGD5 grenades. Despite this, his work crosses class, creed, and gender lines. Therefore, there must be value, whether it is of taste to some or not. It is art, some of it is reminiscent of Rothko, some of more garish pop art but it holds people and more importantly people buy it.
The controversy of ex or present prisoners being involved in the arts is not just a local one. The Krays, Charles Bronson, Caravaggio, Olive Wharry, Richard Dadd, and the American killer Wayne Lo, who sells his art to fund scholarships for poor children, have all been embroiled in the same sort of controversy. Despite this, the arts are, seen as, a valuable tool by most Western governments in rehabilitation.
This brings us back to the recent manufactured controversy about Stone. He has fulfilled all that the State requires of him. His part in a charity auction, no matter what your option the artist or his work, was an attempt at community engagement, with the beneficiary a local charity. The signalling out of and embarrassing of a local charity, many of which are cash strapped, in such away, in order to manufacture a story is totally wrong. Many local charities use former prisoners and those coming to the end of their incarceration as volunteers. This is a benefit to both. Will, they be the focus of such scrutiny too or was it just the individual and his art that was of interest to the BBC, not the principle?
The arts have been enriched by those who once engaged in the darkness of the past. I see names on paintings and at the bottom of proses that are like ghosts from the past. They mostly go unnoticed, as these ghosts are not portrayed in Stone. They are troubled as they write, compose, sculpt, and paint giving credence to Nietzsche observation “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” Even if that star is a monster in the eyes of others.
➽ Clifford Peeples is a writer and former loyalist prisoner.