In his youth, Barry Yeow, 50, was the dictionary definition of a wild child.
At the tender age of 13, he was arrested for housebreaking at Kallang’s Wonderland Amusement Park. Through his teens, he sniffed glue, got involved with gangs and spent time in Queenstown Remand Prison.
By the time Barry came of age at 18, he had started a lengthy and dangerous love affair with heroin which would nearly destroy his life. Despite making up to $2,000 a day running his own tattoo parlour in Katong, every last cent he made was spent on drugs.
He was in such despair that he climbed up a window to contemplate ending his own life on a number of occasions.
“I realised I didn’t have the courage to continue living,” he said.
In 2008, he was sentenced to a decade in prison for robbing a Chinese woman in Geylang whilst on a drug-fuelled bender. When he awoke from his stupor, he did not even know what had transpired the night before.
Barry was released in April 2015 after serving just six years of his sentence, and anyone meeting him today would never imagine his painful past. Charming, eloquent and decked out in hip clothing, he looks every bit the creative director in his prime or even the designer of an indie streetwear label. The visible scars of his checkered history seem to have faded.
Barry credits this transformation to his discovery of art while he was in prison.
“I loved to draw when I was young but I lost interest when I got involved in drugs,” he explained. “When I became a tattoo artist, I thought that was all there is to art.”
“When I started the Yellow Ribbon’s art programme, I realised that I knew nuts about art,” he explained.
Despite the late start, Barry threw himself into the programme. What started as a means to while away the time in prison soon became his passion. With the help of curators who encouraged him and bought his pieces, Barry learned the basics of painting from LaSalle and NAFA instructors. He also read up about art, worked a pottery wheel and tried his hand at sculpting.
“I came to realise that all my life I have been destroying, destroying my life, destroying people’s trust in me,” he said. “Perhaps the only quality I need is to stop destroying and to create.”
Six years and 500 commissions later, Barry now makes his living as a professional painter. Not only has he defeated his own demons, he has also signed up as a Yellow Ribbon artist-mentor to help others make the same journey. Together with curators from Singapore Art Museum and other artist-mentors, these Yellow Ribbon facilitators visit Changi Prison and Changi Women’s Prison every week to teach a course on art for the inmates.
The course, which runs over 10 sessions, includes curator lectures on art history, hands-on work with various mediums and guidance from mentors like Barry. At the end of the sessions, the inmates’ works are featured in the SAM exhibition.
“In earlier iterations, SAM’s role was more managerial. We were mostly selecting the artworks to be featured,” explained Andrea Fam, 30, assistant curator at SAM and part of the team that visits Changi Women’s Prison.
“Only in more recent years did we become curatorially involved in guiding the inmates with content creation,” she said.
So what value does art provide in rehabilitating the students at Changi? a cynic might ask. Wouldn’t their interests, and society’s, be better served if the prisoners learnt a skill with more pragmatic applications?
Both Andrea and Barry believe otherwise. Although art might seem like an esoteric pursuit, it serves a very tangible purpose on the inside: Helping the inmates to recover a sense of independence that incarceration may have stripped away.
“While incarcerated, the privilege of decision-making has been taken away from them. However, art pushes them to think independently again,” said Andrea.
According to her, many of the students would ask if what they were doing was correct.
“But it’s not about whether we think it’s correct. It’s about what they think and how their work can be developed further.”
In other words, the conceptual freedom of art forces inmates to think for themselves again. And in doing so, they regain a skill that was relinquished during imprisonment.
This sense of independence is even more important for female inmates, Andrea believes.
“They lack self-confidence and many simply assist when they are told to,” she said. “For them, art then becomes a means to discover their own abilities.”
In addition to helping the inmates recover their self-confidence, Barry also believes that art helps the inmates to heal.
“One thing is certain, everyone goes through pain. So I touch on that. I use art and I use colour to help them heal,” he said.
“They’ve gone through situations in life that they did not want to happen. They want to tell their families I am sorry but they don’t know how to say it,” he explained.
Their artwork then becomes a means through which the inmates may express their feelings, whether those feelings be despair or remorse. By helping the inmates to find their voice, they can say sorry to their families or ask for a second chance.
Today, Barry’s own troubles are quite different from those of his past. Instead of worrying about his next fix, he worries now about finishing his commissions on schedule.
In addition to his duties as a Yellow Ribbon mentor, he is also a full-time artist with his own gallery, 5seventeen. He has even given a TEDtalk at NTU about his personal journey from destruction to creation. For 2017’s Yellow Ribbon Community Art Exhibition, he has contributed his work alongside those of 108 male and female inmates from Changi Prison.
It has been a long and painful journey for Barry and for the inmates, but also a fruitful one. Witness it for yourself at the Yellow Ribbon Community Art Exhibition 2017, starting on Oct 7 at Singapore Art Museum.