Tutor from Weston College at HMP Stanford Hill wins Butler Trust Award

Nikki is an Education Tutor and Assessor at HMP Standford Hill, a Category D open prison for adult males. She receives an Award for her outstanding contribution to using the arts, often with prisoners experiencing additional difficulties. This is reflected in remarkable successes at both the Koestler Awards and at Margate’s internationally renowned Turner Contemporary gallery.

Nikki’s initial nominator, Butler Trust Local Champion and HMP Standford Hill’s Activities Custodial Manager, Sean Wood, praises Nikki’s “outstanding contribution to championing the arts within prison and creating a rehabilitative culture and inclusive ethos through community awards.”

He adds that Nikki “has been an ambassador for the education department at HMP Standford Hill and is one of the best prison tutors I have ever known. She motivates and challenges our residents to explore different areas of the arts. Nikki teaches, supports and inspires them to achieve some of the most amazing pieces of work that would make anyone proud.”

Nikki’s promotion of social inclusion and a safer prisons environment includes, says Sean, “working with and supporting… many of our vulnerable men such as the disabled, elderly and embraces anyone that is fortunate to be in her class. Nikki has a great ability and compassion to be able to teach, support and understand residents that have Mental Health Issues or personality disorders. Nikki is always able to recruit new students and her efforts have helped our residents to suppress violence, or anger traits and express themselves through their art, providing a therapeutic environment.” Sean also shares something of the impact of Nikki’s work:

“I feel amazingly proud when I speak to Nikki’s students. They often tell me how their time in prison had affected their ability to maintain their art and creative ability but Nikki gave them back their passion for the arts, a sense of achievement and purpose. Our residents concur with my thoughts that she is an amazing women and tutor, they say that she has the ability to push them, not only to do their best but to exceed their own expectations.”

The results are little short of astonishing, Sean reports: “Nikki and her students had exceptional year in 2018 at the Koestler Awards, winning 43 awards with a prize fund of over £1000 for the learners. They secured 2 Platinum Awards, 2 Gold, 1 Silver, 11 Bronze, 10 Highly Commended, 13 Commended and 4 First Time Entry Awards. 21 pieces were selected for the Turner Contemporary Exhibition in Margate in 2019, entitled ‘We Made This’.”

Nikki has also arranged for her students to visit the ‘Koestler Arts UK Exhibition’ at the Southbank Centre as well as the ‘Turner Contemporary’ in Margate, Kent, adds Sean, and “enabling our residents to be able to see their achievements has made them very proud.”

Sean describes as “one of the most touching things I have observed” a project Nikki arranged with her class to celebrate 100 years of Remembrance:

“The class created life size, silhouetted soldiers with poppies around the base. The silhouetted soldiers were placed in strategic places in the fields around the prison. The impact was amazing and the project brought home the sacrifice that was made in the great war. I know that this touched everyone’s hearts.”

Sean concludes by saying “Nikki Dennington is an amazing woman with the most amazing teaching ability, she is selfless and inspirational to all who have the pleasure to meet her.”

Two testimonials from prisoners reinforce Sean’s words. James* writes:

“I would like to add my voice to those nominating Art teacher Nikki Dennington for a Butler Trust Award. For years I have been doing Cross stitch and Needlepoint kits on my own. After meeting Nikki last December, she encouraged me to join the Art Class where she helped me to explore different forms and mediums for needlework. Her Skills as an educator in art are wide ranging and varied, from drawing and painting to textile work and pottery. I didn’t believe that my needlework would fit into a standard art class format but Nikki’s knowledge has led to my submission of four different pieces into this year’s Koestler Awards and she has inspired me to try different art techniques. Nikki is selfless and encouraging but also motivating when needed. She deserves to be recognised for her ability to get the best out of her students. Thank you.”

David* added that “During my time at HMP Standford Hill, Nikki Dennington has really helped me to improve my art skills, resulting in 5 prizes from 5 entries in the Koestler awards last year. One silver award which sold for £230, 3 highly commended, and one which was exhibited in the Margate Turner Gallery. Not only is she a very talented artist, she is also a very skilled teacher and mentor in all creative areas. She is devoted in helping students to move forward and explore new ideas. The resulting success rate in the annual Koestler awards from HMP Standford Hill proves unquestionably that her teaching here has created in my opinion the finest art facility in the prison service today. Not only does she shine during the art classes, her preparedness to spend her own time taking students to galleries and exhibitions goes beyond her remit. This has resulted in support and admiration from all of her students and fellow staff.”

The Director for Outreach at Koestler Arts, Sarah Matheve, added her own testimonial, writing:

“In my job I work alongside many Prison Art Tutors and I can categorically say that Nikki is one of the best. She champions the men she works with; she encourages them, challenges them, motivates them and pushes them to do and be the best they can…her ability for ‘making’ her students ‘do it’ is one of her finest attributes as a teacher.

“She doesn’t want her students to stay stuck in their comfort zones. She uses their creativity to find out what makes them tick and then she challenges them to be better and do better. She works with a lot of prisoners who have been inside for a long time and can be stuck in the own ways of thinking and doing things and Nikki has an incredible knack of opening up these often-closed mindsets to new ways of thinking and to understanding and accepting other opinions and views.”

Sarah concludes by noting that “her work in the art room has a legacy. Koestler’s mentoring scheme has worked, post-release, with ex-prisoners who were lucky enough to experience being a student in one of Nikki’s art classes and even many years on these men talk fondly of how she helped them find their talents and how they were inspired to explore their creativity and to seize new opportunities. Whilst Nikki works in the prison system, I know that there will continue to be even more people inspired and challenged by her and I, for one, am incredibly grateful for that.”

Jo Tapp, Koestler’s Arts Manager, says that “Nikki Dennington at Standford Hill is a name that stands out for me” and adds that “the care that she puts into supporting and encouraging artists to realise their talents is palpable.”

Standford Hill’s Governor, Dawn Mauldon, calls Nikki “a very dedicated and conscientious teacher” and notes that “over the years I have seen men who have been unable to draw or paint become winners of Koestler awards which has completely changed their motivation to succeed.”

Nikki herself makes an interesting point about the tactile value of artworks:

“I am very passionate about trying to make a difference and try to build up a community feeling within the class where everyone feels safe and comfortable to share thoughts, ideas and not afraid to have a go. My passion, I believe, has come from my own experiences and knowing how important it is for those serving a sentence to keep close ties with families, especially if there are children involved. Children often do not understand and cannot express their feelings verbally, therefore if they receive something which is tactile and visual it can be the thing that helps them to cope with their emotions and the sense of loss. This has been very successful and it is extremely important that anyone can join.”

She goes on to say, “one of my greatest joys is seeing someone’s self-esteem and confidence grow when they overcome personal barriers which can be a learning difficulty, disability or their own perception of their ability and potential.” Nikki recalls one of her learners who suffered with Parkinson’s:

“It was obvious that on some days it was very difficult for him to be able to control his hand movements. However, I worked with him to set a challenge to extend his skills and realise one of his ambitions to produce a self-portrait in oil. He accomplished this and the joy on his face when he got such positive comments from everyone was something you cannot buy – it is priceless and I can honestly say it is very emotional when you see such a change in how someone sees themselves.”

She also recognises the importance of recognition: “Sometimes it can be the first time they had been recognised and this is very powerful, as it has such an impact on their emotional well-being.”

* Names have been anonymised

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