The idea of writing what you know has sent Damien Linnane on a journey that he never dreamed of.
Linnane, who had no prior criminal history, was imprisoned in 2015 for 10 months on two counts of maliciously damaging property, being armed with intent to commit an offence and maliciously damaging property by fire.
The charges stemmed from Linnane burning down a man's home in Armidale in what was called an act of vigilantism.
Fast forward to 2021, and Linnane - who now has a master's degree in information studies and a successful work of fiction titled Scarred to his credit - has just opened a solo exhibit titled Broken Chains: Prisoners Unlocking potential featuring his own photorealism portraits at Wallsend Library. He's also completed 36 artworks for an upcoming book, This is Ear Hustle, set for release in October.
"I never thought I'd write a book. I never thought I'd be giving talks," Linnane says.
The Broken Chains exhibit includes a four-part podcast, which Linnane produced in conjunction with the City of Newcastle. The podcast series focuses on the prison system, with Linnane and his guests discussing prison labour, work after prison, mental health in prison, and art in prison.
The first episode of podcast is due to be released on August 9.
Linnane's first novel was written entirely in prison. Inspired by real life events, the words just poured out of him. When he was finished, an inmate suggested he take up drawing to keep himself occupied, so he did.
"I just kept practising," he says. "After three months, I had a queue of people wanting to pay me for their portraits - partners, their kids - they'd give me photos to draw from. I'm not good at being creative, I'm just exceptionally good at drawing things."
There wasn't much to work with in terms of images in prison, so he would take what he could find, like faces from print advertisements. He used pencils exclusively, because there were no other art supplies available.
He still works in graphite. "I taught myself in graphite, just kept going with that," he says.
Linnane had a difficult childhood, but he was no criminal. Yet, his time in prison has changed his trajectory in life.
"I definitely don't regret it," he says. "I wouldn't take back prison at all. It was a very constructive period of my life and I am much happier now. I had to hit rock bottom."
The Broken Chains exhibit includes 10 portraits by Linnane that break down the stigma of prison - "humanising the people inside" in his own words. The former prisoners he's drawn include Stephen Fry, Robert Downey Jr, Nelson Mandela and Danny Trejo.
He's also drawn Earlonne Woods, the founder of the Ear Hustle podcast, who was imprisoned in the US; Elgin James, creator of Mayans MC television show; and Cyntoia Brown whose imprisonment and subsequent release garnered major attention in the US.
When Linnane tagged Earlonne Woods on instagram with a link to his portrait, Woods responded, and said they were looking for an artist who did photorealism portraits. Linnane was contracted by Penguin Random House to illustrate a book on the Ear Hustle story by Woods and co-founder Nigel Poor.
Ear Hustle, a non-fiction podcast about prison life and life after incarceration, is produced in San Quentin prison. Earlonne Woods is a co-creator of the show - he was pardoned in 2018 from a 31 years to life sentence.
Linnane has not stopped writing. He has finished his memoir after working on it for more than two years, writing during semester breaks while studying for his master's. The coronavirus lockdown gave him an unexpected window of time.
"The lockdown reminded me of prison again," he says. "And not in a bad way. The more you take away from me, the more constructive I become. In prison, there are no distractions. Here, I've got social commitments, my dog needs walking, I want to play video games, I get distracted. During lockdown, there was less of that. I wrote the second 80,000 words in about six weeks."