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First Nations artist Kent Morris recognised in Grant Burge Wines '30 Leaving Their Mark' awards

Phoebe Blogg -

To commend and celebrate his ongoing work at The Torch, this week Melbourne-based Barkindji artist and Creative Director, Kent Morris has been recognised in Grant Burge Wines '30 Leaving Their Mark' awards.

Created in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Grant Burge Wines' Pinot Noir Chardonnay, the longstanding winemaking brand searched for 30 Australians who are making waves across three key pillars: community, innovation, and culture.

The awards underscore Grant Burge Wines' spirit of generosity with an open call for Australians to nominate the everyday heroes in their lives and communities who were leaving their mark on society and having a positive impact on those around them.

Morris was recognised in the awards culture category and was lucky to take home an award thanks to his ongoing work at The Torch - an organisation that strives to provide art, cultural and arts industry support to Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders in Victoria through its Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community program.

"The recent Grant Burge Wines' '30 Leaving Their Mark' award highlighted the work The Torch is doing and provides a forum for people to get involved and become part of the solution by supporting the artists and The Torch," Morris said.

"The award provides a conduit for connection for which I'm very grateful."

Presented at an exclusive awards ceremony in Sydney on March 20, the awards judging panel included 2022 Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott and Grant Burge Chief Winemaker, Craig Stansborough.

The awards culture category spotlighted those who have inspired many with their creativity and ambition; Australians who are moving the dial from a cultural perspective. 

Paralympian and Grant Burge Wines Ambassador Dylan Alcott AO shared his thoughts on the awards, saying it is these 30 Australians who are proving that everyone can and are capable of making a difference.

"These 30 Australians are outstanding examples of how we can all, in our own way, make a difference and leave our mark," Alcott said.

"We have uncovered some truly sensational stories from these nominations and the dedication of each of these individuals to improve the lives of those around them is deeply inspiring.

"Without any expectation of acknowledgement, these are 30 Aussies who deserve to be celebrated and I have had such an amazing time being part of this meaningful initiative.

"As we recognise these 30 individuals who have left their mark, I hope that shining a light on their stories encourages others to do the same."

First Nations artist Kent Morris. (Image: supplied)

In 2011, Morris designed, delivered and developed an Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community program that supports Indigenous community members experiencing incarceration.

The program provides a forum for participants to connect with their culture and the community and to learn about and engage with the arts industry. It also provides opportunities for post-release employment.

The program has been hugely successful, dramatically reducing recidivism rates and providing income streams for hundreds of participants through artwork sales and licensing of which the artists receive 100 per cent.

"The role of statewide Indigenous Arts Officer at The Torch, which involved designing, delivering, and developing a pilot program for community members experiencing incarceration and their journey back home, appeared ahead of time for me when it was advertised," Morris said.

"Others thought differently and encouraged me to apply and supported me once I was shortlisted. Almost 13 years down the track, I clearly understand the potential our people have and the obstacles we can overcome when supported in a culturally focused way."

Kent Morris pictured with The Torch staff. (Image: supplied)

When discussing the benefits and aim of the program, Morris said The Torch has designed the program to assist in supporting and forging future pathways that will aid those who are, or have been incarcerated.

"I have never met a participant in The Torch program who wanted to be incarcerated. Many participants have experienced significant trauma and disconnection from family and culture which makes them vulnerable to contact with the criminal legal system," Morris told Style Up.

"All express a strong desire to change their lives, to find their pathway, and to positively contribute to their families, community, and society.

Morris said The Torch program provides art, cultural and arts industry support which has been very successful in providing tools to forge a new path away from the criminal justice system.

"A few years ago I received a letter from Daniel, a participant incarcerated at Fulham prison who couldn't see a way forward to the next day until he painted a small canvas for our annual 'Future Dreaming' exhibition," he said.

"The process of painting his culture coupled with the sale of the painting started a process of healing and recovery which inspired an extraordinary output of paintings and carved wooden sculptures.

"Upon his release, Daniel had six of his artworks acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria and exhibited in their blockbuster 'Melbourne Now' exhibition.

"He has also held two solo exhibitions since his release, has a new daughter, and is deeply committed to never going back behind bars."

Morris noted the work The Torch engages in is typically unseen, with the majority taking place away from the public's and social media's watching eyes.

"The work of The Torch is often unseen, working behind the walls of prisons and with artists on their journey back to the community, it can sometimes be challenging to share the stories of the artists and The Torch program more broadly," he said.

Kent Morris pictured with karta kartaka (pink cockatoo) #8. (Image: supplied)

With the recent Closing the Gap report signalling an increase in Indigenous incarceration nationally, The Torch aims to further assist in reducing this via its program.

"The Torch continues to significantly reduce First Nations reoffending rates in Victoria through a program built in partnership with those who participate in it," Morris said.

"The Torch program's foundation is based upon First Nations knowledges, philosophies and support processes that have been developed, taught, and embraced for generations.

"It shows that Indigenous led and delivered solutions to some of the ongoing issues caused by systemic mass incarceration can be addressed successfully if driven by the Indigenous community.

Morris said participants confirm being part of The Torch program has helped them stay out of the criminal justice system.

"In 2022, 17 per cent of participants who have had at least one year of engagement with The Torch returned to prison compared to the average First Nations recidivism rate of 72.1 per cent," he said.

"Employment of men and women from the program to work on all aspects, including going back into prison to support others, has been significant to the program's ongoing success.

"The Torch now employs 25 permanent staff, 15 are First Nations men and women - seven of whom have transitioned through the in-prison and in-community programs to now work at The Torch."

Behind the scenes at the 2023 Confined exhibition. (Image: Instagram @thetorchvic)

When discussing what's next for himself as an artist and a leading force at The Torch, Morris said it is set to be a busy year.

"The Torch is in the lead-up to our major annual exhibition, 'Confined' which will be held at the Glen Eira City Council Gallery and online via The Torch website from 3 May - 2 June," he said.

"In its fifteenth year, this year's exhibition contains over 400 artworks by 380 First Nations artists connected to The Torch program. 'Confined' provides a dedicated space for First Nations people who have experienced incarceration in Victoria to share their stories, culture and lived experiences through the artworks they produce.

"The exhibition invites viewers to immerse themselves and experience these stories firsthand and serves as a poignant reflection on the extremely disproportionate representation of First Nations Australians in our criminal legal system, underscoring the urgent need for change.

"In terms of my own art practice, I have several public sculpture commissions and gallery exhibitions over the course of this year including 'ngaratya (together, us group, all in it together)' which will be shown on Barkindji Country at the Broken Hill City Art Gallery from 3 May – 28 July."

Constantly pushing for change for First Nations individuals in and outside of his work at The Torch, Morris is an advocate as much as he is an artist and in 2024 the Indigenous community is thrilled to see him finally be rewarded for just that.

"Without the heartfelt, generous and ongoing support I've received, who knows where I would be today. I am forever grateful, constantly learning, and firmly believe in the transformative power of our art and culture, Morris told Style Up.

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