Changing lives through art

Published on 14 July 2023

Art can be a real source of therapy for people at any age and stage of life. For 37-year-old Euan Rutter, art helped transform his life and he’s now using it to transform the lives of others.

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Few students have taken as unconventional a route to university as Euan. After leaving school at 16 with a handful of average standard grades, he struggled to settle into steady employment, spent almost a decade dealing with heroin addiction and was imprisoned on several occasions.

During one of these spells in prison, Euan attended an art education class, an event that would lead him onto his path of recovery, helping him break free of the cycle of addiction and reoffending that had blighted his life until that point.

Having fallen in love with art and the creative process, Euan started building an art portfolio and, after being released from prison for the last time, spent three years studying art at Dundee & Angus College before being offered a place to study Fine Art at the University’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design.

He is now 11 years free from drug addiction and is studying part time for his Master of Fine Art degree whilst working as a Peer Support Worker at HMP Perth – the same institution where he experienced some of his lowest moments, but also where he decided to take the class that changed his life.

“I have been working here for six months, supporting residents of the prison with mindfulness sessions and art therapy classes, helping to run a recovery café, recovery meetings and coaching, and providing harm reduction programmes for those who have been under the influence of drugs whilst in prison,” said Euan.

“Having been in prison before and experienced drug addiction, I know what many are going through, and the help art therapy can provide.”

Euan achieved a First Class BA (Hons) in Fine Art in 2022 before progressing to postgraduate level. He had been interested in art since a young age, but the circumstances of his life had prevented him from pursuing this.

“I went through a stage of considering graphic design, but I studied contemporary art at college and once I had completed the foundation course and spoke to my lecturers, I realised I was on the right path. Their feedback spurred me on.”

The personal challenges that Euan faced would have made some people nervous about entering the world of higher education, but he says he received, and continues to receive, incredible support at Dundee.

“University has been brilliant for me and a great way to meet people from all over the world.”

Euan Rutter

He explained, “University has been brilliant for me and a great way to meet people from all over the world. One of the biggest parts of my rehabilitation is around reconnecting with different people and getting back into the community. I remember one of my lecturers saying to me ‘this is your safe place, you can be whoever you want to be here, we’re here to support each other’. It’s been a welcoming and safe environment for me to keep positively developing my art and my own life too.”

Born and bred in Dundee, Euan is juggling family life with work and study. The University has been able to provide financial assistance as well as an alumni scholarship, which provides a discount on course fees.

“There are a number of financial barriers that students face when entering postgraduate study. When you have family, young kids and other commitments, this can be overwhelming. The help received from the University has been great for me and my family, enabling me to work and study at postgraduate level.”

Euan is the first ex-resident to be employed full-time in a Scottish prison to do the kind of work he does, using his lived experience of drug addiction alongside art education as a force for good in rehabilitation and recovery.

“Art has been a big part of my recovery and has helped me to understand more about myself,” he said. “I’m striving to find innovative ways to help improve recidivism rates for people with substance misuse by encouraging engagement in art projects within the prison and on release. Part of my role is to help to bridge the gap between prison release and life in the community, where so many fall through the gaps of basic social needs, housing, and lack of support.”

Euan doesn’t plan to stop studying at master’s level. He also wants to undertake a PhD to continue researching the important role art can play in transforming lives.

“A PhD is all part of the plan, focusing on how peer support, art and creativity can aid recovery. I’m also keen to work with the likes of Scottish Recovery Consortium, Recovery Coaching Scotland and Scottish Drugs Forum to build a template and encourage other lived-experience workers to take on roles to make a difference within prisons.”

Widening access

Some of the support we provide to help widen access and participation:

  • Contextual Admissions Policy recognises factors that may have impacted or disrupted an individual’s education and potential, including care experience, unpaid carers, refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Discretionary Funds can support students with childcare costs and students facing financial hardship.
  • Scholarships and bursaries provide financial assistance to students that meet eligibility criteria.
Story category Alumni