When Papakura artist Jacquelyn Ritete surveys the 40 cells at Counties Manukau Police station in Wiri, she doesn't see dim lighting, drab walls and graffiti; she sees potential.

The Papakura artist is one of eight, chosen from hundreds, about to have - in a manner of speaking - a brush with the law. They will use the cell walls as canvases for a range of uplifting designs and positive messages to make it a more pleasant environment to work or stay in.

Counties Manukau police inspector Tracy Phillips says the cells have no natural light and, apart from graffiti, nothing to look at. A death last May prompted her to think about ways to create "a more humane" environment for police staff and those in the cells from anywhere between one to 48 hours.

"It's about treating people who stay here with more humanity," says Ms Phillips. "Not everyone has committed a crime; some have mental health issues or have breached the Immigration Act. Some just made bad choices and mistakes."


So Ms Phillips invited local artists to submit proposals for largescale artworks to paint on to cell walls - and floors and ceilings if the artists wanted.

Ten cells, each between 2x3m and 2x4m, were to be painted and 10 artists were chosen but two pulled out.

Ritete will paint bright sunshine and mountain ranges; others are using indigenous-style motifs and patterns, one is painting an aquarium and another is painting sky on the ceiling and grass on the floor.

"When I first saw the size of the walls, I thought, 'wow! What an opportunity' but I didn't know if I should have a go until a friend talked me into it ... "

While she has not been in trouble with the law, Ms Ritete knows about starting life anew. Now 26, the former Papakura High School student surprised her teachers - and herself - by displaying a natural talent for art.

It was the only NCEA subject she passed but she didn't think she could make a living from art. Instead, Ritete worked at fast-food restaurants and completed part-time study but there were periods of unemployment and uncertainty as she reflected on what to do with her life.

Three years ago, she decided to pursue her artistic dreams and enrolled for another qualification, the Certificate in Foundation Education (Pathway Visual Arts) at Manukau Institute of Technology. About the same time, she discovered the Papakura Art Gallery. She was warmly welcomed by gallery coordinator Leilani Kake, who has become a friend and supporter.

Since then, Ritete has gone on to study toward a Diploma in Art and Creativity, exhibited work in two shows and sold two paintings. She's joined forces with Kake to design and paint a mural at her former intermediate school, Mansell Senior School.

She also teaches art at a local alternative education provider and tells students not to be shy about exploring their creativity because it's an outlet for expression and a possible career option. She hopes those who see her work at the police station will find similar inspiration.