Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
Racing Thoughts No.5
“I spent the last week picking up oddly shaped pebbles…”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” I smiled to myself as the teabags floated to the top of the mugs. She had decaf Yorkshire and I’d developed the habit of making sure that I retrieved the bag from my mug first so as not to dilute my ‘proper’ tea with anything inferior (I don’t even know if that’s a thing but habits form easily and are hard to break sometimes). We had been discussing what lay ahead for the day and she was keen for me to head to the studio. “You need to go there, you go to a different place…up here,” she moved closer and tapped the side of my head to reinforce the point “I know you better than you know yourself. If you don’t go there you’ll end up answering e-mails and then you’ll get nothing done and feel like your day is wasted…go.” Picking up the mug I offered it over to her and as she took it from me I caught the gaze of her sapphire eyes, “OK, studio day it is.” SWiTCH “There’s a meeting here tomorrow to try and figure out an exit strategy I suppose from this lockdown. I am now an environmental ‘Red-band’ and was allowed out to walk around the prison grounds for the first time yesterday.” SWiTCH I don’t know why I’ve started doing it really…maybe it’s a distraction…a challenge that started as a way of breaking the routine. I’ve always submerged my head fully under the water when having a bath, in readiness for the application of some shampoo or other, the sensation of the water enveloping my face and the ensuing hum of sound from being under the waterline has been comforting, but now it’s something else. Lockdown has altered the functionality of it. Now it’s endurance, how long can I hold my breath in the dulling encompassing heat. If I think about the fact I’m holding my breath then the burning sensation in my lungs becomes all too apparent and a mild panic lifts me instantly. Focusing on something else prolongs the time I can stay under. Recently I’ve been focusing on the letters that I’ve been receiving from the residents at Grendon, as soon as I lower myself under, the thought of the place and what may be going on there in my enforced absence has started to filter out each second that passes by, extending my time in this between place. SWiTCH There was no stopping the paper boat, though, for the stream ran stronger and stronger. The tin soldier could just see a bright glimpse of daylight far ahead where the end of the tunnel must be, but at the same time he heard a roaring noise which well might have frightened a bolder man. Just imagine! At the end of the tunnel the stream thundered down into a great canal. It was as dreadful for him as a plunge down a giant waterfall would be for us. SWiTCH Picking up the mask from my desk I gently positioned it over my face and located the eyeholes before walking carefully toward the camera I had set up earlier. After pressing the record button I ran through the stages of the performance test a couple of times and then checked on playback as to whether I had hit my marks and achieved the look I’d predicted in the sketchbooks…It wasn’t right yet…reposition…reset…go again. SWiTCH “So you were asking about the painting of the ballerina I’ve been working on. It’s one of those long 450 x 900 canvasses – orientated landscape. The background is mainly purple and she’s wearing a ‘Swan Lake’ type costume, made of feathers. I took a break from it when my mood dipped and for reasons I can’t explain or understand I’m now struggling to get the same results I was getting prior to this. I don’t think I’m doing anything different, but it somehow looks different to me, any advice?” SWiTCH The printer clinked into action and the stills started to stutter out, my excitement grew as it always does when embarking on the next stage of developing ideas and the volume of pages released confirmed that this period was going to be a productive one. I had sat so long with the sketchbooks at Grendon that several possible works had started to shoot through and if the lockdown had provided one thing it was the time to work on these ideas and start to experiment, trial them, see if they had mileage. Collecting up the thick block of prints I raced back to the studio. The process of trimming, positioning and then applying notation to the prints into the sketchbooks is one I get lost in. Hours can go by, it is a meditative space, a space where there is only me and the work. The pages listen to me as I talk them through everything that is working, everything that isn’t, the images, the films…possible solutions, potential issues, possible resolutions, potential problems…just myself and the pages. I reached over and selected Lonnie Smith’s “Live At The Mozambique Club” as the recording to accompany my efforts and as the familiar sound of his Hammond B3 Organ burst from the speakers I allowed the edges of my mouth to curl slightly. I had a fresh cup of tea, the sound of Dr Lonnie Smith and enough material to keep me going in the sketchbooks until the evening. Glancing out of the window I saw a large pigeon swoop by on its way to a branch on the huge Copper Beech Tree a few meters from the studio. SWiTCH But how could he stop? Already he was close to the terrible edge. The boat raced on, and the poor tin soldier held himself as stiffly as he could – no one could say of him that he even blinked an eye. Suddenly the little vessel whirled around three or four times, and filled with water right to the brim; what could he do but sink! The tin soldier stood in water up to his neck. SWiTCH The interview had gone really well, James and I had been invited to talk at Artsfest in Wolverhampton and we had taken the opportunity to discuss our roles and how the project was going. In the midst of closing the conversation I stumbled on some realisations about the role that James has in all of this. It is so multi-faceted with his responsibilities to the project stretching across a whole range of duties…I don’t know if duties is the right word…everything happens as it should, but more than that he spots the minutiae in things I say and do and then translates those thought-germs into potential content for the programme. After all, I realised, it was James that picked up on my passion for Buster Keaton’s performance in ‘Film’ and encouraged my thinking around the residents and how a screening may resonate with them. It reminded me how lucky I am to have this residency, to work with the people I work with and spend time in a place that not too many artists get to work in and make work about. These thoughts sprinted through my mind as the interview drew to a close, the ripples that will forever flow from Grendon will stay with me forever and that is quite a thing to consider…I snapped out of my momentary daze and quickly brought the talk to a conclusion before people watching the live feed started to wonder if my screen had frozen. SWiTCH I had posted my initial studio tests on Instagram. A short video with a rudimentary edit. Instagram had been useful to set targets for myself, if it had been a while since I had shared something then I was compelled to upload a new image or short video. The artist Henry Ward is someone who makes sense to me. I have great admiration for his work and working methodology and I’ve attended talks where he has left my mind buzzing with possibility. As it goes with Instagram you check to see if anyone has viewed your latest offering. Henry had liked it but even more so had commented “Love love love this Dean! Hope you’re keeping safe and well and we have a chance for a beer sometime soon!” It gave me a lift and immediately sent me back to work in the sketchbooks again. A timely boost. SWiTCH Deeper and deeper sank the boat, softer and softer grew the paper, until at last the water closed over the soldier’s head. He thought of the lovely little dancer whom he would never see again…SWiTCH The School of Art, Wolverhampton…the heat of the day was certainly filtering into the corridors. I had been given permission to go in so that I could get a few things done. It was unnervingly quiet but perfect for the test ideas I needed to get down. Jake had joined me to operate the camera and work through the ideas with me. Jake supported me during my previous residency and his knowledge of my methods means that everything is easy, he knows what I’m seeking and has more than enough skill and insight to help me find it. He positioned the tripod and after a few moments of minor adjustments signalled 3-2-1 and pointed for me to begin the walk. I pulled the mask over my face, took a breath and set off. We were using the Bolex lenses that had arrived with the 16mm camera and although this was just a digital test shoot, it felt that here, in these exploratory steps, lay the groundwork for a return to Grendon. SWiTCH During lockdown the MA students have had a lot to contend with and whilst the impact upon their studies has been keenly felt I have been amazed by their willingness to continue their work where possible. We are now at a stage where everything that they can reasonably complete without a studio has been submitted and we have a period of stasis whilst we await the go ahead to return to the school of art and their studio spaces. I had introduced a weekly catch up online, just to keep everyone talking and thinking. This week’s discussion topic, David Bowie’s “Station To Station” LP. The talk was interesting, the consensus was that it wasn’t his most accessible work and therefore might not be on the list of favourites. “What do we think about the character he created for this album. ‘The Thin White Duke’? By his own admission he said that this was an empty, emotionless ‘nasty’ figure. How do we feel about that in relationship to some of his other characters?” There was a short pause and then one of the students replied to my enquiry, “I think you’re making a mistake in saying that these figures were characters. They were extensions of who he was at the time, that’s different I think.” SWiTCH Jake positioned the tripod once more and after a few moments of minor adjustments he signalled 3-2-1 and pointed for me to begin. My right arm shot above my head and I was Elvis…Bad Elvis…Good Elvis…Bad Elvis…my hips shimmied and my shoulders shook…in my mind’s eye it seemed like every snippet of footage that I’d ever seen of Elvis flashed by…coming to rest on my frame. I concluded with a signature point to the lens and Jake looked up from the viewfinder…”That take was really good…want to go again?” SWiTCH My eyes opened and the glowing fuzz of the numbers on the clock waved and shifted before settling on 04:48. I spent the next few moments with my eyes closed but awake, the slide into renewed sleep refusing to take place. I rose and walked to the window. Gently parting the curtains enough to look out but not enough to flood the room with early morning light and wake her, I centred my vision on the side of my studio that was visible through the bedroom window. Behind the garages in the foreground and just in front of the huge trees that headed out into the distance. I reasoned that this might be a good time to head there and continue the sketch book work. Walking around the bed, I gently leaned over her beautiful frame before kissing her on the shoulder, she stirred momentarily but didn’t break slumber. I grabbed my trousers from the side and headed to the bathroom. SWiTCH Paul Weller’s latest album has been on my mind. As a child I latched onto his music at a very early age and more perhaps, I latched onto him. He spoke to me in ways that I can’t fully articulate. His lyrics were the first words of poetry I read and I learned more from those words than I did from most other places. Anyone who knows me will tell you that ‘you can bury me a mod’ and that comes from a place that is inextricably linked with my own sense of class identity, in a way it is another costume that I wear, but I wear it more than any other and it is a veil that sits on my frame more comfortably than anything else I have ever tried. It helps me to cling to where I come from and that helps me to understand how I think and behave in the present. I’ve spent my life hiding behind one veil or another but Modism is something that makes me feel slightly more at ease. So the album was delayed due to the Covid-19 situation and then…on the day it was finally released, the post didn’t arrive. Knowing that it is in the world and not being able to hear it was not something that sat easily with me. I found that as days passed by without the delivery I would gaze out of the front window hoping for a glimpse of our postman with a square shaped cardboard package under his arm. I was the same as a child, I would beg my elder sister to take me to Woolworths as soon as a new record from The Jam was available, if she was unable to take me, the thought of other people listening when I couldn’t would ache away at me. The need to get it as soon as possible and listen was all consuming. It was another mild irritation from this whole lockdown business and in the scheme of things completely insignificant to what is going on in the world…but to me it was a nagging need, I was that child again deprived of something that blinded me to everything else. SWiTCH First light had continued back in the house whilst the kettle had coughed and spluttered its way into life. I sipped from my Aston Villa Play-Off Final mug and noticed that sunrise had started to fill the studio with a warm graceful illume. The pages were before me but I found myself looking past them and out of the window above my desk. Resting my vision on the Copper Beech once more I started to imagine myself sitting in one of the Buddhist Gardens at the prison. When James and I had first started going to the prison we would sit on one of the benches and have our lunch before going in. The birdsong was something we had both noticed and commented on during those early days and at this time the birds were chorally announcing the day with some vigour. I opened my laptop and clicked on the PDF versions of the hand-written letters that had been sent from Grendon from the residents. Re-reading the words over again connected me to the place and I sipped and read, sipped and re-read as the sun and the birds opened up another day I focused on one letter and pictured the author walking around the exercise yard. “I spent the last week picking up oddly shaped pebbles…”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.