Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“There is more than one George to talk about.”
“George, here is your matcha tea with soya.” I looked up from my screen and walked over to the counter. “Lovely, thanks Sonia.” My regular visits seemed to coincide with Sonia’s shifts and, as I arrived at the counter, she smiled. “You’re always welcome.” I had become known for two reasons in North Warwickshire services, firstly the staff had told me that I was the only person who visited that drank matcha tea and the second was that I had initially introduced myself as Boy George. James and I always met there on the way to Grendon and I often arrived early to do some work before we caught up. As I sat back down at my table and continued to type a reply to a letter from Nick London on D-wing it dawned on me that I had inadvertently become someone else here. If anyone showed a picture of me to Sonia and enquired about me she would probably say something like “Yes, I know him. That’s George and he drinks matcha tea with soya on Wednesdays and Thursdays.” SWiTCH Walking over the grass and alongside the grey exercise yard with some of the men after an etching workshop, conversation had been in healthy supply. Birds of prey often puncture the sky above Grendon and they can look spectacular, certainly to a boy from Birmingham who was lucky if he saw anything other than a sparrow or magpie growing up. Today a number of Red Kites were hovering low and if you looked up you could see their patterned bodies and ginger angular tails busily tilting to keep them stable in their chosen pocket of air. We all stopped momentarily to marvel at the sight before us. Our Liverpudlian seemed particularly entranced, “Ahh, they are amazing them. Just look at how free they are.” SWiTCH I sat alone in the studio and pondered my next move…I had sketchbooks to work on, and that was pressing. A couple of weeks ago Jake had met me at the School of Art to do a test film in the corridors with the 16mm Bolex. We had both talked everything through in preparation but had decided that despite increasing costs we would do a ‘run-through’ to make absolutely sure that we had everything as we wanted. The rough footage and 16mm scan had come through and as a result I had a pile of stills to work through and piece together in the sketchbooks. It looked even better than I had expected and the decision to use 16mm film seemed to augment everything I wanted to say in the work and more. I reached over to put some music on and selected Scott Walker’s “The Moviegoer” LP. The opening lines of “The Ballad of Stacco and Venzetti” burst into the quiet room and I turned the volume up as I started to lay out the stills in front of me, Scott’s voice filling the air and as usual I couldn’t resist joining in. “ONLY SiLENCE iS SHAME. BLESSED ARE THE PERSECUTED, AND BLESSED ARE THE PURE iN HEART. BLESSED ARE THE MERCiFUL…” As I sang I considered the workshop space at Grendon and the forthcoming sessions with the wing groups. How do I want to lay out the space I pondered. We should definitely have music and tea I thought, it needs to be relaxed and conducive to making art, and that seemed to be the best first steps to consider. SWiTCH The venue was starting to steadily fill up, I looked either side of me as Henry on my left and James on my right busied themselves in preparation for the book launch. I wasn’t nervous at all at this point, I’d recently done a long interview for the Ministry of Arts Podcast with Gary Mansfield and everything was reasonably fresh in my mind. I suddenly heard a familiar voice and looked up to find her standing in front of me. “You OK? I wanted to surprise you and support you on this one.” There was little time to talk before everything started but I quickly introduced her to Henry and James, this was the first time that she had attended an event around my work and I could feel my nerves start to filter into proceedings. As she sat down in the audience I turned to James, “Now the pressure is on” I muttered. Henry heard my comment and asked why, “Well, everything I’ve ever done has been an attempt to impress her.” I replied. SWiTCH Layla’s assessment tutorial had been a joy, all of her work around identity had been presented superbly. She had answered questions about decisions she had made in the work with care and certainty and it was a pleasure rather than a trial to see how the work had unfolded. ‘Unfolding…folded…unfolded’ I wrote these words down on my feedback notes and momentarily focused on them. I scribbled ‘visibility and invisibility’ and looked up to see a performance piece before me where the figure (Layla) wrote and unwrote ‘becoming’ on a large sheet of fabric. In that moment I think I fully understood why I had been asked to tutor Layla. The real joy of teaching though is when the teacher knows they are the one that is being taught. “I hope I’m not boring you too much.” I snapped out of my thought immediately at Layla’s question. It wasn’t me that she was addressing, my colleague had stifled a yawn as the presentation drew to an end and Layla had gently prodded the action with some humour to close proceedings. SWiTCH James and I sat in the governor’s office discussing the latest edict from the government on the use of the term ‘Resident’ in relation to someone serving time in prison. “It’s in the language of Grendon though,” suggested James, “surely we shouldn’t be held to task when it relates to the therapeutic environment here?” The governor, Becky, smiled and responded “I’m using ‘Community Members’ now instead.” I scribbled those two words down in my notebook and affirmed that I would be doing the same from now on. SWiTCH YES I AM A PRiSONER, ONLY SILENCE iS SHAME SWiTCH Jake, James and I stood and watched the men jog around the old football pitch. The camera was running and this, our first day of shooting, was proving to be both exhilarating and fruitful in terms of the footage that we were capturing. The idea had been a simple one, I’d previously observed the ritual encircling of the football pitch by the men as a form of exercise and had been struck by the cyclical pattern and routine. I wanted to record as a potential film for inclusion in the final exhibition and today, finally, here we were doing just that. Another figure approached and stood next to us as we silently gazed at the simple repetition that lay before us. “I was meant to be doing this you know.” I responded immediately by introducing myself and asking his name, once the introductions were over he continued, “…yeah, see they asked me and I thought no, but then changed my mind. I’m too late though now is that it?” I replied by confirming that we had now got the majority of what we needed whilst also being careful to acknowledge his effort in turning up. “You’ve missed out big time you know.” Our new acquaintance took off his shirt to reveal a perfectly sculpted torso and flexed his muscles in our direction, “I’m 52 years old you know…and look at me, I’m the epitome of male.” SWiTCH The opening sessions in the workshop had simply been magical. We had accommodated each wing and focused upon dry-point etching. The environment was important and we had made sure that it was a relaxed space. Music playing, tea and James’ ‘posh’ coffee in steady supply along with biscuits. The men hadn’t stopped thanking us for getting them out of the main wings and into a place that was theirs to simply produce art in. It felt important and significant to us, but maybe even more so to them. Today we had C wing community members and James had provided some sort of white chocolate biscuits to accompany the drinks. One member burped and this was quickly followed by burps from a second and then third member of the group. After excusing themselves, one member explained “You can always tell lifers and long-term prisoners by the speed at which they wolf their food.” Another chipped in immediately, “Yeah, when I was in the kid’s home I got picked on because I was always first to the table and finished my food before anyone could either nick it or do somethin’ to it.” He chuckled to himself but this was the first time this particular person had mentioned or shared anything of his past and I was affected by that little, unexpected, admission. SWiTCH Gary Mansfield’s Ministry of Art podcasts are amazing and I had been on his radar for a little while. Gary himself had served time in prison and had discovered art before moving to open conditions where he studied for his art degree. His podcasts are incisive, full of interesting conversation with contemporary artists and also very funny. We’d finally set up the interview and I was sitting making notes whilst the clock ticked towards the time we had arranged to meet online. Gary always structures his interviews around the same key questions and I was pondering the one he usually saves until the end, “If you could show alongside five artists past or present, who would they be?” I had a list of around 13 names and with little time left rushed into the adjacent office where artists Lulu and Alise were sitting in conversation. “I’m sorry to interrupt”, I said hurriedly, “I have this interview in 10 minutes and I have to answer this question. Can I ask your opinions?” SWiTCH Jake wound the handle and signalled for me to start the walk. The grey track suit was far hotter than I had anticipated and the Elvis mask was starting to instil a slight feeling of claustrophobia. On the signal I started to dance, in my head I always heard the song (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear and as soon as the rhythm filled my mind, shoulders started to go and I was off. In that moment I gave it my best ‘Elvis’. I was aware that under the mask my lip was protruding upwards and along with the imagined sound I could see in my mind footage of Elvis doing his moves. Slightly breathless, my wobbly demeanour ceased in tandem with the sound of the 16mm camera clicking to a halt. A familiar face from D wing walked around the corner and as he saw my heated frame, mask raised onto the top of my head and mouth gasping for air, his features erupted into a smile. After shaking hands and greeting us jovially he walked on, as he got towards the end of the corridor his broad cockney tones could be heard over his shoulder, “blimey, I never thought I’d see the king at Grendon!” SWiTCH I flicked the switch on the kettle and slumped into my chair. I was knackered and knew I had a shit load of work to get through. Before anything though, tea has to be the first order of the day. As the kettle rasped into life I spotted an envelope on my desk. Opening it up I was confronted by a small handprinted card with ‘Thank You’ prominently positioned in the centre. Inside it read, “Thank you Dean from all my selves. Love, Layla x” SWiTCH “Are you ok bud?” I was on C wing about to escort the community members to the workshop with James. We had to wait until all ‘movements’ were signalled to go and this inevitably left a couple of minutes to gather and chat before we could unlock the heavy blue doors and head out. “I think I’m ok.” I responded but my attempt to assuage any concern had failed. “You’re unshaven and you need a haircut, which isn’t like you. You look like shit mate and whatever it is that’s causing stress is showing on you.” You get used to honesty amongst the men at Grendon and I didn’t feel hurt by the comments at all, in fact I felt touched that I was enough of a part of things here that I could be spoken to with that honesty. The wing officer appeared in the corridor and shouted that movements were now cleared. SWiTCH A familiar sounding voice emerged from behind and I turned my head to see the community member from D wing with a wheelbarrow. He was a red-band which meant that he was trusted to work in the grounds and gardens with less supervision than on the wings. “’Ow you doin’ mate? Everything working out with the workshop now?” he peered over my shoulder through the opened bars into the space behind. “We’re all up and running now. It’s great to finally get going with it. Do you want to look around, I can put the kettle on?” He dropped the wheelbarrow down and walked over, “go on then, I’ll ‘ave a quick look. Don’t worry about the tea though, I’m meant to be working.” After he’d walked around he looked at the dialogue wall I’d set up with all the research and images I’d tested so far. He smiled at an image from the test film I’d made. “You ‘appy with the filming you did the other day then? Cos you didn’t ‘alf look a right twat in that mask didn’t you, eh?” SWiTCH Lulu and Alise listened to my list and without hesitation picked four of the five names they felt were best aligned to my interests, “What were the first couple of names again?” Lulu enquired, I read the list once more. Alise immediately picked out Claude Cahun as a definite and then Lulu asked “Shouldn’t you be including Buster Keaton and Elvis Presley?” SWiTCH Sitting in the old office space on the education wing was turning out to be a quiet experience, there was a deafening silence as I worked. We had temporarily re-located here whilst the holes in the gallery wall of Building Eight were being filled. James had gone to grab an order of materials from stores and I sat with my latest sketchbooks. A familiar face from D wing suddenly appeared at the door and I was happy to invite him in. “Tea?” I asked, “No, I’m all good thank you.” He sat down and started talking to me about a piece of work that he had been developing, it was grand in scale (for a prison anyway) and took in all manner of references from Orwell’s 1984 to Ai Weiwei’s S.A.C.R.E.D. We discussed ways of moving the work forward in terms of concept and materials, he then nodded towards my sketchbook. I immediately passed it over. I sipped tea as he leafed through it, he seemed most interested in the pages that contained the stills from the ‘Elvis’ test film. “How you’ve shot this works really well. You’ve got the grey tracksuit that means the guy just blends away into the background. All you’ve got left is the mask.” I talked a little about the ‘costume’ and then moved on to the mask aspect of his observation. The work of course is centred around the mask in relation to the therapy that takes place at Grendon and after expressing this to him, a knowing upward curl etched itself across his lips before they opened to reaffirm his thoughts. “It’s interesting looking at your sketchbook and the planning around this film specifically. We’ve all worn masks. I did before I got here, I played the game in one mask and committed my crime in another.” SWiTCH FEAR NOT TO RELATE MY CRiME SWiTCH I grabbed the printing ink from the cabinet and passed it over to the eager C wing community member who was making use of every second he could get in the workshop. After thanking me he leaned in and lowered the volume of his voice, “listen, I hope I wasn’t out of order there with the way I confronted you on your appearance. It’s just that it isn’t like you to look so rough you know and I apologise if it offended you in any way.” The apology was heartfelt but not needed, “don’t be silly, it’s all good. I’ll be OK, you don’t have to apologise at all.” SWiTCH I sat in North Warwickshire Service Station looking over the latest letter from Nick London on D wing. In my previous correspondence I’d asked him about Boy George and he had responded by telling a story about another famous George who had ended up behind the gate. “I was the wing rep on a small 40-man enhanced unit. This one day I was asked to go to the wing office where I was informed that George Michael would be transferred onto our wing. I was asked as a supposedly responsible prisoner to look after him whilst he was with us. By rights he should have gone straight to Cat D but the MOJ felt that they wouldn’t be able to protect him from the press there. So began a rather surreal four weeks of my prison life. As it turned out he was one of the smartest, nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. I could go on forever with anecdotes but I’ll try and stay on topic. What was fascinating was noting how other prisoners were with him. You’d expect him to have got at least some flack or abuse, but there was none of it. I could see that the lads just didn’t know how to be with him. Now, you could put that down to him being an international superstar, but I suspect that there was more to it than that. Here was a man who, in so many ways, represented things which many male prisoners are pre-occupied by – wealth, social status, fame, glamour and sex appeal. And yet he was openly gay and – outwardly at least – completely unaffected by all these trappings. I’m not suggesting prisoners’ reactions to him were due to underlying homophobia, but that perhaps he was undermining simplistic preconceptions.” I pondered the story that Nick London had sent me, would I need to add George Michael to my list of growing male figures that I had been discussing with the community members? How did it feed into my enquiry about Boy George? Then on the next line there was a question for me, “Do you think that he, like Boy George, in some way undermines simplistic masculine schemas and, in doing so, destabilises fragile narrative and identity markers?” I started noting down a response when Sonia’s voice cut through my trail of thought, “George, here is your matcha tea.” I smiled to myself as I rose to my feet and headed off to the counter, there is more than one George to talk about.
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.