NOTES FROM HMP GRENDON
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“I just want to be a real boy”
The cold morning air was fresh against my body, I’d left my coat in the car as I awaited Linzi’s arrival and shivered momentarily as a gentle rumble announced the imminent arrival of her train at platform one. SWiTCH THE NEUTRAL MASK iS LiKE THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA SWiTCH The chairs were coming along beautifully, conceptually and technically they were developing apace and the community member from ‘A’ wing responsible for the now sculptural piece of work busied himself with intent. I had ventured that the introduction of some ideas around Kintsugi may be appropriate and after researching this ancient form of ‘repair’ he was now carefully outlining the ‘damaged’ surface of the standard issue therapy chairs delicately and deliberately. He looked up from his work and called across to me, “Can I just talk through the next stage with you?” SWiTCH Never meet your heroes…I’ve lived by that. I’m not very good at talking with people who would be termed famous and I’ve always avoided situations that might lead me that way. I stood surrounded by middle-aged men with hairstyles just like mine, they were clamouring for position around the door on the right side of the stage exit. I started to drift to the periphery and satisfied myself that I’d made an effort to speak with him and that although I was now unlikely to get time with him, that effort was enough. A muttering buzz started to rise, I’d been pushed to the door on the opposite side and the growing noise suggested that he would appear soon. Suddenly the door next to me opened and right beside me was Rick Buckler, the drummer from my childhood heroes, The Jam. “Alright? How are you?” he was looking straight at me and he held out his hand towards me. The gathering suddenly swayed in my direction and I knew that I’d have to take a chance now, even if I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to. I clasped my hand around his and a thousand thoughts rushed through my conscious mind. I was thrown back to the box room in Great Barr, I could smell the carpet, touch the anaglypta wallpaper, feel the warm sun pouring through the small window and I could see my record player spinning that familiar red Polydor labelled disc. I turned to the mirror in the corner of my room and there I was holding my tennis racket horizontally across my body. I was in my penny loafers, polo shirt and school trousers…I started rocking my leg back and forward, with my hands moving around the tennis racket…but it was a Rickenbacker guitar now…I opened my mouth to sing along, I witnessed in the reflection my 6 year old frame transform into Paul Weller and behind me that rhythm…those drums that felt like they were my very heartbeat…that my body would stop forever if that beat ever faded. I turned to look for Rick on this box room stage behind me and I was back at The Crossing in Birmingham, 1979 was suddenly and sharply 2023 and Rick was still looking at me “Alright mate? Can I ‘ave my ‘and back?” SWiTCH THE WEARER MUST ENGAGE iN AN iNTERNAL REACH THAT GOES BEYOND PERSONAL EXPERiENCE TO ARRiVE AT A PROFOUND STiLLNESS OF BEiNG SWiTCH The studio was quiet and I had been busying myself on some designs for the layout of the gallery. My thoughts had skipped to the show that we were installing at Grendon. The opening was only a couple of days away and there was much to sort. I leaned back in my chair and ran my fingers through my hair as if to physically soothe the jagged notion in my head that work on the show was incomplete and I was running out of time to make it the best that it could be. I didn’t want to let the men down and I wanted everyone to see the hard work and distance they’d travelled since the last exhibition. As I rocked forward in my chair my eyes rested on the array of photos I have pinned above my desk…Vicky McClure, Cindy Sherman, Poly Styrene, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Marriott and Ronnie Lane…The Supremes, Bowie, Chaplin, Weller and a postcard of Richard Hamilton’s “Adonis in Y-Fronts” all gazed back. I had two framed images above this collage of ‘studio friends’, the first was a Sleaford Mods poster that emphatically threw out the line THiS ONE GOES OUT TO THE WANKERS THAT WAS DOWN FROM DAY ONE. MORE MODS. in bold text and another frame that contained a black and white portrait of Harold Steptoe. I rested my gaze on Harold and his faced flickered…or at least I thought it did. I looked away, slightly spooked by what I thought I’d witnessed and continued with my work. “Would it be terribly impertinent of me if I was to ask you a question…You being someone what is somewhat creative?” I froze momentarily, I recognised the voice instantly. I shot my eyes upwards to the picture on the wall “Harold?” SWiTCH The community members gathered around the ‘chair installation’ in Building 8 and I sensed that over the next few moments I just might witness some magic. I’d posed a question to the author of the piece around whether he would like it to be viewed as an interactive piece or whether he now saw it as a contained sculpture. He had shared this with a few of his fellow exhibitors and they chatted purposefully before resolving between themselves that if the work was to be viewed as a sculpture then it would need something additional to indicate this. “It musn’t be seen as an invitation to sit down” remarked one of the men. Within a few short minutes one of the group looked over to me with an enquiry, “you haven’t still got that packing tape with FRAGiLE written on it have you?” SWiTCH I scanned my Spotify playlist as I worked busily in the studio. Nothing was leaping out and I pondered working in silence. I’d listened to Boy George’s “The Martyr Mantras” through twice and didn’t know what could provide the background to my continued labour. I considered the possibility of repeating the album again. But no…I came over to change it so I must need something else. The band I Am Kloot suddenly emerged and as I hadn’t listened to them for probably years, I pressed play and turned to continue the work. It had been a really industrious few days in the studio and I was now working through the stills of the film I’d shot as a lone figure in the exercise yard. Jake had sent me through the images and it had been an interesting set of questions that evaluating the shots had brought forward. Originally conceived as a series of punctuations in the space, I’d now done a complete U-Turn and decided that on viewing the work it would be better as a durative piece and as such would need a different setting in the exhibition. As I reviewed the draft gallery plans in relationship to the film stills (tentatively titled “To Be Someone”) I locked in to the music and words now pouring from the speakers. “Where did you go on that big black night? Did you take the coast road back through your life? See the sand, the moon, the stars that shine and say, well they’ll do all right for me.” SWiTCH Linzi had been really complimentary of the work going on at Grendon, she had been in to do some evaluation work with the men. “It’s like you’re running a Masters programme for these guys, and they are thriving on it.” We were making our way down to D-Wing to see the art rep and get a last round of evaluations. The community members were, as always, super engaged and fed back positively to Linzi on what we’d been working on. Linzi remarked to our art rep that he was incredibly articulate and knowledgeable on the material that we’d discussed. “Ah, that’s a trick I learned when I was studying in a previous prison. It’s called mind-palacing. I can teach you in no time if you’re interested?” SWiTCH “I always thought I could be someone see. I was ‘eld back, if I’d ‘ave been born away from the yard…’ad chances like them uvver kids ‘ad…my natural curiosity and intellect would ‘ave shone through. A chance is alls I needed.” Harold’s face was now fully animated within the frame and he spoke just as I had remembered, Harry H. Corbett’s acting had always been a source of wonder to me and here was one of his greatest portrayals talking to me from my studio wall. I remember the first time I’d spoken to Tony’s statue and felt the same uncertain nervous edge, nobody could see me on this occasion but I still turned around to check before responding, “What do you want to ask me Harold?” SWiTCH TO TURN AND LOOSEN THE HUMAN SOUL…SWiTCH Rick was so down to earth and really kind as we chatted. Surrounded by a throng of baying middle aged men, all desperate to have their five minutes with him, he calmly talked with me as if no-one else was in the room. “Did you see us live?” he asked, “no, I was nine years old when The Jam split up.” I pondered that time with a slight shudder. “It was the end of my world.” As he signed my book for me, he absorbed my last remark and with a slight smile replied, “it wasn’t that great for me either!” SWiTCH I stood peripherally in the space and watched as they worked together on the sculpture. Measuring carefully and studiously before applying the tape in a rectangular configuration around the chairs. It looked fantastic and to witness the confidence with which this display strategy was arrived at was a privilege. This level of independence and assurance, I thought, was just what I’d hoped would happen when we opened the gallery. Just wonderful to see. SWiTCH “I wanted to ask you if there is a way out. You know, from all this?” Harold was looking at me with a pleading sense of anticipation. I didn’t have to think before replying. “You will always be a Rag ‘n’ Bone man Harold. But that’s OK, it’s important that that’s what you are. What you are and what you’ve done is just beautiful. I wouldn’t have had the guts to do what I’ve done without you…quite literally!” He looked down as he processed my answer, it was a crap answer in truth but it came out my mouth before I could stop it. I tried to measure his feelings and was relieved to see that he appeared to be savouring the acknowledgement I’d given him. “I need to ask you something now Harold. It’s about the men at Grendon.” SWiTCH She had managed to take a couple of photos of Rick and I together while we talked. She had made the whole meeting happen and, despite knowing my reluctance to engage with people who I hold as heroic, like always I had benefitted from her driving force. I manipulated the printed image into the frame and placed it on the side. I thought back to the meeting and how I’d been thrown back to my 6 year old self pretending to be Paul Weller in front of the mirror. I smiled to myself as I reasoned that this must have been one of my first performance pieces. Walking past the room and briefly seeing the new picture she commented with an undercurrent of humorous sarcasm, “Oh good, another picture of The Jam in the house.” SWiTCH Linzi and I sat in the car as the pulse of the motorway engulfed our journey home. We had talked all the way there and now all the way back. We’d laughed and shared stories, planned for the forthcoming exhibition and comforted each other around the current workloads that we faced. “Do you think you’d like to carry on at Grendon if the chance comes up?” SWiTCH NEUTRAL MASK SIMPLY iS. SWiTCH “I am conscious that I am in some way representing the men in the work I’m making and there is a responsibility to that. I haven’t been in prison, so you know I don’t want to make something that is exploitative or trades on a horrible type of dark tourism.” Harold thought before responding, “You needs to ask someone uvver than me ‘bout all that. I as always stayed the right side of the law…where I could. Maybe you need to talk wiv Lennie.” Harold nodded down towards the Richard Beckinsale book on my desk. I stared momentarily at the image on the front before Richard or was it Lennie looked up. “Alright are yer? Tell me, you go to the games…’ow are Villa getting’ on?” SWiTCH THE WORLD iS NOT PERFECT. ART WOULD BE USELESS iF THE WORLD WERE PERFECT, AS WE WOULDN’T LOOK FOR HARMONY WE WOULD JUST LiVE iN iT. ART iS BORN OUT OF AN iLL-DESiGNED WORLD. SWiTCH I opened the sketchbook that now contained evidence of what had been a productive period in the studio. My inquisitive companion from C-Wing, as always, was keen to see the latest developments on the pages. I started with the collages that I had been working through in collaboration with various community members. He immediately started to leaf through the various iterations of the test pieces that I’d been working through. His hand rested on a couple of images where I’d trialled a figure made from ‘Join the Dots’ and he sighed before responding, “I’m looking at what you’ve done here with the ‘Join the Dots’ and I’m quite emotional really…Pinocchio springs to mind.” I felt my eyebrows raise at this new name into the conversation, we’d never talked before about Pinocchio as a significant figure. I didn’t ask though, I just waited for him to continue. “Pinocchio looks and says to himself that he just wants to be a real boy. When I look at your work here, I see myself…and I just want to be a real boy.”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.