Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“Did I ever tell you that I actually, genuinely, had a fight with Batman once?”
“As long as I’ve known you there has always been a tenacity involved in what you do. I would describe you as a tenacious individual.” I sat in Building 8 as the words soaked into my conscious thoughts, they were kind words and I took a lot out of being described this way. Our C Wing community member continued, “It’s for that reason that I have no doubt that you’ll get to where you want to be. If I compare myself to you then I know there are situations where you hold your nerve and consider what to do carefully, I’m working on that, but maybe I would react far quicker and with less processing of the potential consequences…it’s all a learning curve though isn’t it?” SWiTCH Lennie looked out from the cover of the book with those piercing eyes trained hopefully on me. I responded to his question about Villa positively, after which there was a slight silence. “Do I call you Lennie or Godber?” I enquired. SWiTCH Adrian Street…interesting isn’t he? A wrestler…a super masculine guy turning all that masculinity on its head like that. SWiTCH Bella turned around and from behind the counter she smiled welcomingly as I prepared to ask for my morning matcha tea. The glow from the overhead strip light zipped off her bright pink hair and before I could speak she had already put my order through. “Thanks George.” She hadn’t realised that I had Nova with me and I requested another drink before moving on. Bella’s capacity to give me discounts is unbound, the prices all fluctuate at the lower end of the payment scale and I retain a quiet, yet hopefully apparent, sense of gratitude toward her kindness. It seems to be our little secret and I dare not utter audible gratitude in case she gets into trouble. One day when my time at Grendon is over I will return the favour and get her something to say thank you. We sat at the table and awaited James. SWiTCH Just the idea of Gurney Slade sounds incredible! SWiTCH I looked at the laptop screen through blurred and bleary eyes. I typed slowly and with no short amount of labour. The nightmare I’d just experienced was enough to force me awake and in this early morning moment I asked the internet why in my forties I might still be having nightmares. SWiTCH “So what is it with Boy George then?” I had been helping one of our regulars with a painting in the workshop and we’d drifted on to the subject of the forthcoming performance film that I had been asking the Wing communities to support and get involved with. “I’m not sure Boy George’s voice is where you want to be…Joe Cocker is better, I think.” I couldn’t help but smile as I caught the eye of a younger community member seated not far away who had looked up from his lino cut work and issued an expression that clearly indicated that he had no idea who Joe Cocker was at all. “Like the Elvis work I’ve done, Boy George came from conversations with you guys. If Elvis is an ideal male then who ruptures that? That was the question I asked and what came back from the men as an answer was Boy George. You see if you consider an artist like Claude Cahun…” I awaited recognition having spent time showing and talking about her work, “…one of the strategies that she used was to think about a range of social roles and expectations and undermine those common perceptions and roles by creating uncertainty in what we are seeing as viewers.” I continued even though I felt that I might be losing his attention, I suspected this as he had turned back to the canvas he was working on. He did however ask me to continue (even if only out of politeness) “I guess for us, and more specifically you, but maybe most men, Boy George provides an opportunity to rupture the entrenched masculinities apparent in prison as well as outside. All the toxicity and negativity associated with those ideas about how we should behave and conform to what a man should be can be destabilised, or at least questioned, by creating uncertainty in what is seen and how we present ourselves…I guess that’s the thinking behind us doing a performance in relation to Boy George.” Having listened, he paused and with a slight curl of his lip he ventured a close to the conversation, “Joe Cocker was still a better singer than Boy George though.” SWiTCH You’d love Martin Freeman in Fargo…He plays it perfectly…A normal guy out of his depth and capable of things that you couldn’t possibly imagine… “What if you’re right and they are wrong?” SWiTCH “Fletch always called me Godber. I don’t mind though, whatever suits yer know.” SWiTCH It had been months since I’d seen James and as we both sat with Nova, who was accompanying us to work with the men on some pinhole camera images, it felt as though no time had passed and yet, in enjoying this feeling of reunion, there was a sense of the lost days we’d encountered being palpable too. The discussion had veered toward my last couple of blog posts that James had read whilst away. “I can’t think of any artist who would be concerned with writing for a website anymore…except for you that is!” We all laughed at this blunt announcement from James and as we talked more about the day ahead, something felt right again. SWiTCH I COULD WASTE A THOUSAND YEARS SWiTCH Who is that bloke from Quadrophenia? I’ve been there mate…substance abuse can have you thinking you’re all sorts of people. SWiTCH Linzi had asked me to suggest some writers for the forthcoming catalogue essay and we had been working on a few possibilities without success. I leaned back in the studio chair and glanced up at my collection of images that were pinned above my desk. I smiled as my eyes rested on Pauline Boty’s image. She had on occasion ‘performed’ in front of her own paintings and often she included the walls of her studio behind those paintings as part of the work. The images of artists, actors, musicians that adorned her studio walls were described often as ‘heroes’. I’ve always pinned up images of important figures on my studio wall…it’s just something I’ve always done. Just as I used to pin posters and magazine images up on my bedroom wall, it gives me a sense of who I am and the faces that surround me are always there to answer questions and offer advice when I get stuck or hit a wall with something. I looked at my own wall of heroes, I fixed on the image of Pauline peering out from somewhere above The Supremes, left of Curtis Mayfield and Michael Caine, to the right of Leonard Rossiter and below Sandie Shaw and The Style Council it dawned on me that her influence had not been lost on me. I rushed to the shelf and looked along the spines for the exhibition catalogue from the Boty show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. I’d attended the opening and very briefly met the author of the catalogue, Sue Tate. Levering the now located book down from its resting place, I opened the first page and saw Sue’s handwritten message inscribed with a signature “To Dean – READY, STEADY, GO! Best Wishes, Sue.” I picked up my phone to text Linzi SWiTCH Grayson Perry is really special to us…He works around his childhood and challenges what men can be. SWiTCH She always knew what to say and she reached over and pulled my head down into her shoulder. “Everything will be fine. Just hold your nerve and let things unfold as I’m sure they will. Everything will be fine.” SWiTCH Our makeshift and temporary darkroom in Building 8 dimly glowed with the redness of safety as we watched over the images in the tray. Nova gently agitated the solution backwards and forwards across the print and gradually the image started to reveal itself. One of our D Wing community members couldn’t hide his delight, “This is like art but art combined with magic.” Nova smiled and responded immediately, “I’ll take that. It’s a hit and miss process but when we get results they are amazing aren’t they.” SWiTCH NiGHTMARES CAN ARiSE FOR A NUMBER OF REASONS – STRESS, ANXiETY, iRREGULAR SLEEP, MEDiCATiONS, MENTAL HEALTH DiSORDERS – BUT PERHAPS THE MOST STUDiED iS POST-TRAUMATiC STRESS DiSORDER (PTSD). SWiTCH Can you use Frank in these collages? Would that be a mask made out of a mask? SWiTCH After Lennie and I had discussed our team’s recent good fortunes I moved on to the burning question around the work I’ve been making in response to Grendon. “I wanted to ask you Lennie, I mean I asked Harold and he suggested that you were the person to speak to…what it is, well 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 grotesque form of dark tourism. What do you think?” His eyes pierced through me as he pondered a response. “You know I’m not actually a prisoner don’t you? I’m an actor who plays someone…truth be told, I’m not even from Birmingham…I’m from Nottingham way, its close but yer know not quite if yow know what I mean.” He whispered the last line as if someone was listening in and the disclosure would puncture a whole lifetime of a carefully crafted façade. He also slipped back into his performed brummie accent as his words tailed off. “Well, maybe that’s why Harold pointed me in your direction. Your role is a prisoner but you’ve never been there…how does it work? Did you feel that your representation was fair?” SWiTCH Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Synecdoche, New York is amazing…he loses all sense of the line between fiction and reality…he is the director of his own crisis. SWiTCH EVERYTHiNG iS NOT WHAT YOU SEE SWiTCH “I’m thinking of making some images like this for the exhibition.” I pointed at the pages in my sketchbook and talked through the associations between my own practice here at Grendon, with the dialogue wall and performative acts, and that of Pauline Boty and her ‘studio heroes’. “The layering is so interesting isn’t?” he pointed first to Boty’s image and then to my own that I’d mocked up as a draft in my studio, “you’ve got the artist as performer but you’ve also got the artist’s work, the artist’s space with the reference images pinned to the wall…then on top of that you’ve got the photograph that captures all those layers and adds another. Layer upon layers like masks upon masks.” It had been my intention all along to ask him if he’d be happy to work with me on these images but I’d wanted to gauge his response to the ideas before asking for his help. “Would you make the painting that I am photographed in front of?” SWiTCH I picked up my sketchbook from the side and sat down at the table as I awaited the kettle to announce its work as complete. The clock told me that it was somewhere between 4.30am and 5am and as I slumped into the seat I rubbed my eyes clear once more to focus on the pages of the sketchbook. The drafts for the forthcoming Boy George work were the latest pages to develop and as I looked over the ideas I found myself reaching down to my bag and pulling out the Claude Cahun book I’d recently picked up. The kettle clicked and I part rose from the chair but stayed long enough to write what I felt was an important few words in the space next to one of the images. PERiODiCALLY PERFORMiNG GENDER ROLES BUT ALSO QUESTiONiNG THE POSSiBiLiTY OF NATURAL GENDER BY CREATiNG UNCERTAiNTY ABOUT WHAT WE ARE LOOKiNG AT. I dropped the pen and went to make tea. SWiTCH Eric Tucker appeals to me because he lived as an artist who was invisible to the art world. SWiTCH The sun shone brightly and we arranged our handmade ‘paper cup pinhole cameras’ at a variety of locations around Building 8. Nova’s workshop had been brilliant for the men and everyone involved had managed to get some images from their individual creations. I never take a watch with me to Grendon and so counted elephants in my head to approximate the exposure time. “Did I tell you about my plan after I get out? I want to live on a canal with a pet goat.” I looked over as the D Wing community member addressing me sat poised with his paper cup camera in operation awaiting my answer. “What are you going to call the goat?” I enquired, “Captain!” came the immediate response. SWiTCH I HAVE DANCED iNSiDE YOUR EYES SWiTCH “Hey Bella! How are you today?” Bella looked up from the boxes she was unpacking and smiled at my greeting before manoeuvring her way to the till. “I’m good thanks, how about you George?” Without saying anything more to me she had processed my order and given a hefty discount on the price. “I’m OK I think. Just keep on keepin’ on you know.” I decided to choose this moment of relative calm in the café to convey my thanks for the discounts, “I wanted to say to you actually, about the…” Her eyes widened and she silenced me with an expression that instantly halted my words, that ‘say nothing more or I’ll be in lots of trouble and there will be no more discounts’ kind of expression. Bella verbally ended the conversation that reinforced her suddenly stern gaze. “It’s all good George. Thank you.” Later as I sat awaiting James’ arrival before heading on to Grendon. I spied a mop peripherally and soon realised that Bella was right next to me. She leaned in and spoke covertly, “don’t mention the discounts on the drinks. I give them to you because…” she slowed her floor cleaning and thought for a second, “…I guess of everyone who comes in here, you’re polite and you always ask how I am…but more than that. I think you look like someone who needs a discount on their tea.” SWiTCH I’d reproduced and enlarged a number of the pinhole images from Nova’s workshop and the men gathered around the table to view their hard-won work. The paper cup cameras that they’d toiled over perfecting were still strewn around the shelves and it was a source of genuine excitement and wonder to them that the images had come from such rudimentary looking constructions. “That one’s mine! I remember the building number on the original.” Another community member smiled in response, “that’s brilliant that one! This one is mine, look you can see every line in the brick work…just blows your mind the detail you get.” They continued to sort through and marvel at what had come from their time with Nova, I turned towards the kettle and ventured an interruption. “Tea? Coffee?” SWiTCH Did I ever tell you that I actually, genuinely, had a fight with Batman once?
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.