Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“Elvis always wins…and you should know that!”
A sharp intake of breath, the fresh October air filled my lungs as I stood outside after another day and evening behind the fences. James was phoning the taxi company for the return to Bicester North Station and as I exhaled and watched the escaping breath billow into a cloud of mist in front of me I allowed myself a little smile as I thought back over the day SWiTCH “What do you think of Superman?” I closed the sketchbook on my lap and considered the question, to fill the silent pause the person in front of me spoke again, “your work reminds me of superheroes…what do you think of Superman?” SWiTCH The sound of a light knock on the door broke the line of thought that I was transposing into my sketchbook, I didn’t mind at all, in fact I had come to look forward to the visits from the men in the afternoon. One of the first hopes that I had fostered was that there would be an open door policy to the office/studio and that the residents would feel comfortable in visiting…by now it was regular that we would have a number of visitors in the space, from all wings…talking through ideas and discussing work. I opened the door and there were two guys from D Wing and C Wing respectively. Within minutes another two residents had entered the room and before long we were discussing the paintings of Boyd and Evans as well as George Shaw. Very quickly it had become a healthy discussion around “The Aerodrome” catalogue interspersed with gentle mocking of my preference for soya milk in my tea and James’ penchant for “posh” coffee. It had been really positive and I decided in the midst of the talk that I would set a brief that I’d had in mind to focus the production toward some common themes for the exhibition in January, “iNTERiORS/EXTERiORS” SWiTCH Standing back from the painting I felt that my next words would be really important. Our Art Rep for C-Wing had presented a self-portrait (in progress), it was a departure from his normal approach and it was, as a result of the departure, something that he appeared slightly cautious of showing. It was a really interesting and significant work for him and I immediately considered Rembrandt’s approach to self-portraiture as I gathered my thoughts. It was a contemplative work; it spoke of time experienced, time passed, time ahead. It was an insightful study and it challenged you to gaze, to spend time with it. I tried to encapsulate some of that thinking in my comments and afterwards he showed me another painting and we talked about the difference between escalators and stairs. The group had been really positive about the paintings and it felt like a good session. SWiTCH I opened the front door, another lock, another key turned at the end of a day when I must have turned so many more. When I had finished the last blog many of the men commented on how once you’ve been inside for a certain amount of time locks and keys don’t register. I still note them, perhaps not so readily (I’m not counting) but I still acknowledge the act. Check. Double Check. The fabric of the days at Grendon is made up of many things and the keys and the locks and the keys and the locks and the keys and the locks are woven intrinsically into the pattern of it. SWiTCH He extended his arm through the office window and on through the bars on the exterior wall before rotating his wrist 90 degrees to pour the tea out of the mug. “Sorry mate, that tastes like piss! What’s that milk again? Sorry not for me…” I chuckled and apologised for only having the one type of milk. As he sat back down he looked at the studio wall that I had littered with research and test ideas. “What’s your interest in Elvis then?” I immediately reached for my sketchbook and handed it over to him, he leafed through the pages and we talked about masks and identities. Elvis was an ideal I suggested and we talked around that as a position to start making work and then he turned to a page that held some tests and notes that utilised Beckham in the “ideal Elvis” role. His facial expression shifted to one of confusion and distaste, “what have you got him in here for?” I recalled a conversation I’d had early on with the drama therapist who had noted that whilst Elvis was a recognisable male template he may not be relevant to many of the men at Grendon, the advice was to find a more contemporary figure that they could connect with, a further note made towards football as a common interest on the wings. I shared this with my visitor and the next words from his mouth added some weight to many of thoughts I’d been having in reviewing the sketchbook over the past few weeks, “Bollocks! Beckham is a twat. That’s an insult mate…don’t touch him. I mean, I’m not an Elvis fan but he was the man wasn’t he, whereas Beckham…nah! Insult mate.” SWiTCH Sitting in Costa by Wolverhampton Train Station waiting for Cath and Jake but thinking of her I haven’t spent much time at home in the past couple of weeks and I miss the little moments, fleetingly I close my eyes and conjure an image of her smile. It’s the only smile like it in the world and I’m glad that I can recall it without any stretch of thought. Pouring the tea into the cup my eyes danced across the stream of warm brown liquid as it glistened, a plume of steam whiffled up and as my focus shifted to the dissipating cloud I thought back to Grendon. The printmaking workshop was very much in mind, James had been working hard on risk assessments and we’d been promising the residents that it would happen soon. The beautiful new press that sat in the office had made the prospect ever more enticing and it felt like it was finally in touching distance. A familiar voice cut through the ambient sound and my print based reverie ended, “How are you? You alright?” Cath sat down and I responded by passing over my sketchbook. “I think so”, I replied. SWiTCH “I’m looking at your face and I want to swear at you.” I tried to greet the words with an acknowledgement that didn’t give too much away as I didn’t quite yet know how to take it. The mouth that issued the statement gently curled upwards at the edges, “It’s a good thing…it means you’re accepted…everything before hand was just niceties, now you’re OK to swear at…you’re trusted.” SWiTCH Two more days at Grendon and I know that being here feels right. SWiTCH “This gave the prisoners a half-spectral look. The costume of the men seems like the outward vestment to some wondering soul rather than that of a human being, for the yes glistening through the apertures in the mask give the notion that there is something positively terrible in the idea that these men are men whose crimes have caused their very features to be hidden from the world.” (Thomas, D. 1999) SWiTCH I put the headphones on and sat back with my tea resting in my hands, eyes closed and settling into a space that felt like floating, everything cut off. The sound of “Theme De Yoyo” by The Art Ensemble of Chicago built in my ears and the shimmering sound…discordant…chaotic, then somehow sleek…seductive seemed to cradle my thoughts. A former colleague of mine from the University of Wolverhampton introduced me to this record. A man who was economical with his words but taught so much with each sentence, the day he played this to me for the first time we laughed and that was the warming thought that accompanied the track. When it was over I reached for the shelf and pulled out the 12 inch of “Shout To The Top” by The Style Council because it always made me feel positive that record, it’s like a resolution, a kick up the arse whenever required. As the intro broke through I thought back to the conversation about superheroes I’d had on A-Wing and replaying it sharpened the significance of it to the work I want to make. “I never really got Superman to be honest, maybe his costume was a bit naff for me. As a kid I probably thought that it wasn’t a very good disguise you know. I saw through it and couldn’t understand why nobody else hadn’t” I certainly didn’t know if my thoughts on the frailty of Superman’s costume would satisfy but the response to it was incredible and I made a mental note to write it down when I returned to the office. “You’re looking in the wrong place. Clark Kent doesn’t dress up in a disguise. Clark Kent is Superman’s disguise. That awkward insecure mess called Clark Kent is what a superhero thinks a normal man is, how a normal man acts and behaves. Clark Kent is performed by Superman.” I sipped from my mug and started to connect the dots between the work I’ve been developing and the notion of disguise. SWiTCH While we worked we had been talking about music documentaries and I mentioned the “percussive pig” moment from the Scott Walker doc. James looked at me and said, “Who is Scott Walker?” SWiTCH A new arrival in the office, from D-Wing. As soon as we started talking the words flowed freely. In a short space of time we had covered Seamus Heaney, Francis Bacon and Michel Foucault. I remembered that in the last blog I referenced a Robert Wyatt lyric, “What kind of spider understands arachnophobia” and as the Foucault book “Discipline and Punish” became the topic of conversation I pondered the words once again. Not unnaturally the conversation veered towards incarceration and we discussed the notion of expectation and rehabilitation. The tea flowed and the discussion intensified, “I hope that it doesn’t rain…but in prison I don’t hope that I will get myself together and make a life outside. I have faith that those things will happen…people misuse the word hope when referring to men inside…wrong word, it’s faith!” After some time he looked towards the research notes and references scattered across the wall above my desk. Focussing on the image of Beckham a familiar enquiry ensued, “What’s he doin’ up there? Why is he next to Elvis?” After explaining the reference and reason for considering the use of a Beckham mask and on-going thoughts around Elvis and the idealised male, my new consort’s features ruptured into a knowing grin and his reply reaffirmed my recent feelings about where the nascent ideas were heading. “Elvis always wins…and you should know that!”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.