Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“EVERY PRiSON SHOULD BE AN ART SCHOOL!”
The rain clattered heavily on the studio roof. Gazing out of the studio window I reasoned that I wouldn’t see a Red Admiral butterfly today. The birdfeeder that I have attached to the corner of the studio roof suddenly moved in my peripheral view and upon moving my head slightly to accommodate a better view of it I spied a squirrel hanging vertically from the feeder. SWiTCH The afternoon had been busy, the men working hard on a whole range of different works for the next public event at the prison. I exhaled audibly in my chair as my body involuntarily betrayed the exertions of the day. One of the group sat down next to me and without introduction, started talking in response to the unspoken conversation that had been palpable for weeks now…I would be leaving soon and neither myself or anyone else wanted to truly get into the details of that fact. “I think you haven’t realised yet just what you’ve done here. The approach you have…the dialogue wall…. the way you begin every piece of work, not with a pencil or paintbrush, but with a conversation…and that conversation is always about pushing us beyond the constraints that we are used to. It’s so important to be having conversations with people who you never thought you’d have conversations with about subjects you never thought you’d speak about.” We sat in silence in the workshop for a moment and then he reached out an arm and pulled me in to his shoulder for a hug. SWiTCH I hazily reached across the bedside table for my headphones. Jamming the jack plug into the socket, my eyes burned as I tapped the Spotify logo and selected Doves from my playlist library. A favourite at Grendon, the workshop often bouncing to the sound of “Pounding” or “Catch the Sun”, I hadn’t hesitated in selecting it. The time read 3.07am and I couldn’t sleep…I reached down for the sketchbook by my bed and started to force my vision into focus by the limited light of my iPhone torch (angled to avoid waking her). I looked over my latest notes as the words of the song “Push Me On” filtered into my muzzy thoughts…I FEEL THE PUSH OF THE GOOD…I FEEL THE PULL OF THE BAD…I SEE THE GOOD IN THE MiSFiTS…I UNDERSTOOD iT’S GOT MY NAME ON iT…ALWAYS ARE WE? PUSH ME ON. A slight familiar ache from my bladder interrupted the flow of the song. I sighed as I rose to go and piss. SWiTCH In certain folklore traditions around the world, spotting a red admiral is considered auspicious and brings blessings into one’s life. It may serve as a reminder to stay optimistic even in difficult circumstances or inspire hope for better days ahead. SWiTCH The new sketchbook was taking shape. I’d reappropriated an old annual that she had found in the local Oxfam for me, with Story of Pop emblazoned across the front in a 70s font the tome, filled with stories and imagery about everyone from Bill Haley to The Sweet, Aretha Franklin to Janis Joplin, would provide me with enough pages to start working. I had selected fluorescent Lidl gaffer tape to re-enforce the spine as an attempt to change things up a bit with the aesthetic of the would-be sketchbook and I’d chosen to leave the existing image of Keith Moon behind his drum kit as the lead image on the cover…for now anyway. What would the next work be about though? Nearly five years on the Grendon work (with only the Ian Curtis piece for Wolverhampton Art Gallery as a distraction) had been my main focus, it had to be, but now this new book seemed like make or break. Imposter Syndrome was old and new, distant and near and its always difficult to move on when you are in the middle of an exhibition of latest work, however long that work took to resolve. I flicked through the pages that I hadn’t painted out yet and there was Paul McCartney. SWiTCH I stood nervously on the first floor of the gallery at Ikon as the guests for the pre-launch event steadily filtered through the doors. Susan Trangmar’s familiar face arrived, and she beamed a smile at me as she walked in, then Jane Gibb and Roger Sabin appeared and soon I was hugging and greeting people that I was reassured by seeing. Mali Morris had to talk first, and we all gathered around her paintings for her insight. I knew I’d be doing the same thing in half an hour or so about Imposter Syndrome on the floor above and was keen to get a measure of the kind of questions people may have around the show. My former colleague, Maggie, gave me a reassuring smile from the other side of the room, and I started to mentally plan my talk. SWiTCH The squirrel stared at me with what appeared to be some contempt, I’d imagined that the nuts I’d put out by the studio would be consumed by birds, how mistaken I was, this guy was mopping up and revelling in the fayre I’d provided without any sign of guilt or waiver. I was about to bang on the window but stopped in an instant. Take what you can when you can I reasoned. SWiTCH After our embrace the conversation in the workshop continued, “I can give you an example. Take for instance ‘A’ on my wing. Before he came here and worked with you on the video performance piece, he was quiet and unsure of himself, he was withdrawn in therapy groups. I won’t lie, when you asked us to do that, he was dead against it, he couldn’t imagine why or what you were asking of us. He came along because he felt that he owed something for the support you’d given him in making his own work. After we’d shot that film with you, he became a much more confident version of himself, he is now the most vocal and supportive in group therapy, he takes time to go and talk with staff and his own therapy work has advanced light years. I absolutely believe it’s because you talked to him about pushing beyond the constraints of being a prisoner, beyond what he and every one else expects from him. Art here has changed people, and you should be proud of that.” SWiTCH Linzi and I were driving back after a full day at Grendon. We had been talking about my replacement and inevitably Linzi had been enquiring about my impending departure from the prison. “You’re a very loyal and stoic individual and I know that you have built important relationships here that mean so much to you. At the symposium there was a moment when Gary asked you a question when I thought you were going to release some of that emotion that you’ve locked up. I thought it was going to happen and it would have been good for you and the men to let that out, tell them how hard this is for you, but you composed yourself and rested back on answers that were measured and diverted away from that…I want you to have that moment.” I understood the sentiment and knew that maybe that moment was coming, boys don’t cry…maybe I’d learn very soon that they do. SWiTCH The men had decided that as part of the symposium we would design and produce some tote bags and t-shirts for guests. A while ago I had appropriated and reworked a slogan that the artist Bob & Roberta Smith had come up with…ALL SCHOOLS SHOULD BE ART SCHOOLS. This was just a test for screen printing but my version, EVERY PRiSON SHOULD BE AN ART SCHOOL had struck a chord with the men and they had encouraged me to use this as the lead design for the day. We now had a production line underway in the workshop as we screen-printed the slogan, hung the shirts and bags to dry and then ironed over the ink to heat seal it. “These look great” James said, “it’s going to be an amazing day, I can feel it.” SWiTCH I gently lowered myself back into bed after the visit to the toilet and repositioned the headphones before unpausing the track that had been interrupted by my ageing bladder. As the house muttered gentle creeks around me I was lost to its overtures in the combination of sound and vision as I let the pages of the sketchbook coalesce with the lyrics floating through my headphones…TiE THE MiRROR TO YOUR SOUL…REJECTiNG EVERYTHiNG YOU KNOW…YOU CAN’T GO BACK, THE TiME HAS COME…TURN THE SWiTCH – TURN THAT SWiTCH BACK ON…I paused at the four words “the time has come” and realised that I was only weeks away now from saying farewell to Grendon. SWiTCH …so the legend says, don’t chase red admiral butterflies. because they’ll chase you back… SWiTCH Dr Sue Tate had agreed to do the ‘In Conversation’ event for the launch of the book. We had sat together in the café at Ikon and worked through some questions, I noticed the performance artist Robert Luzar walk in and delighted to see him, I nodded as I continued my conversation with Sue to signal that I would go to see him as soon as we had concluded our preparations. SWiTCH The squirrel had scarpered and I was left with the moment of silence and the view from the studio window, all the red admirals have gone away now, I thought. SWiTCH Susan, Jane and Roger sat with me for lunch. I had wanted to make sure that I hadn’t let them down in the talk I’d just delivered but was hesitant to ask what their thoughts were. These three people, that had changed everything for me in terms of my practice and what I should be doing with my work, had generously taken time to be with me on this day, the opening of Imposter Syndrome, I wanted them to be proud (or at least relieved that I’d been able to give a reasonable account of myself) but those are things that you don’t ask. “I went to an interesting talk about Buster Keaton the other day” said Roger SWiTCH The symposium was in full flow and we had had some amazing talks from various members of the wing communities as well as special guests. Gary had kindly come in to interview me about the residency to close the event. He’d done a great job of guiding proceedings. His final question wasn’t one I’d expected, and I paused before answering. “What is the difference between the artist who sits here at the end of the residency and the one that walked into Grendon nearly five years ago?” SWiTCH I awoke in terror; the latest nightmare had shuddered my body into a suddenly conscious state, and I fuzzily reclined into the pillow behind me. SWiTCH Our governor was leaving and, as was Grendon tradition, the men had arranged a leaving party on one of the wings. Rod was with me and watched on as each member of the group stood up to offer their experiences of working with her as well as warm wishes for her future. I had never been able to speak at these events before, for no reason other than it felt like it wasn’t my place to do so. A gap in proceedings arrived and I found myself stepping forward. “Thank you for being brave…thank you for trusting what I wanted to do here with the workshop space and thank you for letting us open the first contemporary art gallery in a UK prison. What it means to the groups who work in there is more than you’ll ever know. Thank you for being brave and not hesitating to say yes.” SWiTCH I started overlaying text on the nascent sketchbook tests around conspiracy theories, masquerade, and retro futurism. ESREVER EB SYAWLA…ECUAS YRREBNARC…MiH SSiM MiH SSiM SWiTCH In response to Gary’s final question I suddenly felt that I was addressing specifically the men from the Grendon that I’d worked with, like each one of them dotted throughout the conference centre were now suddenly spot lit and it was once again just me and them. “Well, I always thought the best teachers were the ones who didn’t behave like they knew everything, the ones that sat down next to you, talked, and worked with you rather than at you. Those people also accept that every situation is a learning situation, just as much for them as for anyone else in the room. I always wanted to be one of those people and what I’ve learned from these men is immeasurable. I’ve worked in places for years where there is a lot of bullshit and a lot of bullshitters and it’s so refreshing to work with a group of people who are brutally honest about themselves and in acceptance of their past failings are working to move forward. Their example has made me ask some really difficult questions about myself and I owe them because I think I’m a better version of myself as a result of my time here. Aside from all the artworks that we’ve devised together, which I’m really proud of by the way, they have made me better than myself and I can’t thank them enough for that.” SWiTCH Leon Bailey’s deflected shot reached the net and the whole of Villa Park erupted cacophonously, the atmosphere had been electric and as my son and I hugged euphorically emotions and adrenalin ran riot. As I stood back on the terrace to take in the scene I glanced over at the static and stunned Man City fans and thought immediately of our art orderly from C-Wing. A native of Manchester and City fan, I started to consider the inevitable debrief that would ensue over the result of the game the next time we met. I added an extra smile to my already widened mouth as I conjured a future image of him swearing at me. My son threw his arm around me once more. SWiTCH It is friendly to humans, but will challenge other butterflies, birds, and mammals. They are territorial and highly agressive. SWiTCH I hugged Robert and thanked him sincerely for travelling all the way from Bath to see the talk, “How are you?” I enquired, “I’m OK” he said in response, “listen this is amazing what you’ve done here.” Robert is an artist I admire greatly, he’s much braver in his work than I am, I’m hiding all the time in my practice whilst he looks his audiences in the eye in his. The men at Grendon have taught me to be more vulnerable with my work but I’m not where Robert is yet. It meant a lot for him to be there and talk so positively about the exhibition. SWiTCH My pen left the page of the sketchbook as my train of thought concluded. I looked at the imagery and read back the words, it felt like the ideas were starting to form. A LOT OF US, BECAUSE OF ViETNAM AND THE SO CALLED ESTABLiSHMENT WERE READY, WiLLiNG AND ABLE TO BELiEVE JUST ABOUT ANY SORT OF CONSPiRACY…EVEN THAT PAUL MCCARTNEY HAD BEEN REPLACED iN THE BEATLES BY THE WiNNER OF A LOOK-ALiKE COMPETiTiON SWiTCH My routine had changed and it had been a while since I’d stopped off at North Warwickshire services. I’d decided today that I would make one last visit as part of the residency, just for old times’ sake. I approached the counter and noticed that Bella was making the drinks, and a new person was serving. She spotted me “Hiya George, haven’t seen you for a while?” I smiled, “Hey Bella, I know. I’ve been really busy at work.” I ordered my drink and the unfamiliar server asked for my name so that he could write on the cup. I knew Bella was listening “Dean…my name is Dean.” She looked at me with some confusion. SWiTCH “Could you have a look for a book for me?” I looked over as I worked on the Tote bags and T-shirts. “Yeah, of course. See my notebook there on the desk. Just write it down in there and I’ll have a look for you.” SWiTCH “I can’t thank James enough for his tireless work and dedication to what we’ve achieved here. I’ve harassed and hassled him for nearly five years, and he’s always listened and tried to support my bonkers ideas. We all owe him for that.” The symposium audience applauded him as I stepped away from the stage. SWiTCH The clock read 3.58am and I turned the last page of the recent sketchbook to consider what I needed to do next. A neatly handwritten note on a piece of masking tape had been positioned on the page gently. “Meditations in an Emergency” by Frank O’Hara. Thanks N x” SWiTCH As the leaving party was winding down myself and the governor stood together. “I’m finding it much harder to leave than I expected to.” There was a pause for a moment whilst she surveyed the community room on D Wing, “You’re about to be in this position…it’s harder to leave Grendon than you think.” SWiTCH After arriving home from the symposium I slumped in the chair, dropping my bag next to me I just needed to process the day and how brilliant it had been as a showcase for the men and the work we’ve done together. “You OK?” she enquired, “how did it go?” I responded positively and we talked about how it had all gone. “Here, I’ve got you a gift.” I pulled one of the T-Shirts out and threw it over to her. She opened it out and I looked at the slogan once more and smiled with pride…EVERY PRiSON SHOULD BE AN ART SCHOOL!
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.