Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“You forget where you are and feel normal for three hours.”
Simon adjusted the press with an adept skill and swiftness that spoke of his confidence and experience, “That’s all good to go then…much easier than I expected.” The calibration of the press now complete, we started to gather up the equipment we needed for the evening workshop. I’d been working with the residents on preparing etched plates for this event with Simon and as we headed to D-Wing for the first session with the press balanced on the post trolley that we’d borrowed from reception I felt excitement, I knew this was going to be brilliant for the participants and I knew that the results would be a great addition to the work for the forthcoming exhibition in the gym. I’d been part of these printmaking workshops before and the plates that had been worked on by the men already looked like they were going to reap some fantastic results. “You look like a proper artist Simon. Not like him over there (gesturing in my direction), you’ve got overalls and an artist’s beard. You can tell you’re a proper artist.” We all laughed at the comments, the atmosphere was so positive and the workshop had done everything and more in contributing to the experiences of the participants, the work was superb. Just superb. SWiTCH James moved over to the plan chest and carefully placed the empty container on the edge of the crowded surface. Now lifting up the large white acrylic paint tub he tried to untighten the jammed screw top lid in order to decant some of the paint out. Previously unable to release the lid with any normal exertion of force, James increased his effort…in one movement the lid shifted, the painted flew out and his trousers were covered with the residual flecks of white acrylic. One of the guys from D-Wing smiled mischievously as he took a gulp of coffee, “James, I didn’t realise you had such torque…” SWiTCH The exhibition at Grendon is only hours away, so much to consider, so many things to get sorted. We’d had a great working party of men from across the wings and it had been a long day already. Aston Villa were at home in the League Cup Semi-Final…I had a ticket but couldn’t be there at Villa Park tonight as the show had to take priority, I consoled myself that I would be able to keep track on the way home. SWiTCH My veganism had somehow become the topic of conversation as numbers gathered in the office, triggered as always by my soya milk being the only option for the coffee and tea on offer. A G-Wing resident looked over and asked, “Would you eat roadkill though?” I answered in the negative, the reasoning behind the question centred on the notion that if the death of the animal was accidental and not as a result of a slaughter house then morally I would be ok to eat it…the moral debate aside it has been a long time since I’d eaten an animal and whilst I don’t condone the way animals are treated in the meat industry, the origins of the animal’s demise isn’t a wholly decisive factor in my choice. After a short but healthy exchange he ended the dialogue with a summarising statement that caused some amusement amongst the other occupants of the office, “I’ve eaten roadkill but I did turn a badger down after having a look at it on the side of the road.” SWiTCH Simon and I exited through security and we were immediately hit by the cold evening air. “I must admit, the level of engagement here is excellent. All of the men who came tonight were really up for it and they produced some lovely work as a result.” We talked through individuals and I reiterated that from my knowledge of them so far that the participants in the workshops would carry what they’d learnt on and make even more interesting imagery. SWiTCH I turned the key in the front door with a freneticism that had built up over the journey home. I had only been able to keep track intermittently and the tension had palpably risen in my bones. Insufficient WiFi and repetitive refreshing had only served to instil anxiety, frustration and panic…the TV burst into life and I noted that the time was well past the 90 minutes. 1-1, a penalty shootout inevitable…No.27 Ahmed El Mohamady in possession deep in Villa territory…SWiTCH Was the portrait of Marie Louise in the right place? SWiTCH …no opposition player going to challenge…seconds remaining…I became aware of my own voice “Go on Elmo!” SWiTCH Needed to look at the position of the Self Portrait again SWiTCH…the perfect cross…the ball clears the last defender and sucks the keeper out of position SWiTCH The wall of printmaking needs changing, the scatter display doesn’t work, mental note to change as soon as you get in tomorrow SWiTCH…No.17 Trezeguet is arriving at the back post…it must be…it is! Letting out a cacophonous roar I raced into the kitchen and in a blind release of adrenalin kicked a chair across the room. Neighbourhoods a mile away would have heard me but the release was spontaneous and unconfined I couldn’t control the burst of energy that poured out of my body. Villa were in the final and we had an exhibition of the work by Grendon residents opening tomorrow. SWiTCH Inhaling the cool morning air and twisting the last of the buttons into position on my navy pea coat I listened to the sound of leaves underfoot as they crunched against a grey rhythmic soundscape of early morning traffic. I walked from the front door and down the path in the direction of the train station. She had embraced me before I’d left and I knew the warmth of it would sustain me through the rest of the day. It was the exhibition event today…James and I had worked so hard, the men had worked so hard we’d done all that we could to convert the gym into a gallery the previous day. Now it was about the visitors and how we could celebrate the achievements of the Grendon residents. The walk was relatively short but it gave me time to feed some nervousness about the event ahead and as I sat down on the train the need for calming distraction was very real. The earphones positioned accordingly I selected Billie Holiday’s “Lady In Satin” and mentally drifted, mesmerised by that incredibly beautiful, broken vocal tone…”Time and time again I said I’d leave you – Time and time again I went away – But then would come the time when I would need you – And once again these words I’ll have to say – I’m a fool to want you – Pity me, I need you – I know it’s wrong, it must be wrong – But right or wrong I can’t get along without you” Billie’s voice settled any uneasiness and took me back to the printmaking workshops that we had done earlier in the month. We’d managed to get master printmaker, Simon Harris to come in and work with the residents and it had been an amazing couple of sessions. Afterwards I’d wanted to get him a small gift and knowing his love of music had picked up a Billie Holiday album for him by way of a thank you. SWiTCH The door opened and greetings were exchanged accordingly, a familiar visitor from D-Wing, and with something to say…“I’m writing an article for ‘Inside Time’ about the exhibition. It was amazing yesterday…Why do they only happen once a year? We should be doing more of them…it was so good.” SWiTCH The visitors poured into the gym, many familiar faces and many people to greet. My manager from the School of Art appeared through the bodies and I immediately hugged her, this is not something I normally do (or have done before) but the support that she’s given to the residency at Grendon has been enormous and for her to be there meant something. It was an unplanned, intuitive gesture and I think she received it in the appreciative manner that it was intended. Colleagues appeared, fellow artists appeared, members of the Ikon family appeared and it was overwhelming to see the level of interest and support swell in the room. For the residents I can only imagine it was a similar feeling. They talked about their work with their guests enthusiastically and you could feel an electricity in the room…an energy that fizzed around the conversations. I took a moment to stand aside at the back of the gym and just observe for a moment…it was wonderful, genuinely wonderful…but I immediately felt a pang of concern and was struck by a thought that would hang over me for the next few days…this seemed like it would be a massive high for the men, would it trigger a corresponding low? SWiTCH “It’s been twenty years since I’ve spoken to anybody for this amount of time. My throat is sore from it, you know what I mean?” The B-Wing resident smiled as he said it and there was a slight sparkle in his eye, earlier in the day I’d introduced him to the current Artist in Residence at the School of Art in Wolverhampton. Rod was one of my ex-students and his work relates to routine and ritual with a particular interest in Japanese ceremony. I knew that with the interests that Rod had in relation to those of this particular resident, whose knowledge of Buddhist practices was extensive, that they would have a lot to talk about and they sustained a healthy and lively discussion almost throughout the entire event. They shared research references and talked about the work on display, at one point (as if in disbelief) the resident approached me with a look of wonder, “That guy there (pointing at Rod) said you taught him…he was one of your students.” I replied positively and noted how interesting it is when the outside world encroaches upon the inside experience, I was seen as theirs perhaps and the realisation that I am also someone else’s might not have registered so readily. A curious thought. SWiTCH Frances from the Marie Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust was at the microphone and her words were very kind towards the work we had been doing. Sally from Koestler Arts followed and likewise complemented the efforts of the men and the quality of the work on show. Jonathan from Ikon too stood up and endorsed the efforts of all involved and then our compere from C-Wing, who had delivered a wonderful speech about Prisoners’ rights to vote was beckoning me forward, I had not planned to talk, I had in mind that it was a platform for the residents, not for me…I reluctantly walked forward and stood behind the mic. SWiTCH Home…tired…everyone asleep. I observed my usual ritual in these moments of sending a teabag into a mug and heading to the fridge for the soya milk. Having flicked the switch and witnessed the first confirming gasps from the kettle I headed upstairs to put a bath on. I reached for the muscle soak from the shelf and poured the gloop into the stream of seething hot water. Before heading back down the stairs to get the tea sorted I noticed through the doorway of the spare room a vertical shaft of light burning a perfect line onto the wall. One of the blinds had not closed properly and the resulting glimmer of the outside night beckoned me hypnotically into the room. Looking out through the gap in the blinds and confronted by the silent blue orange glow of early hours I fixed a gaze upon the top of a tree that gently swayed momentarily in a minor breeze. Everything seemed at peace but at the same time poised for disruption, like it was almost too quiet to last and these were the last pregnant moments before something, somewhere, somehow was going to encroach and break it. The thought of being a witness to that forced my hand to close the blind and extinguish the view in front of me. Better, I thought, that I had known this scene as an unbroken memory. As I turned, my glance settled on the shelves of records and my eyes started to shift across the multitude of coloured spines, before I knew it I was recovering an album and with it tucked under my arm descended the stairs (having taking a detour to turn off the bath water) with the tea sitting next to my turntable I positioned my headphones into a comfortable place and closed my eyes as the hustle and bustle of spoken word that introduces the opening track on Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic “What’s Goin’ On” filled my head. For the next 35 minutes and 38 seconds I sipped tea and drifted in and out of a semi-conscious state punctuated and interspersed with welcome interruptions from Marvin and his warm tones. When the album had finished the silence gave sustenance to a thought…this month had all been about the show and the resident’s work, I had neglected the sketchbook, naturally and rightfully so but still, I had neglected it. SWiTCH “I have so many people to say thank you to but most importantly, I want to thank the residents who have welcomed us, trusted us and worked with us” SWiTCH Shivering momentarily as the sound of the water cycloned its way from the bath, I wrapped myself in the towel and immediately decided that the evening wasn’t over yet. Having loosely dressed I retrieved my sketchbook from my bag and sat downstairs at the dining table with my pencil case open. The digital clock display from the oven glowed and indicated that it was 1.38am. I reviewed the ideas and with fresh impetus took to the pages. Notes gushed from my pen and the puzzles that I had laid down next to the work in progress images started to appear like they could be resolved. More notes. More questions. More ideas. Finally I stood up and moved towards the kettle for a final brew. The clock told me that it was 3.13am and that meant that it might be time for bed. SWiTCH James and I looked at each other across the table and smiled. We had been looking over the written feedback for the show and had both honed in on one comment from one of the residents who had shown his work for the first time, “You forget where you are and feel normal for three hours.”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.