Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“I am a great thief of tender moments.”
My cat is called ‘Steve Marriott’ and it seemed appropriate that, as I sat at the laptop typing with the sound of The Small Faces flowing joyously from the speakers, he would join me at the table. His namesake’s powerful tones issued forth the lines of my favourite song by the band…”I am a little tin soldier that wants to jump into your fire” I pondered on the fact that not only is this just an incredible record but also that the writing had been inspired by my favourite book when I was child. Stroking the soft fur on the neck of my companion and moving my fingers around to his cheek, I smiled as I thought back to the last visit that I’d had at Grendon. I double checked the door after locking it behind me and was greeted by the art rep on C-Wing. “I’ve laid out some work upstairs in the community room. Do you want to pop up?” I signed in at the wing office and followed him up the narrow stairwells to the community room on the fourth floor. The door was closed and he gingerly opened it before shutting it again sharply, “it’s alright, a couple of the lads have got one of their budgies out…just be careful with the door” I am used to not reacting now, everything is as it is at Grendon and I simply signalled a greeting to the resident who lay prostrate, rolled in a rug on the floor with his budgie perched on the edge just in front of his face tweeting at him vociferously. The resident, who I had not met before, turned his head and reciprocated my gesture before returning his gaze to the blue/grey bird in front of him. SWiTCH I sat next to James in the second floor gallery flanked by guests, a really great turn out for our event around the on-going work at Grendon. An early conversation with James had returned my attention to a film that I had been interested in sometime ago in my previous work. Samuel Beckett’s “Film” had been a significant discovery and having expressed some ideas to James about it I realised that it could have some resonances with the residents and the current work. We had decided there and then to screen it at Grendon and again at Ikon as part of an event to share the developing practice. Like so many things that mean something to you in your work, you end up talking about it more than actually looking at it. I felt a renewed sense of connection as I sat quietly watching the film with our guests. Buster Keaton’s character sat ripping up photographs in his rocking chair and I thought to myself just how beautiful this film is and how long it was since I had actually just sat and watched it. A gentle snoring sound began to emanate from a chair not far away and James quelled a chuckle as the film reached its conclusion. SWiTCH One of our regulars from D-Wing burst into the office with great excitement. “I was given permission and have managed to get the old whiteboard from the IT room to my cell. What would you suggest for priming it?” After suggesting a matt base paint would take the shine away and provide a surface to work on our visitor continued with vigour, “I’m thinking of making a portrait of Audrey Hepburn as a robot.” SWiTCH There were once five and twenty tin soldiers. They were brothers, for they had all been made out of the same old tin spoon. They all shouldered their bayonets, held themselves upright, and looked straight before them. Their uniforms were very smart-looking—red and blue—and very splendid. Each was exactly like the rest to a hair, except one who had but one leg. He had been cast last of all, and there had not been quite enough tin to finish him; but he stood as firmly upon his one leg as the others upon their two, and it was he whose fortunes became so remarkable. SWiTCH I stood up and walked to the microphone, I had in my hand the short introduction that had been written by one of our regulars from D-Wing. I spoke about how we’d asked for a response to “Film” from one of the residents and that I would like to read what he had prepared. “Any introduction should not explain away the poetry of a thing, but should simply highlight it. To pick out the poetry in Samuel Beckett’s “Film” , we must start with its central idea: We perceive and we are perceived and this is a premise of our existence or ‘esse est percipi’…” SWiTCH “Is this ok?” Handing me a piece of paper with three paragraphs of typed text on it. He waited while I sat at my desk and read it. “It’s perfect, thank you.” I replied before passing the paper over to James. After a similar amount of time, James responded also “This is great, just what we need.” He smiled in recognition of our comments, “Are you sure? It’s difficult to write an introduction without getting carried away and ending up with thousands of words. If you think it’s ok that’s all good, but do tell me if you think I need work on it.” I found myself simply repeating my earlier assertions, it was exactly the right tone and pitched perfectly for what we had requested. “Come on then, let me show you how to make ‘Cowboy Coffee’ I’m convinced you’ll love it.” We learned that ‘Cowboy Coffee’ was the name given to the in-house prep of ground coffee without the luxury of a cafetière, although the origins of the name at this stage remain a mystery. Having emphatically expressed my dislike of coffee I deferred to James as the only partaker in the room and supped my tea by way of a confirmatory gesture. As grateful as I was for the wonderful text I would not be drinking coffee, ‘cowboy’ or otherwise and let James take the lesson in preparation. After a drawn out process of instruction and guidance followed by a ‘settling’ period, James gently raised the cup to his lips and took a gulp. His face twisted subtly before he turned to our regular, “that’s fucking awful!” SWiTCH I woke with a start, my brow hot and clammy. As I kicked the covers away from my twisted form to reduce the temperature around me I noticed the first glimmer of nascent sunlight creeping under the curtain. Reoccurring dreams…bad dreams…are a routine that I have grown to accept since I was young and with that acceptance comes the ability to slip back into sleep quite quickly. My eyes that had marginally crept open were unusually refusing to slam shut this time and I looked over at the clock. 4.58am. I turned and watched her sleep for a few moments, comforted and calmed I reasoned that a return to slumber was now unlikely, with this thought circling around my mind I arose. Stealing one more comforting glance at her again I headed downstairs to the kettle. SWiTCH As we talked about the paintings on display the budgie launched itself upwards and flew decisively towards me. It landed perfectly on my shoulder and tweeted incessantly into my ear…I didn’t realise this level of penetrating sound was possible from such a small creature. The resident, whose companion this was, walked towards me and gently lifted the bird from its new perch. I was pleased that I had not shown any discomfort and had let the situation play out without reacting too demonstrably. Moments later the budgie returned and it seemed that this diminutive presence and myself were now involved in a game. C-Wing’s art rep smiled as he could see my uncertainty unfolding…the budgie piercingly reconfirmed its presence on my shoulder and another strange footnote was developing. SWiTCH The only ones who did not move from their places were the Tin Soldier and the Lady Dancer. She stood on tiptoe with outstretched arms, and he was just as persevering on his one leg; he never once turned away his eyes from her. SWiTCH James and I were walking purposefully down the ‘M1’ corridor (the longest central walkway that forks off to each wing) on our way to the ‘D’ Wing Social Event. It was the first time that we had been invited and it was one of the regular events that happened on the wings as an opportunity for the residents to meet guests from outside. It felt like an honour to be included and the extension of the invite to us also felt part of being accepted by the community. Familiar faces greeted us as we negotiated the locks and walked into one of the community rooms, refreshments had been prepared and there was a general bustle as an array of guests circulated. Above the noise I heard a familiar voice and was greeted by one of the residents who I recognised from last year’s exhibition but had had limited engagement with during the early stages of the residency. It was good to talk with him and see where he was in terms of his work, I’d remembered a portrait of Bob Marley that he’d presented at one of the first wing meetings and it provided ignition to our dialogue. Soon enough other members of the community had joined in and we were well into a discussion on the ‘Sensation’ exhibition at the Royal Academy when I realised that I hadn’t actually spoken to any of the guests. I located James, a much better networker and mingler than myself, and envied his ability to navigate his way around a group of strangers with such ease. I knew that when we left he would have meetings set up and contacts for people who would be interested in what we were doing. My momentary lapse from the conversation had been noted, “Do you want one of these sandwiches? The vegan ones are there…I wouldn’t touch them though, they’re like cardboard now.” SWiTCH A knock on the door and a new face. He introduced himself and said that he was new on D-Wing and had been hoping to get involved in the art programme. Once we had discussed some introductory materials he looked at the wall and spent some time evaluating the working ideas, notes, test images and reference material that I had layered there. “What’s with Elvis then?” I noted that there was a slight acknowledging smile from other residents who were in the room; they must have reasoned that I would be tired of revisiting the conversation by now…but I welcomed the enquiry…all responses welcome. Having discussed the varied stages of ideation that had brought me to this point our new resident smiled, “that’s really interesting that. I keep coming back to this one with the blurred mask. It’s almost not Elvis, but is…if that makes sense.” SWiTCH If the Soldier had but once called “Here am I!” they might easily enough have heard him, but he did not think it becoming to cry out for help. SWiTCH Having poured the boiling water into the mug and prepared the tea, I moved towards the dining table and reached for a coaster. Placing the mug down, I reached across the table once more for the sketchbook that I had left there the previous day. The clock now read 5.08am and the silence of the house was levying, I was aware of every tiny movement and sound I made. It was proving difficult to concentrate on the pages and reasoning that either it was my hazy head, the sudden start with which I awoke or the penetrating silence that was factoring against me I sought a resolution in my headphones. The record that was next to the turntable was Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”. My first thought was that this wouldn’t be suitable for what I needed. But not being able to focus on anything else, lassitude dictated that I changed my mind quickly and manipulated the vinyl from its sleeve and onto the platter. Back to the sketchbooks and the repetitive rhythms of my morning soundtrack delivered the space I needed to start working. As I focussed on some notes I’d made around Keaton in ‘Film’ the vocals on track two suddenly pronounced themselves in my headphones, “The young man stepped into the hall of mirrors, where he discovered a reflection of himself.” Adding to the existing notes, the pen flowing “Sometimes he saw his real face and sometimes a stranger at his place” SWiTCH The door opened and our latest resident smiled as he came in. “I’ve been thinking about your work a lot since last week and I went to the library and pulled these quotes out for you. I think they’ll be really useful.” He had a small piece of paper and I reached for my notebook to write down the references he had found for me. “The first one is from a text called ‘Annapurna’ by Herzog. “It is an inconceivable experience to attain one’s ideal and at the very same moment to fulfil oneself.”” I scribbled furiously in front of him, I wanted him to see that these references would be used, “I just thought it could fit with some of the things we talked about. The second quote is from ‘Psychological Survival’ by Cohen and Taylor. “The man who exemplifies the ideal is given the highest prestige.” I just wanted to pass them on ‘cos its been on my mind.” I thanked him for his interest and for going to the trouble of tracking down the quotes in the library. Moments like this are why the space is so important, why putting the ideas on the wall is so important. This response, as all previous responses from the residents had been, was simply wonderful. SWiTCH “We’ve been watching the Christine Keeler drama have you?” Jonathan, James and myself were standing on the tube heading for a meeting with the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust. I responded to Jonathan’s question and mentioned one of the later episodes. “There is a wonderful scene with the Doctor where he recites Mearns’ poem while looking in a mirror…I saw a man who wasn’t there.” SWiTCH I walked along the corridor towards the cell on B-Wing. Ahead of me was the art rep and one other B-Wing resident. It was the first time that I had been invited to one of the cells and this occasion had arisen over a discussion around the sculpture that I had been encouraging our B-Wing rep to make. He had meticulously crafted the piece but had realised upon completion of the relatively large spherical form that it would not go through the door of his cell. He had dutifully taken it apart and transferred it in two pieces to one of the community rooms before reconstructing it and placing it carefully on an improvised cushion made from an old exercise mat. It was a wonderful piece of work and we talked about it for some time before he keenly suggested that I see his cell so that I understood for myself the limited space that he had been negotiating in the construction of the piece. I felt trusted in this moment, I felt like I was being given something precious, something personal. The cells are 6ft x 6ft and it takes a moment to accept the dimensions when you view them through the narrow door space. The walls were adorned with artwork and I wondered how he had managed to even construct the sculpture in here in the first place before even considering the narrow doorway through which it wouldn’t pass. We stood for some time talking about some of the drawings and paintings on the wall and then the other resident asked if I would like to see the latest piece he was working on. Before long we had transferred our impromptu meeting to his cell and continued to talk. In this space there was a desk cluttered with paint pots, brushes, works piled and balanced carefully it was like a miniature version of Bacon’s studio and again I marvelled at the proportion of space given to the production of artwork in such a tight environment. When I shook hands and said goodbye for the evening I did so with the feeling that I knew a little bit more about the place I was working in and appreciated the insight I had been afforded by the two men. SWiTCH All at once the window flew open and the Tin Soldier fell head foremost from the third story to the street below. It was a tremendous fall! Over and over he turned in the air, till at last he rested, his cap and bayonet sticking fast between the paving stones, while his one leg stood upright in the air. SWiTCH James and I sat quietly in the car, I reached and turned the volume up as the announcement that Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had ordered a blanket lockdown in response to the Coronavirus outbreak. We had just left Grendon having assured the residents that we had heard nothing and knew nothing about whether the developing situation would prevent us from seeing them the following week. James spoke first, “it’s going to happen to us too isn’t it?” I responded solemnly, “It has to at some point, it just has to.” SWiTCH “I’d been really nervous about showing you this painting, I’m really pleased with the feedback you’ve given me and I can crack on with that now. You’ve given me some confidence with it.” It had taken me a while to get to see this painting but I had managed to convince it’s author that it would be worth sharing, if not with the group then with me on a one-to-one basis. “I’m pleased you’ve shown it to me, because talking and thinking about what we are doing, these moments are what its all about.” He rose from the chair and lifted the painting, with a wide smile he looked at me and said with a confirmatory nod “I am a great thief of tender moments.”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.