Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“What does an inner-city Birmingham boy know about landscapes?”
I glanced over at the clock. It digitally danced 02:16 and after confirming the time I returned my gaze to the view out of the bedroom window. I can see the studio from this position and I briefly considered heading out there. In the blue-black filter of night that stretched before me I could see the snowfall had lightened the night’s palette, but with a view of just how cold it was I decided that I didn’t fancy the quick sprint that would get me to my studio desk. Instead, I simply continued to look out in the quiet of the hour. My mind inevitably strayed to Grendon. What would the men be doing now? Sleeping? Not sleeping? I ventured a thought that just maybe one of them might be making some artwork…who knows? Not me. The desperate thought that I might be slipping from their consciousness had been rattling around for weeks and now the tired hum around my head was sharpening the focus on it. I reached for the sketchbooks on the dresser and flicked to the pages that now contained copies of their letters and started to read again. SWiTCH “Do you think you’ll have a new blog post soon?” I had been hoping that this question wasn’t going to come up. James waited for my response and I thought I’d just be honest. “I haven’t been working on one. I’m scared that I’m going to bore myself let alone everyone else. You know, just another blog about how I’m still not back at Grendon and I’m concerned that the men are going to forget me.” SWiTCH What a shock for the cook as she cut open her fish. ‘Well bless my soul!’ she said. ‘It’s the little tin soldier the young master lost. I must take it to him. He will be happy to see his soldier again.’ SWiTCH I adjusted the mask to tighten further around the lower half of my face and looked down at the Spotify list as the train pulled away steadily with a hum that I hadn’t heard for a number of weeks. “What shall I listen to?” whispered my internal voice as I adjusted my position in the seat. Scanning the numerous playlists, I failed to settle on a decision and became distracted by the sudden realisation that I was completely alone in the carriage. The space I occupied felt like a tight space…a space that was familiar yet dislocating. I was outside but inside, free yet trapped, moving yet suspended and each of these revelations pricked my brain like a series of small pins puncturing the layer of matter between my skull and my internal whispering. Reaching into my pocket for some hand sanitiser I ritually deposited some into my palm and distributed it across the surface of my hands. The hum of the train now a speeding whirling sound encroached too readily upon my senses and I returned to the small screen and the Spotify playlists. Without any thought I selected Gene Clark’s “Echoes”, closed my eyes and listened to the words… “On the streets you look again at the places you have been, or the moments that you thought ‘Where am I going’. Though the walls are like the dead, they reflect the things you’ve said and the echoes in your head continue showing.” I was on my way to Ikon to talk about Grendon. SWiTCH T’s letter was entertaining as always, I could hear his voice and see the curl of his lips as I read. “All I have is my art and writing to process my existence, but it’s all I could ever need, and I’d be very happy to get your guidance.” I opened the laptop and typed in the web address for the Email a Prisoner system. Searching my inbox, I selected T’s name and clicked ‘reply’ SWiTCH “The brief that we’re setting is called ‘From Night into Day’ we’d like you to work on it alongside the men at Grendon. The students were all gathered in our regular online meeting. They’ve been given the same information pack as you and we are hoping that when lockdown finally ends you will be able to show the work that you make alongside the residents as part of a showcase exhibition. The first body of research material you have is about a painting by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. Have a read through and see what you can find out, the first stage is to have a think through the issues that arise from this initial research and then generate some ideas. We want you to approach this through your own practice and not feel that you have to work in unfamiliar ways…unless you want to that is.” SWiTCH “You need to sort the stuff out in that corner, that would give you a bit more room.” She stood in the doorway of the studio and pointed at the stacked, bulging cardboard boxes. I’d been complaining that my studio was getting cluttered and that I needed to do something now that I had been temporarily unable to utilise the space at Grendon. “What’s in that one?” The box in question was damaged and structurally groaning under the weight of its contents. “I don’t know…it’s all useful” she shook her head in exasperation, “you’re a hoarder!” As she carefully lifted some of the contents, I spotted a red spine through the split in the wall of the box that was familiar, the memory was foggy but if it was what I thought it was then it could be a strikingly fortuitous discovery. “I prefer ‘magpie’ rather than hoarder” I stated before lurching forward to look in the box. In one hand she held a ‘Starsky and Hutch’ annual from 1978, in the other was an old copy of ‘Tonight at Noon’ by Adrian Henri that had sat at the top, but I was busy recovering the red spined treasure that was further down…I felt a butterfly flit through my stomach as the book was revealed in my hand and there it was the story from my childhood that has been constantly on my mind of late. SWiTCH I keep going back to Bas Jan Ader. Throughout my time in education, I needed someone like him, yet his work didn’t appear to me until I started the PhD at Central Saint Martins back in 2011. Discovering him wasn’t easy, my supervisor Susan had mentioned him briefly and I’d made a note in my sketchbook along with some other names and references to look at. Susan’s voice is a soothing voice and it always calms me, in moments where I am stuck for words I often think ‘what would Susan say?’ and the process of asking that question restarts my brain and re-activates my capacity to respond. “Do you know the work of Bas Jan Ader?” I responded with a quick negative, “…have a look at him, you might find something interesting there.” SWiTCH I was well into reading the letters now and the clock now signalled 3.03 “Hey Dean, What’s good mate? How’s Boy George? Just like Elvis is ‘The Man’ Boy George is well…err…’The Boy’. Happy to do something for the project you set will keep thinking about it. Been working on that Ian Brown portrait I’ve been commissioned to do and its going well, been doing a few other bits too. Look, I really hope you and yours are all OK and I miss coming up to see you, hopefully not too long now.” SWiTCH The tin soldier could not believe his eyes when he found himself staring once again at the lovely ballerina. ‘Can it be possible,’ he asked himself, ‘that I am back in the same house?’ SWiTCH There were lots of questions around the restrictions that the residents at Grendon would be currently experiencing. The students were keen and had been fully responsive to the collaborative brief that we had set. Just as I was due to close the conference call one of the students asked, “Will you do the brief alongside us?” Initially I floundered a bit with my response, mumbling something about the fact that I was already making work around Grendon but then in that moment it dawned on me that it might not be such a bad idea. SWiTCH Now I think back about it, I’d almost forgotten Bas Jan Ader by that time, it had been a few months since Susan had mentioned him and I hadn’t had much luck in tracking down any publications. Here I was in the Tate Modern book shop browsing, killing time whilst the students were gathering in the Turbine Hall. I sighed audibly as my eyes flitted across the usual bursts of coloured posters, postcards, postcard books, tea towels, neck scarfs, jigsaws etc…etc…I went over to a shelf in the far corner of the shop that didn’t look promising, lots of small spines jammed together and hardly touched. I knelt down to get a better view of what might be a gem without any expectation and then momentarily shook as I spotted the words ‘Suspended Between Laughter and Tears’ I carefully lifted it from between the other publications and there was the black and white picture on the cover of Bas Jan Ader mid-cry. I opened it and gently leafed through the pages, here it was the first glimpse of something on paper about the work of the man. It had a fairly substantial crease on the spine and scuffs all along the bottom edge of the cover, but I rushed to the till and waited in line. “Have you got another one of these in the stockroom?” I enquired politely, “this one is damaged” The tall thin man behind the counter lifted the book from my grasp and fingered the crease along the spine before inspecting the scuffs on the cover. “No, this is the only one of these we would have. I don’t actually know where we got this from or why we’ve even got it.” I knew that I would be taking it home anyway, but I felt compelled to at least try and get a discount, “any reduction in the price to reflect the damage?” It didn’t even take a second to consider, “No. It’s only £8.50, we wouldn’t discount it.” SWiTCH One of the residents at Grendon has developed his own blog during lockdown to share ideas about his artwork and his thoughts around how he develops his paintings and prints. He has been a vocal supporter of my blog within the Grendon communities and often commented on how it provides insights into the way I am working. Whilst reading the latest from Steel Door Studios I was minded to return to my comments around my lack of motivation to deliver a new blog post to James. The blog, if nothing else, is a way of speaking to the residents at Grendon and I have to take every opportunity to do that so that they know I’m still here. SWiTCH “Oh that’s a wonderful idea, I do think that will work.” Jonathan smiled as he leafed through the latest sketchbook ideas around Boy George and a Grendon Choir. “We must try and contact him and see if we can get him involved.” I had laid out all the draft pages for the book in the main gallery space on the second floor. I took a moment to smile inwardly, if I could talk to my 15-year-old self and tell him that one day he would be standing in the Ikon Gallery and discussing a forthcoming publication with the Head of Learning and the Director I know he wouldn’t have believed it. The focus had shifted slightly from the pages to Boy George, “Hasn’t he got connections to Walsall like yourself?” SWiTCH James and I had been talking about doing some sort of online event around my use of sketchbooks. My phone PiNGED to signal a text and our earlier conversation had clearly resonated with James who was now mapping out a possible plan for the event that we had discussed so briefly. ‘Do you know any other artists that rely on sketchbooks in their work? Could be a possibility for the Q&A’ I responded immediately, ‘Marcel Duchamp, Cindy Sherman (more notebooks) Davinci!’ PiNG ‘Living/willing/available!’ I chuckled to myself as I realised the mistake I had made in misinterpreting James’s request. ‘Aah…see what you mean…I’ll have a think’ moments later I remembered the book I had from Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences exhibition and the images contained within of his sketchbooks. ‘Grayson Perry’ PiNG ‘Anyone that you’re in contact with?’ I typed again ‘I thought that was a good one as the men have mentioned him at Grendon’ SWiTCH “What would possess a man to venture out across the open ocean alone in a small sailboat scarcely 12 feet in length?” SWiTCH “He lived in Walsall and I think that he shared digs with Martin Degville from Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Martin Degville was on the Foundation course at Walsall college a decade or so before I was. The lecturers had lots of stories about him and were still sharing them when I was studying there.” The conversation remained focussed on George and I was suddenly minded of the first time I had presented work at Ikon. There was a twinkle in Jonathan’s eyes that had accompanied his first viewing of my earliest ‘Steptoe’ performance film and I was seeing a similar acknowledgement that perhaps I might be on to something. “It just makes sense to me this connection, the ideas around masculinity within Grendon would be utterly enhanced by your interest in Boy George.” Linzi interjected, she had remained focused on the draft pages. “These letters from the men are just beautiful.” SWiTCH The sketchbook was laid out in front of me and I had grafted the images of three key figures into its pages. I wrote out a series of direct questions between the figures…What does Boy George say to Elvis? What does Elvis say to Bas Jan Ader? What does Bas Jan Ader say to Boy George? What does Boy George say to Bas Jan Ader? What does Bas Jan Ader say to Elvis? What does Elvis say to Boy George? I busied my pen in responding to these questions and thinking about how on a practical level any arising issues could instruct the next developments in the work…I wrote one last question at the top of the page. What do these men say to the Grendon residents? I was gone now, for hours. Nothing but my kettle and well stocked mug to accompany and sustain my busy and frenzied entries in the sketchbook. Ideas flew into my mind as rapidly as they departed and it was only the constant flow of the pen that aided me in pinning them down, even in the most rudimentary of forms. From Night into Day…Day and Night…Cry and Laugh…On and Off…Short performance film…masked/unmasked…Night and Day…Nietzsche’s soul or mind…Mind or soul… Night/Day… Elvis/George… Manly/unmanly… toxic…toxic… cry…laugh… mask…mask…mask… toxic… boys don’t cry… men don’t cry…The MAN…The BOY…I put the pen down and surveyed the pages that I had completed. There was plenty to go on and I felt that the studio would soon be the site of some new test films. That’s sometimes how it is I thought, days and weeks pass in the studio and build towards something and sometimes that something pours itself out onto the pages. I switched the kettle on again, reached for a tea bag and selected the sound of Lee Hazlewood’s “Forty” album. Now there’s a manly man I thought as I viewed the album sleeve and admired his broom like moustache. I picked up the pen once more and wrote one more line into the pages. TO SEE MASCULiNiTY AS A GENDERED PERFORMANCE THREATENS THE iNTEGRiTY OF MASCULiNiTY iTSELF…SWiTCH The anticipation was building for me, I had registered myself on the Video Call App for prisons and had requested my first meeting with one of the residents. C wing’s Art Rep would be getting an invite and I hoped that we would be shortly able to ‘meet’ for the first time since lockdown had started. As I pressed the request button, I felt that this was the start of getting back to Grendon and that felt massive for the residency to finally be heading in the direction of some normality. SWiTCH He hadn’t ever considered changing until the day somebody he admired asked him the question, “What does an inner-city Birmingham boy know about landscapes?”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.