Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“I will be your Jodie Comer!”
The topless man with the nappy like shorts circled the old football pitch at a steady pace. His ageing leathery skin glistened in the heat, he just ran and ran, lap after lap, circling again and again…SWiTCH The wings were hit and miss in terms of activity, I hadn’t fully got to grips with when the men would be in or out of their cells, visible or invisible. Sometimes we would go to the wings and they were quiet and still with not a soul in sight, other times there was a nascent bustle as the corridors whispered and muttered back into life with outlines of figures and shadows cast in doorways, signalling the slow return of a communal environment. The residents were still under restricted release from their cells with half the wing allowed out for a short period that switched over to the other half of the wing at a point that was evading me during this early stage of return. I’ve always said that each wing is different and I couldn’t quite pin the times down of who was out, and when, on A or B wing compared to C, D or F. The resolution was to simply keep appearing and keep hoping that the faces that I’d known before lockdown would re-emerge and remember me. I knew from letters that I’d received that some faces had moved on and I wouldn’t see them here again, for the ones that remained I just had to hope that we could pick up from where we’d left off…a hope that I knew would need time and effort all round. I also figured that new faces would have arrived and may soon be regular to me. I was back, properly back and no matter how hit and miss it was, it felt good. SWiTCH A shaft of sunlight was piercing through the bedroom curtains and I awoke with the light bristling against my eyelids. I had my second vaccination the day before and the side effects, whilst fairly minor, had served me with a temperature and headache and as I managed my frame from a horizontal to vertical position I felt hot and clammy still. The pain in my head seemed to be a memory from the night before and I reasoned that a couple of paracetamol would curb any residual discomfort. I didn’t want to disturb her slumber, she was back home and that was more than enough. I crept past her and headed downstairs to the kettle. It was 5.38am. SWiTCH THE WALL SENDS ONE BACK TO ONESELF. iN PRiSON THE iNMATE iS WALLED iN WiTHiN HiS OR HER OWN PAST, CONFiNED iN THE PANORAMA OF MEMORiES. SWiTCH In the studio/office at Grendon I often sing. James has become used to my impromptu performances. I’ve reasoned that it is a lack of music in the space, something I would not normally work without, that has made me prone to these vocal outbursts. A song usually springs to mind from somewhere, and in this moment, I had glanced at the paper that I have taped above my desk. On it are various quotes from conversations that we’ve had with the men, some funny, some poignant, often both of those things. James has often featured, “Did Dolly Parton write ‘The Times Are a-Changin’” is a favourite amongst the men, as too is “Who is Scott Walker?” When we returned after the lockdowns I had remarked to James that the A4 paper was full, he commented back. “Maybe you should put a new sheet up underneath, but with less quotes from me saying stupid things.” I dutifully obliged and at the top of the new sheet wrote, “Maybe you should put a new sheet up underneath, but with less quotes from me saying stupid things.” The Scott Walker comment provided the catalyst for me to begin singing and in deep rich tones I belted out (what sounded to me like) a pitch perfect rendition of “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti” from the ‘The Moviegoer’ album. I raised my arms as the chorus approached, “…BLE–SSED ARE THE PER–SECU–TED” James just smiled and without looking up said, “Dean…nobody would believe working with an artist could be this way.” SWiTCH But beyond the hills? Eh? Perhaps it’s still green. SWiTCH I’d set the press up and had been inking up the plates. It was quiet on the education wing and I knew that I would be undisturbed as I worked, as I palmed off the last of the excess ink I looked over at the Boy George annual on my desk and noted to myself that this was an opportunity to test an idea that had first been on my mind back before the first lockdown. An idea for a print sequence. Today would be the day. SWiTCH The students had presented some really interesting work for the ‘From Night into Day’ brief and we were bringing the crit to a close. There had been such an array of responses and I was excited to share some of these concepts with the men in a couple of days when I would be back at Grendon. From cuddling concrete to durational thermography, video performance and live performance to sculptural assemblage and stitched canvasses. The group had delivered, and the prospect of an exhibition with these pieces combined with the men’s work was starting to look promising. James interjected and asked if he could read something to the students, it was the latest blog post from one of the residents on C Wing and James wanted to share it so that the students could get a flavour of the residency. “As for what I’m producing, well initially I was going to do a painting relating to a sense of freedom as my own particular take on ‘From Night into Day’ is an interpretation of waking from the nightmare which is prison however, due to my initial sketches being drawn in ink using cross hatching, I was encouraged to consider creating a small series of intaglio prints depicting my ideas. After mentioning that it took a decade of incarceration before beginning to see any light at the end of the tunnel that concept began to solidify. So, the paint brushes have been shelved for now as not only will I be spending the next few weeks etching intaglio plates in preparation for the printing, our resident artist boys have also given me another interesting task/challenge, I’ve been passed a handmade sketch book only without the white drawing paper in it, instead it has a dozen leaves of black and white Elvis photos depicting his performances. Alongside this I’ve been given a white ink pen and asked to do some of my drawings on top of the images. What a really interesting concept, I would never have thought to take this approach myself, it certainly has me intrigued to see where it’ll end up. Watch this space.” SWiTCH The topless man with the nappy like shorts circled the old football pitch at a steady pace. His ageing leathery skin glistened in the heat. He just ran and ran, lap after lap, circling again and again…SWiTCH I threw the two tablets to the back of my throat and after swigging enough tea to send them south I rested the mug on the table and reached for the stack of sketchbooks, at the bottom of the pile was my “Tin Soldier” book. During the last blog I’d quoted from the final page and my thought in that moment was how will I write now that the Tin Soldier has jumped into the fire. SWiTCH “You don’t see that every day!” James chuckled at my remark as we both looked across the old football pitch that is now annexed to the extended car park at Grendon. The figure of an older man in nothing but a pair of blue shorts (hitched up so they looked like a giant nappy) was jogging around the perimeter of the field. It was the hottest day we’d had all year and the heat was punishing to say the least, how anyone could jog in these conditions was mindboggling to me and the vision confounded me even further when the figure suddenly broke into intermittent high-speed sprinting. His ageing skin was wet and leathery and as the routine unfolded we both stood by our cars mesmerised by the sheer will of the act. “He must be a Spring Hill resident on his daily exercise” commented James, “Whoever he is, I can’t believe he can run like that in this heat, I’m struggling just standing up.” Picking up my bag and glancing back once more with a minor level of incredulity we turned to head in to Grendon. SWiTCH I opened the letter and quickly looked over the contents, “Dean, just a note to ask if you can find me a quote, it’s for the N&D poem you wanted. The trouble is I can’t fully recall the quote, or the author. I think a pretty close version is “No more set aside for prisoners as night.” I’m pretty sure it’s Beckett. I believe the malformed version I’ve provided is enough for it to be found. I wish it to be a springboard for the poem I’ll write…a response to the quote if you like. I think it may be from Beckett’s Trilogy – maybe you could find a copy. My first thoughts are about Night being a metaphor for hope, but I’m also interested in the idea that we become nocturnal versions of ourselves as soon as it gets dark. Of course, day has an appearance but only as a confronting silent partner. Anyways, Take Care and pass on my regards to James. SWiTCH The handle wound as my hands operated at a careful and steady pace, I watched in anticipation as the press did its work and the hidden plate sat obscured beneath the layers of paper and blanket. Soon it would reveal whether there was something in the idea or not. SWiTCH My temperature hadn’t seemed to abate but, with the sketchbooks to one side, I had re-read the Tin Soldier book once again. It still reached out to me, just like it had always done. The final words coincided with my final slurp of tea and I placed the book on the table before heading back to the kettle. As I listened to the building gasps issuing forth from the spout into the quiet, I pondered again the impact that the Tin Soldier had made. The first male role model I’d had as a child I thought. SWiTCH I googled the line again and again…variations that included Beckett and discarded him but nothing would come up that was even vaguely like the line I’d been sent. Beckett’s Trilogy threw nothing significant up either. Just as I was about to give up the search propelled a reference that I’d not considered for a very long time…there on the screen in bold Endgame Incarcerated: Prison Structures in Beckett’s Play. I read on and soon I was entrenched in a whole wealth of possibility in relation to the work I’m making and the subtleties of this Beckett play. I picked up my sketchbook and began writing. SWiTCH The topless man with the nappy like shorts circled the old football pitch at a steady pace. His ageing leathery skin glistened in the heat, he just ran and ran, lap after lap, circling again and again. SWiTCH Yesterday! What does this mean? Yesterday! SWiTCH “I must thank you by the way”, his lips curled in a familiar upward stroke before he enquired, “What for?” “It was that quote you asked me to find, I mean I couldn’t track it down at all but it led me on to ‘Endgame’”. His expression changed in an instant to a confirmatory look of joy, “Love Endgame, just love it…Have I ever told you about my story of how I first encountered Endgame?” SWiTCH With the rest, in the end, the shadows, the murmurs, all the trouble, to end up with. SWiTCH One of the first things I’d read about Grendon when I got the residency was the Noel ‘Razor’ Smith book “A Rusty Gun”. Through the network of stories and characters so richly described within the pages I had conjured a picture of the wings, the landings, the cells. I remember thinking to myself that whilst I may get to see these more private spaces I may never be part of the conversations, those moments when after therapy a couple of residents may sit and chat over a cup of tea, discussing the day gone and the day ahead. Today, it happened and I can’t express what it meant to be part of it. I was in the corridor with a couple of guys from D-Wing talking about their latest work. “I’m working in a photorealist style at the moment and I’m there technically but I wanted to talk to you because, I want to do more than just give people something that’s technique alone…do you know what I mean, like it has to have something more than just being technically good.” We talked for a few moments more about masks, a conversation that we’d had before lockdown all those months ago and I was suggesting that the interest in this subject could be worked out in the paintings. “Tell you what, if you’ve got five minutes you could pop to my cell and you could see what I’ve been working on.” I followed and was soon discussing a couple of really well executed paintings. “That one of Jodie Comer is driving me up the wall. It’s her hands…they just look wrong. I just stare at it all the time, I’ve scaled them down once and still don’t think I’ve got them sorted.” I went to sit down on the bed and immediately stood back up, “Sorry I was going to sit on your bed then.” This was his space I reasoned and I shouldn’t just assume that I can make myself at home. “Don’t worry at all mate, take a seat there. Do you want a cuppa?” SWiTCH The topless man with the nappy like shorts circled the old football pitch at a steady and now familiar pace. His ageing leathery skin glistened in the heat, he just ran and ran, lap after lap, circling again and again. SWiTCH “Look at this.” I thrust the book towards James who had just arrived at the main Starbucks at North Warwick Services, “read that page there. We’ve got to get him in to Grendon if we can.” SWiTCH THE SYSTEMATiC REPETiTiON OF MiNUTE MOVEMENTS, FULL OF FRAGMENTS OF WELL KNOWN TALES AND ECHOES OF TiRESOME iTERATiVE GESTURES. SWiTCH “I’ve made this for you.” I handed over a hand bound sketchbook that I’d put together using an old Elvis fanzine for pages and some recycled card packaging for a cover. “What’s this? You made this for me?” I nodded and before passing over a white Posca pen. “I want you to just play around with the line transparent line figures that you’ve been using in your paintings. Don’t worry about what is already on the pages, just work over them and we’ll see what happens…I think it could be a really interesting exercise.” SWiTCH My interest in masks has been there pretty much since day one of the residency and I have developed a series of works that deal with concepts around masks and incarceration. Grayson Perry’s book “The Decent of Man” had been there at the beginning too. I’d leant it to a D-Wing resident and had in truth forgotten that he’d got it. When he returned it to me he was animated, enthusiastic, “this guy, I fuckin’ can’t get enough of him, I have so much admiration for what he does and what he writes, just incredible brother.” SWiTCH Why this farce, day after day? SWiTCH Having been joined in the D-Wing cell by two other residents, time had slipped away and it had been nearly an hour that we had talked. The dialogue had travelled a distance, taking in masks and Francis Bacon and writing and TV and singer, Ian Brown and Polish borscht and masculine failure and cyclical stasis before returning, finally to the latest work, “You sorted those hands out on Jodie yet?” The slightly mischievous enquiry elicited a sigh and shake of the head from the owner of the cell and I tried to offer some advice, “you’re working from a photograph, that means that if the lens has distorted the hands then they will look distorted in your painting. It would be different if you were drawing from life.” After a moment’s silence, one of the men thrust his hands forward in a configuration that mimicked the painting, “I’ll be your Jodie Comer!”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.