Art From Grendon

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Art from Grendon

About a year or so ago I attended a conference and learned about the work of Edmund Clark and his residency at HMP Grendon, the only therapeutic prison in the UK. I was inspired by his talk in that the prison seemed really progressive, so I was really excited when Carlotta offered to send us to Grendon for their art day.


Not really knowing what to expect, Josie and I took the coach that was laid on especially and went through all the normal rigmarole of entering the prison after our 2 hour journey. What was quite amusing was being with lots of other people who aren’t used to such things, and reevaluating just what a loaded ritual it is.


Once we were past security, Josie and I were able to take a brief look around the exhibition before the ceremony begun. There were paintings of all sizes, collages, and sculptures with lots of excited and focussed prisoner artists alongside. There was a buzz.


We were called to the seating area by one of the prisoners on the mic. He immediately explained that he suffers from anxiety and that standing on stage right now is part of his therapy. It seemed he was our MC for the afternoon, but in actual fact, over the course of the presentation, there were a number of people who seemed to have this role, and I understood it as another expression of the Stretch ethos that values prisoner voice, and that everyone should have a chance to be heard.


The Ones in Charge had their moments on the mic too, and between them and the artists themselves, I learned that Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust. This was a great leveller because no-one could say that easily.  Certificates were then awarded, some gained from the Koestler Trust, and after many rounds of applause and happy faces posing for photographs, we got to mingle.


I spoke to one young chap who had 5 paintings on show. Each one of them was very different and his favourite a large piece covered with his hand and foot prints from acrylic paint. He laughed as he said he really enjoyed getting messy. Josie and I both agreed that one of his paintings looked rather like a Howard Hodgkin, but the youngster had never heard of him but enjoyed being compared to an established artist. He then went on to explain that his favourite thing to make are sculptures from origame birds. He quoted something like 15000 birds that he’s made, and each of them have flown away (he gave them as gifts to his famly). We agreed that the birds are precious, both in their delicate and intricate make up, and the fact that so many hours go into making them – that’s why they make such perfect gifts and his sadness at letting them go is all part of that.


Lunch was then served, and me and Josie grabbed some seats down the front in preparation for the performances that were to follow. During this time, a youngish man who looked a bit like Norman Wisdom asked if we would guard his lunch with our lives, to which we said we would. When he came back, he told us about his experiences of the prison. It sounded a bit like Art College in that you have to apply for it, it’s really hard to get in, and it’s intense when you get there. However, he also said that one of the challenges is feeling that some of the inmates are there for the wrong reasons, that they don’t care about not reoffending, they just want to be in a nicer prison. I wondered then at the rigour of the application process, or if this was simply personality differences (just like at Art College).


His name was Steve and he then told me that he was going to perform two raps. The second was to be a kind of rehearsal for when they get a visit from the Emergency Services next week for Victim Awareness Week. His feelings were that simply because someone puts on a uniform and gets paid, it doesn’t mean they are immune to the trauma that the job at hand entails. Although I could tell this was coming very much from the heart, nothing could prepare me for the gut-wrench when it came to his performance. I took note of some of the lyrics and I hope Steve won’t mind me quoting them here…’what you do is phenonmenal, The direct indirect victims, The ripple effect of our offending…You’re human too, This must effect you too, Being the barer of bad news…

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The chorus really ramped up as it emulated the phone conversations between the Emergency Services and callers, ‘This is the Emergency Services, what is it you need? Please get here! He’s hurt, He’s lying, She’s bleeding, He’s dying…’ [sic] The fact of Steve playing both roles in this section made the song so powerful as his empathy is engaging doublefold. This, coupled with a really effective beat and melody, I was in tears.

Then if that wasn’t enough, the performance set was completed with an inmate – who looked rather like Father John Misty – playing Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the keyboards. Probably one of the most poignant tunes known to man, this was not alleviating my now heightened emotional state. When he finished he told us that he’d only had his keyboard for three months, and that he practises every single night in his cell. It whisks him away, he loves it.


And so the day came to an end, and I came away inspired and emotionally stirred. I really hope the passion these men have found for art will fly them to high places, like origami birds.