Honesty in art

Author Rachel Billington visited Edmund Clark and inmates of HMP Grendon:

Some people don’t see the point of Art with a capital ‘A’ or even with a small ‘a’ . How unlucky for them! This month I’m reporting on two art projects, one very well known throughout the prisons, the great Koestler Trust, and the other less well known and taking place in that surviving centre of sanity in the prison estate, HMP Grendon. I’ll begin with Grendon.

Grendon is a therapeutic prison, the therapeutic prison in the UK since there is only one, and prisoners must volunteer to go there and agree to the code of conduct. Some principles of behaviour are painted on the pillars of the building decorating a wall in the room where the men meet for daily group therapy: Democratic, Tolerance, Facing Reality, Community.

Ed Clark who, as Artist in Residence, invited me to visit the prison is an unusual man. From early on in his very successful career as a photographer, he showed an interest in criminality and how it affects and is affected by society. He believes that prisons are a microcosm of society. Following a postgrad working with youth car criminals in East London, he became interested in the reasons we lock people up and how we look after them. To date, he has published photographic books about ageing prisoners in long-term custody, called Still Life Killing Time, and three books including one on Guantanamo which explore the hidden experiences and spaces of control and incarceration in the so-called War on Terror.

Edmund Clark, HMP Grendon (2016) © Edmund Clark

So what can a professional photographer of Ed’s stature bring to Grendon? Clearly he cannot teach them to use cameras. First of all he brings his admiration of the atmosphere of the place which is created by the men themselves as they push themselves into uncomfortable areas of self-recognition. He makes a point of sitting in therapy sessions and management meetings when possible and told me, ‘Grendon is one of the most Utopian places I’ve ever worked in.’ He is not an art teacher. His aim, a more profound one, is to encourage the men to understand and react to their own work. With this in mind he has instituted exhibitions of art in the prison to which visitors from outside are invited. This year he hopes to involve Koestler judges in the scheme since many of the men have entered and won prizes from the Trust. He points out, as I must say I often feel myself, that the Koestler exhibitions, wonderful though they are, miss one important element, the artists themselves.

The other strand of Ed’s project concerns his own work and at the end of his three year term in Grendon, his sponsoring gallery, the Ikon in Birmingham, will hold an exhibition of his photographs from inside the prison. He hopes that this will influence people outside prison towards a greater sympathy and understanding. But, I ask him, surely he can’t photograph the men he’s working with? The answer is surprising and not yet fully developed. Essentially, as well as taking architectural photos as illustrated on this page, he is also making ‘pin-hole’ photographic portraits of the men in which they are unrecognisable as individuals, although obviously male and human. He then gives copies to the men and asks for their reaction.

This is the cue for us to go on the wing and meet some of his artists. The atmosphere is relaxed. Clearly Ed does not like to play a dominating role. He has suggested men bring their work for me to look at and I am immediately astonished by the range and quality, not surprisingly as many, like Darren who makes sculptures from bread, are Koestler award-dinners. Chris, the wing rep who had never tried drawing before, told me how exciting it was to see his work hanging in the prison exhibition and be able to discuss what he was up to with visitors.

Then Ronnie appeared with Ed’s pinhole image of himself and his response to it. With a good mixture of wit and seriousness, he explained that he’d left it on his floor so that people could walk on it just as he had walked on others outside prison. This explained the dirt, ash, old tea-bag but what about the tissue shaped like a a flower? This was made and painted by his young daughter, he told me, and it represented hopefulness for the future. I also met men like Pete, new editor of the excellent Grendon newsletter who introduced me to Tom, a poet, who has already won a Platinum Koestler award and Rosca and Moses who, headphones in place, were making music or rapping in the background.

Grendon is not an easy place to be. The honesty and engagement necessary would be a challenge for anyone and most of the men are trying to emerge from a long difficult history. Ed’s next project is to put on [a session borrowing elements of ‘psychodrama’ -ED] of the Oresteia, a Greek trilogy of plays written 2500 years ago. They are now considered high culture, as Ed points out, but he feels the subject matter of violence and catharsis are just as relevant today. He is also making a series of pressed flower images. It seems that, like Ronnie’s daughter, he believes that hopefulness is a part of the story.

(excerpt from Month by month by Rachel Billington, originally published in InsideTime June 2017 issue)

Edmund Clark’s exhibition at Ikon opens on 6 December.

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