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Artist Edmund Clark in conversation with Director of Ikon Gallery, Jonathan Watkins.

Jonathan Watkins: Could you describe how you relate to the men at Grendon, in particular through the regular meetings you have with them to discuss their own art work?

Edmund Clark: During evenings I work with the men to develop their own art practice on one of the wings. Those attending have to get permission from their community to come and work with me and to have access to the materials available through the residency. For these meetings they will bring work they have been making and we discuss it.

JW: Are these works that they have been making in their cells, not as part of art therapy or anything?

EC: Overwhelmingly yes, I think they see this work as very separate to art therapy. Art therapy is not so much concerned with conventional artistic practice, it focuses more on expression and what the therapist can see in that, in order to help them learn about themselves, whereas this is something they want to do in their own time. Some are very good and have quite developed practices – perhaps because they went to art college, or they might have been in other prisons with more structured art lessons.

JW: What is the impulse do you think? It would be interesting to know if there is a way they see art functioning in their lives, Is there a definition of art they share that is distinct or reflective of their backgrounds and/or their present circumstances?

EC: It varies. Typically, I think they see it simply as “I want to be able to draw this or paint this”.

JW: So it’s mainly about depiction, about representation?

EC: Yes, I think that’s the starting point for most. And there are lots of people who make models out of various materials, including matchsticks, and that involves a very repetitive process. I encourage people to try and experiment and make their work as individual as possible through painting or using their own designs and sometimes that’s successful. There was one guy who wanted to work with sequins, following shop-bought designs, but then I got him to paint his own picture and turn that into his own sequin thing, which was great and the end result amazing.

JW: Do the men making matchstick models care if it’s art or not?

EC: They don’t, no. I think they’d say it’s a craft thing. Some people are intimidated by the idea of art, and so, you know, let’s keep it simple. I try to use the group dynamic in which people are prepared to share ideas, especially those with more developed practices, to get them to help, but essentially I try to make meetings as accessible as possible.

JW: Can you describe the kind of room where the meetings take place?

EC: Usually in one of the smaller therapy rooms, with about eight to ten chairs, and we just sit around in it with work propped up on a table or radiators. It’s not the place and time for making work, that would actually be impractical for various logistical reasons.

JW: How much do they know about your own work? Do they have any difficulty with photography as an art practice? Do they accept it?

EC: I’m not sure they really think about it as art; rather as a process of making images. I think they are probably more interested in the subject matter rather than the actual method and the form my work takes. They’re interested in places where I’ve been, the kind of people I’ve met and what I’ve done in those places.

JW: What about the role of art as they see it within the context of prison? Do they see it as something that might make them better?

EC: That’s a very interesting question. I get a sense with some of the men that it’s part of the process they’re going through at Grendon, learning about themselves. They are going through a transition towards the kind of life they want, without criminality, and so there’s a certain opening of horizons, learning and trying new things. I think perhaps in that context some of the men see art as something worth exploring.

JW: Does the fact that Grendon is a therapeutic prison inform the conversations that they have about their work, so that you find yourself talking about things more emotionally than you might, say, in an art school tutorial?

EC: Sometimes group discussions move in that direction. Also some of the conversations can get quite political around the nature of incarceration and the law…

JW: … and then the artwork becomes a sort of vehicle for conversation?

EC: Well, I’m not a painter, I’m not a sculptor, I don’t work with plastic arts, but one thing I can bring to them is a reasonably wide range of references across the arts. I see those evening sessions primarily as a place to exchange ideas and encourage people to engage with creative practice, and to learn from each other. At their best those sessions can be transformative. You can get a group of six to eight men who are sharing ideas about their work and you can see the engagement, the enthusiasm… it can be crackling all around you and that’s amazing.

I’m kind of dropped in there. I’m not a therapist, I’m not a prison officer, I’m there, obviously with a different role and a different perspective on what happens in prison. I get a sense that the men find that interesting and it gives them a space to talk, to talk about things, to consider things in ways they wouldn’t normally do.

JW: And then they go back to prison cells which, for them, also function as studios?

EC: Some of them really are tiny, and some men might be working on 4′ x 5′ canvases so they can get very crowded and chaotic.

JW: It is a selection of work made in the cells that we’ve seen in the exhibitions, inside Grendon, that you have organised with the men…

EC: I believe it’s very important that the men who are making work get the chance to talk about their work as artists rather than as prisoners. I know from my own experience that it’s only through talking about your own work – having to find the words to articulate something about your work – that you develop new ideas about it. That’s how you find meaning in what you do. Being able to share ideas about their work with each other and me is one thing, but I wanted to create an opportunity for them to stand next to their work and then talk about it to someone they’ve never met before. It can be a bit scary sometimes but also incredibly interesting – a really important experience for any artist.

The work that the Koestler Trust does is amazing, but the Koestler exhibitions happen only outside of the prisons in which the work is made, and I think it’s important  that people interested in art are given the opportunity to go into prisons. It’s very rare for the public to get that kind of access, to see a prison for what it is, not as something exotic hidden behind a big wall.  And so it’s a two way thing.

JW: What about the process by which the exhibitions came about? Once you’d established good reasons for doing them, and the men themselves have expressed an interest in making such an exhibition, how then did you proceed, how did you begin to make it?

EC: Once we’d got permission from the governor of the prison, we formed a group from across the different wings, men who had been attending the evening meetings, to work out how we were going to do this. We talked about how we would promote it, how we’d choose the work, where we would put it on: ‘Where do we do this? Do we use the community room on G wing because it’s a nice big room with lots of light? We could try in the gym?’ Finally, we decided that the conference centre was the right place because it is away from the wings, and it would be easier to have visitors there.

My original idea was to have the exhibition on for a week but I soon realised that was impractical. So, once we had fixed on that space we then went through all the kinds of conversations you would normally have when starting to organise an exhibition. Who’s going to do what? Who’s going to choose what? So people decided to have particular roles; someone would design a flyer, some would be responsible for trying to organise getting the work together, and it developed like that.

We had one or two meetings in the conference centre with the governor, talking about what might be possible, about who we might invite, would we be allowed to have food? Could there be a buffet? How would that be organised? The governor nominated a couple of members of staff to work with us and then we had to organise an events plan, enough people for security and so on, according to institutional rules. We also had to work out who had permission to submit work? Was it only the people working in the groups with me, or could it be anyone on any of the wings? In the end we decided that anyone could enter work.

Organising the first show was fascinating and a really exciting experience. We had this moment when we asked ourselves “well, how do we curate this … you know, we want this to be good. Are we going to curate just what’s good… ? “We got the submitted works together in one of the upstairs rooms on one of the wings – and I said “How are we going to make a selection? We’ve got to do it now, we’ve got it all here” and instantly everyone replied “Well, it’s all got to go in”.

JW: Organising exhibitions as a group is notoriously difficult because there are so many different opinions. How did you work out what went where, what went with what?

EC: We asked ourselves “Shall we have one area for painting, another for sculpture, another for text, and one for model making?” but soon it became very clear that people wanted their own spaces, even if they worked across different media. And that obviously made total sense because they were going to be there talking about their work to visitors.

I can’t remember exactly how, but we decided to use display screens and the hanging took place on the day before the opening. We walked around the conference centre, thinking about how we would lay everything out and then suddenly it all came together, the panels and stands arranged to make an  interesting exhibition space with different shaped areas, a few corners, a few sight lines and so on.

About visitors, very early on I approached the Koestler Foundation, very much wanting to get their artist judges into the prison so that they could have a dialogue with the men, especially because the men’s work is often sent off to the annual Koestler Awards competition, getting certificates or prizes in return. There’s also a local arts group in Buckinghamshire who fund work in prisons, and so they were invited. Ikon and the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust also had a list, and so too my gallery in London. Some of their artists came. Also we invited a number of academics, especially criminologists, from Birmingham, Oxford, Cambridge and other universities.

JW: How about the men’s families and friends?

EC: That is still under discussion. It’s something I suggested the first time around. However, there are complications, it’s mid-week, a school day, and so quite difficult timing for some. I think it would be nice if possible next time – it’s something that the Koestler Foundation does really, really well.

In the first year we had a little bit of music, we had a guitarist and a singer. Then last time we had a great three piece band playing songs that had been written for the exhibition. And we had poetry by one of the men who had won a Koestler prize.

JW: The experience was extremely interesting and uplifting for us, as visitors, but how about the men? How was it for them?

EC: It’s a special day, not least because they get a prison buffet! Seriously, I think that they do get a lot from it. It’s a very strange experience for some of them, especially for those who are just beginning. Not only have they never really tried to paint or draw or write poetry before, but the exhibitions provide space in which they can talk about it. The impression I get, with the feedback I’ve had, is that for most of them it is a very positive experience and it’s fun, which I think is also very important. Above all, the sharing involved gives them different ways of seeing what they’ve done.

Edmund Clark’s exhibition opens at Ikon on 6 December 2017. More information.

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