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HMP Grendon's Artist in Residence: An Interview with Dean Kelland

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

By Polly Bates

@pollysportfolio www.pollybates.co.uk









Artists Responding To... Magazine, Interview - Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon Two' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon Two' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham



Dean Kelland has been the Artist in Residence at HMP Grendon, Buckinghamshire, Europe's only wholly therapeutic prison. Within this 4-year residency, Dean Kelland has developed a new series of works, led workshops with the prisoners and opened Europe's first Art Gallery within a prison. He is set to exhibit the results of his residency in a solo exhibition at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham in September.

In 2019, Kelland started documenting his dialogues with the male prisoners and therapeutic staff in his sketchbooks that test ideas for moving image works. Between the page and the screen, Kelland carries therapeutic tropes, of 'masking' and 'mirroring', through a series of solo and group performances set within the prison environment and community.

The exhibition is accompanied by two publications 'Notes from Grendon' 1 and 2, including excerpts from Kelland's sketchbooks and blog posts alongside artworks and letters by the prisoners. It is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust.





Polly: It was great to meet you and experience first-hand the Studio and work you have been involved in at HMP Grendon, could you tell us how you became the artist in residence?


Dean: I visited Ikon Gallery during my predecessor Edmund Clark’s exhibition “In Place of Hate”. Having shown up a couple of times at Ikon I knew a number of the team that worked there and we had a chat about the work on display and the residency in general. It was mentioned to me that they were currently looking for the next Artist in Residence and, in truth, I didn’t think too much more about it. I had a thought in the back of my mind that I could do something interesting and worthwhile with my practice and interest into flawed masculinity but I certainly didn’t verbalise that. My perception at that time was that they would have some big names in the pot and I would only be wasting my time in applying.


Some weeks later I bumped into the former director of Ikon, Jonathan Watkins, who offered me a cup of tea and we sat and discussed the residency again. I recall telling him that I didn’t want to apply as I knew they would have some well-known artists throwing their names in and I probably wouldn’t be seen as a viable candidate in that company. He was very supportive and simply told me that Ikon were looking for the “…right person rather than the most well-known…” By the end of the discussion he had convinced me to put an application in and it went from there.


Part of the application process was to visit Grendon and see the annual exhibition that the men produce. It was really interesting as I had never been in a prison before, let alone a high-security one, in hindsight it was probably to give a sense to the applicants of what the prison was like and also to give Ikon a sense of how the applicants might acclimatise to working in a carceral environment. I kept my head down really and just spent time talking with the men and discussing their work rather than trying to jump up and down in front of the gallery staff and trust members that were in attendance. I left on that day convinced that I could do something there but still very realistic about how hard it would be to get the residency.


After being shortlisted, the interviews were held at Grendon and the first room I was shown into had a panel of prisoners who had prepared their questions and grilled me about my practice and what I might bring to the residency. The best part of that day was when there was a mix-up in timing and I ended up waiting in the corridor with a couple of the men, I was able to get a feel for the place through that half hour of general chat and it was so important to hear what they thought about the residency and what they wanted from an artist in residence. They made me feel welcome, relaxed and positive about what I could contribute to the Grendon communities just in that short time. It has always been that way, I’ve always felt comfortable there and it began in that corridor on interview day.


There was a long drawn-out process for the panel as they deliberated and I had to have a few more in-depth conversations with Ikon. Eventually, though, I got the residency and it has been life-changing from that moment on.



Artists Responding To... Magazine, Interview - Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon One' 2022, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon One' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham



Polly: Repetition and restriction seem to be running themes throughout your past and present practice, which intrinsically relates to the prison experience. How have you encountered repetition and restriction during your time on the residency?



Dean: Prison is about routine and discipline and frameworks rarely change. That’s not a bad thing, it is just the way prisons operate. I have made work in the past about cyclical patterns of behaviour and it was very easy to begin to transpose those ideas across into my initial ideas for works at Grendon. When thinking about repetition and restriction, you can see maybe why Ikon thought that my practice had an established grounding that naturally suited making work in, and about, a prison experience. Many of the works that will be shown in the Impostor Syndrome exhibition at Ikon are directly related to either my interest in the repetitive or an observation of repetition at the prison. In terms of restriction, there are the functional, day-to-day restrictions that we have to abide by for the security of the project but I guess that I have made some works that utilise a sense of claustrophobia that is often encountered in some of the spaces at the prison too.



Polly: Sketchbooks are an important part of your practice, and many of your notes and sketchbook pages have been reproduced in the 2 books ‘Notes from Grendon’. Can you tell us more about these publications?


Dean: I’ve always worked in sketchbooks and initially I would just buy them and fill them as and when I needed to. Recently though I started appropriating old annuals and repurposing old books that I had lying around the studio. It is part of my practice that I love, I can be lost for hours in my sketchbooks and now spend loads of time designing and loosely painting out the pages in readiness for working back into them. I make these sketchbooks because it’s the only way I can understand the work I’m making and the environments I’m in. I have to talk to the work on the pages and see what comes back. Most of the notes that I make are observations, questions or research references with the odd quote or song lyric thrown in. With the Grendon project, I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of the dialogue that has come out of the conversations I’ve had with the men about the work I am making and they are making. Out of that dialogue, something hopefully interesting arises from the pages and informs the work that I then go on to make.

Artists Responding To... Magazine, Interview - Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon Two' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon Two' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham



During the first year, we had to prepare a document on what we’d been doing with the residency and I think Ikon expected me to put together a small pamphlet-like publication. One thing I’m guilty of though is always aiming beyond what is expected, even if it is unrealistic, I prefer an unrealistic starting point to work back from than an expected outcome to work towards. I pitched the idea of a book that covered the first year that would include the men’s work, an interview, the conversations we’d had on the wings and the developing ideas for work that I was making. It dawned on me that all of this stuff was in the sketchbooks and blog posts, so it made sense to put something together that was a version of that. I’m thankful that Ikon indulged my ambition for that and we are now just about to launch the second volume which is so exciting. In the second book one of the men was asked to interview me, but what transpired was more of a discussion and verbal relay between two artists rather than just a Q&A with one. It’s really interesting that some of the men can see themselves as artists now and talk in that way.



Polly: Within your performances, you assume the role of characters in a subtly humorous way, and the use of masks within your residency is an intriguing, new take on this. What is the significance of using masks, and how did the influence of Elvis Presley begin?



Dean: A long time ago I made a note in one of my sketchbooks that I’d like to one day make a piece of work involving Elvis impersonators. It went no further, it was just a note, a thought noted down.


On my first day at Grendon, I was on C-Wing and the men had brought some work in to show and talk about. One guy at the back unveiled this huge portrait of Elvis, he’d taken a lot of time to make this thing and I wanted to ask him about it. “Are you an Elvis fan?” I enquired, “No” was the reply. “Is it a gift for a family member?” I continued, “No” he replied. After several more questions about the reason for his intensive labour on the portrait being met with the same singular reply, I asked the only thing left to ask, “Well, why Elvis then?” He looked at me as if it shouldn’t be a question and his answer instigated a significant part of this body of work. “It’s Elvis isn’t it…Elvis is the man…he’s the man.” I took this experience to other wings and discussed it with community members and they all agreed that if there was an ideal masculine figure it was Elvis. I talked about my original thought and introducing the word ‘impersonator’ struck a chord with a lot of the men. Visibility and invisibility are common themes in their own work and this relates to a notion of impostorism or impersonation and through conversations with the men I started to revisit the idea of Elvis impersonation as a way of articulating some of those themes.


Artists Responding To... Magazine, Interview - Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon Two' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon Two' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham


Initially, I thought that working with masks would solve a simple technical issue in any work that I wanted to make with the men, namely that their identities cannot be disclosed in any way, shape or form. I thought that if I developed work around impersonation that utilised masks then this problem would be solved. However, you only have to spend five minutes talking to the men about their therapy sessions and they refer to masks a great deal. Masks that they have worn are seen as a critical part of their past behaviour and the therapy can address how they might remove those masks or find alternative masks to wear. As soon as these ideas started to come up in the conversation I knew that I’d be using masks more and more. I mean, when I refer to masks as part of the Grendon work, I’m talking about a physical mask that obscures the face as well as masks that relate to psychology and identity.




Polly: Your performances throughout your career have questioned toxic masculine ideals and histories of class; what observations have you made on masculinity and class within HMP Grendon?



Dean: Well, during the corridor discussion I had on interview day, that I mentioned earlier, one of the men asked me what my work was about and I said “Flawed Masculinity”. He smiled and told me that if I was interested in flawed men I was in the perfect place...


“You’re in the right place here mate, you’ll never find more failed men in such a concentrated area than here.”

In some ways, it is obvious to say that a prison will contain men who are the subject of toxic ideals and class-defined identities but what is so special with Grendon is that the men are completely open about these experiences. They work hard every day to understand where they have come from, how and why they have ended up incarcerated and what they need to do to positively change in the future. It’s not all rosy and it certainly isn’t easy, reoffending rates remain what they are, although these are lower once you have completed the therapy at Grendon, so it isn’t a quick or necessarily permanent fix…but it is an environment where men address and explore who they are and that takes in those ideas about toxicity and class and means that they are on the table for discussion rather than obscured or not understood.



Artists Responding To... Magazine, Interview - Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon Two' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon Two' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham




Polly: What obstacles did you face when proposing to open the first and only art gallery within a European prison?



Dean: The obstacles were practical ones initially, we were in discussion for the space with senior management at Grendon when Covid-19 struck and, whilst we had identified an old metal workshop building and agreed to begin clearing it, the impact of the lockdowns seemed to be terminal to our plans. Thankfully when we finally returned there was still an appetite for us to continue with what we had set out to do and we then had a lot to make happen in a short space of time. The men embraced the idea wholeheartedly and with everyone moving in the same direction we were able to get a programme in place and open relatively quickly. The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust have been incredibly supportive and gave us everything we needed to make the space viable and valuable, without their guidance and trust in what we were doing at the prison we couldn’t have done what we’ve done. Having a gallery adjacent to the workshop has been a critical part of working with the men and providing them with a sense of what contemporary art can be.



Artists Responding To... Interview, Dean Kelland, 'From Night into Day Showcase' exhibition in the Gallery space,  Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Studio, HMP Grendon. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

'From Night into Day Showcase' exhibition in the Gallery space, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Studio, HMP Grendon. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham



Polly: What has the public response been to the gallery and studio programme, have opinions been divided?



Dean: I have to be honest and say that I haven’t really engaged with anything associated with publicity around the gallery outside. All I can say is that contemporary artists and educators have been entirely behind what we’ve done. We have people who want to show here and that is enough for me.





Polly: When I visited the exhibition ‘There Is No Masterpeice’ at HMP Grendon, the first exhibition within the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Studio and gallery space which showcased works made by prisoners within your workshops, there was one piece that had a profound impact on me; even more so experiencing it on location within the prison.


The work featured two therapy chairs sitting intimately across from each other. One featured hand stitching which repaired the fabric’s holes and tears in the well-worn seat, with a wall of cotton sewn around stains from past sessions. The other featured embroidered words like “Alone”, “Look at yourself” and “Childhood trauma”. Could you tell us about the development of this powerful work?



Dean: That’s an interesting one as the artist responsible came to the workshop very much in the mindset that he couldn’t really see himself involved too much. He was accomplished with cross stitch but saw that as something outside of contemporary art. We had lots of conversations about what he might make and I showed him work like Cornelia Parker’s “Magna Carta” and Grayson Perry’s “A Vanity of Small Differences” around the time that he was starting to think there might be a place for him in the workshop. We were lucky enough to get artist Gary Mansfield to come in and do a talk about his journey from prison to conceptual art. That lit the touchpaper really and hearing Gary’s experiences gave him the confidence to start realising some of the ideas we’d been discussing.


The chairs that he appropriated are old therapy chairs that he asked permission to work with. Once I’d talked to him about Kintsugi and we’d revisited some of the early ideas that he’d had he was then able to start putting it all together. There was a wonderful moment when the men were discussing how it was placed in the gallery the day before we opened “There Is No Masterpiece”. They were all talking to each other about how it should be read, how it should be seen as a sculpture and not an interactive piece and they were coming up with different arrangements and ways of working it. When they asked if they could put ‘Fragile Tape’ around it, I was struck by how the gallery was working for them. The confidence and independence in their thinking was clearly visible and it was a special moment.




Artists Responding To... Interview, Dean Kelland, Dry point etching made by 'N', D Wing, HMP Gren don. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Dry point etching made by 'N', D Wing, HMP Gren don. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham



Polly: When speaking to prisoners on my visit to HMP Grendon, there was an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the work you have done and for the offering of such a creative space in an otherwise bleak environment. How have the workshops impacted your approaches and the work you have developed?



Dean: I made a promise to myself that whatever I produced in this environment it had to speak to, for and with the men. I didn’t want them to see the work and feel detached or that their voices were lost in it. That framework has been there since day one and the democracy that is evident in the wing communities and therapy sessions has been evident in the workshop and the gallery too. It is definitely a two-way thing. I am more attuned to who I am and why I behave in certain ways because of my time with them. As an artist every residency that I’ve done has taught me new things and that’s an important part of doing them but, with Grendon, the guys have made me welcome, at ease, but they’ve also challenged me and made me think more carefully about the themes that I’m interested in. It’s going to be so hard to leave them at the end of the residency. Of the residencies that I’ve done though this one will have had the most impact upon what I do now and where I take my practice in the future.




Artists Responding To... Interview, Dean Kelland, Etching Made at HMP Grendon (2020-2022)

Etchings made at HMP Grendon (2020-22)



Polly: The gallery space offers experiences of contemporary art to workshop attendees by inviting the works of professional artists, why is this important and what impact did it have on the conversations sparked between yourself, the prisoners and the invited artists?



Dean: When I was pitching the idea of the gallery I talked with former Ikon Director, Jonathan Watkins. Prison art has a specific look and feel that is associated with what is accessible. I asked Jonathan if by the end of the residency he wanted me to have shown the men some new techniques that will help them in their endeavours as prison artists or would he like some of the men to be contemporary artists by the time I finish. Don’t misunderstand me there is nothing at all wrong with prison art and as a genre in its own right there is a lot to embrace, I just felt that we could expand what was accessible if we opened the participants up to contemporary themes and practices. To do this however, is very difficult and out of that difficulty came a simple idea – if we can’t take the men to a contemporary art gallery then can we bring the contemporary art gallery to them? Jonathan agreed that this was an interesting proposition and that was enough for myself and Art at HMP Grendon Producer James Latunji-Cockbill to get going on the concept. James has been a driving force for everything that we’ve tried to achieve and his belief and determination in all ways and with every madcap idea I’ve pitched to him has helped me realise a number of things that I wouldn’t have thought possible at the beginning of the residency.


In terms of how the gallery works and what it does, we have a rolling programme of contemporary artists showing and presenting their work to the men in the space. Often these shows are then expanded to contain responses to the work that the men have made in the adjacent workshop. Seeing and hearing first-hand what interests artists and how they respond to the world is invaluable to the men in terms of broadening their expectations of what they can themselves then achieve. You mentioned the piece of work that struck you so meaningfully at the last exhibition, imagine what it feels like for people who consider themselves to be invisible to the world to show alongside established artists? This is where a space like this can contribute to the rehabilitative process, no-one is excusing them of their crime, they are in prison for a reason and that shouldn’t be diminished but if we want reoffending rates to be positively challenged and we want individuals to move forward and seek something beyond past behaviours then it is important to undertake projects like this.


When I get some space and time to think about what we’ve achieved after this is all over, I think it will be a source of pride that we have equipped some of the men with the skills to make work and consider themselves as artists. I wanted whatever we did on the residency to have some legacy so that Grendon always has an art programme and the facilities for that to be maintained.



Artists Responding To... Interview, Dean Kelland, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Studio, HMP Grendon. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Studio, HMP Grendon. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham




Polly: What is the difference between the sessions and artworks created within the workshops, led by yourself, and the artworks created in art therapy with psychotherapists?



Dean: As an artist in residence my remit sits well and truly outside of the therapeutic practices like art therapy and drama therapy. It should too…I am not qualified to deliver or even comment on what takes place there. The work in the workshop is specifically about equipping the men with some skills and practices that they may not have experienced before and importantly what they then may do with those skills in terms of developing concepts. As I said in response to your last question, the gallery then plays an additional role in this. The communities see the therapeutic practices and the art workshops separately and whilst occasionally the conversations may include reference to things that take place there, the two are seen and kept apart. That doesn’t mean that the men don’t feel that there is a therapeutic benefit from attending the workshop sessions but it isn’t seen as ‘therapy work’.



Interestingly one of the performance pieces that I made on collaboration with the men, “Absolute Beginners” was devised from a drama therapy exercise that I’d observed in a session by one of the therapists, Mike Chase. I subsequently found out that Mike is an expert in masks and mask-making too, so I guess there was a little overlap there from both sides maybe. This was still different though, the collaborative process of making that work was influenced and informed by a therapy technique but it wasn’t a therapy session for the men, rather they understood that they were working on a collaborative artwork together.




Polly: HMP Grendon is a unique prison which offers a more collaborative approach between prisoners, guards and therapists, breaking down typical hierarchies and prioritising reform over punishment. One prisoner said, “There is something about Grendon that enables connection”. What did you hope and expect from your time at HMP Grendon, and did the residency live up to your expectations?



Dean: It’s been one of the most profound and significant experiences of my life and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to work at Grendon with the communities. In the art world I often struggle to ‘perform’ to expectations of what an artist is and how one behaves, that’s to do with my class profile and upbringing as much as anything and I’m not very good at networking or sharing conversations with people who I think are ‘faking it’ or ‘playing the game’ but when I’m at Grendon all that anxiety dissipates and I don’t feel like I’m operating outside of who I am. That’s partly where the title of the show comes from, I’ve had impostor syndrome regularly throughout my life and when I opened up to the men about that they got it straight away and understood how I’d felt, sharing their own experiences of impostorism. So it has more than lived up to my expectations, Ikon, the prison management and MLvM trust have been brilliant because they have indulged me with my overreaching and unlikely ideas and helped me to make some of those happen. The men have taught me so much about how to be in my own skin and that’s a really special thing.



Artists Responding To... Magazine, Interview - Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon One' 2022, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon One' 2023, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham




Polly: How has the residency confirmed or changed your opinions on the prison system?



Dean: I’m not sure how to answer this one…I don’t think I went into it with any preconceptions really. What I knew about prison was from Lennie Godber and Fletch’s cell on “Porridge” or Noel Coward’s cell in “The Italian Job” and I didn’t expect to find either of those versions of prison at Grendon. I know that’s bad on my part as it shows a lack of research and a naivety I guess, but it’s true. I just went with it to see what happened. I think it’s helped me understand more and I’ve been educated more about things like the parole system and tariffs but on the whole my knowledge of what the prison system was like before I went in was pretty rudimentary. When I think about that for a second…it was a good thing that I didn’t go with too much knowledge. At the start of any residency you have to trust your instincts and make work that is a result of your experiences of that ‘new’ space or situation. Just maybe that would have been compromised a little if I’d gone in with a particular view or knowledge and subsequent agenda.



Polly: 4 years is on the longer side of a residency, almost reflecting a sentence, do you feel your work at HMP Grendon has come to a natural finish, or do you wish you had some more time?



Dean: As a human being, I would stay at Grendon forever given the opportunity. One of the first things that the Governor said to me when I arrived was that Grendon is a special place and it never leaves you. I know now, four years on, that that is true. As an artist though, I’ve always believed that when you settle on a way of working or a particular approach or environment to work in you can get too comfortable and then what you produce suffers. When I’ve felt this about my own practice I’ve always done something to change what’s been going on, shake everything up and re-challenge everything that I’ve been doing. So with this in mind, there will be a point where I need to leave to keep the work and the practice fresh.




Artists Responding To... Magazine, Interview - Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon One' 2022, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Dean Kelland, sketchbook excerpt, 'Notes from HMP Grendon One' 2022, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham



Polly: What works can we expect to see in your upcoming exhibition ‘Imposter Syndrome’ at Ikon Gallery in September?



Dean: There are a number of performative video works that relate to Elvis impersonation, Boy George choirs, Psycho-drama, masks, mirrors and method acting. I’ve made, some etched prints, a series of collages relating to a favourite childhood story of mine (the main character was probably one of my first male role models), performance photographs and the sketchbooks will play a part as well. Everything that’s in the show has been worked on with the wing communities, either physically or conceptually. One of the men is writing an essay for the catalogue in response to the work in the exhibition, I’ve only seen initial drafts of it but it is already so insightful and incisive. I wanted the men to be part of the work and for them to feel connected to it when it is on display. Hopefully, we’ll do that for them and the work will not just speak about masculinities in prison but also the prison of masculinities.




Polly: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your 4-year artist residency at HMP Grendon and your upcoming exhibition at Ikon Gallery. We would like to finish off with one last question - if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?



Dean: Go somewhere and be brilliant.




'Imposter Syndrome' opens on the 20th of September at Ikon Gallery and will be available to view until the 22nd of December 2023.

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