A journey through the therapy looking glass: The Art of being a man

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How did it come to pass that I found myself in a prison chapel, with a dozen of my peers, all wearing hand printed Boy George masks whilst singing Culture Club’s 1982 hit song ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’? And how exactly is that pertinent to my salvation? 

Elvis lives?

The lead up to these shenanigans began nearly four years ago, when I first arrived at Grendon. A good pal of mine asked me if I wished to accompany him to the art studio, so off we went to what turned out to be small storage space within the bowels of the education department. Upon entering, I was introduced to Dean Kelland, Grendon’s newly appointed Artist in Residence, and his trusty facilitator, James, from Icon. Both were utterly accommodating, and immediately offered me a cuppa. As I stood, waiting for the kettle to boil, I noticed that the walls of this small space contained a flurry of ad-hoc notes and iconic collaged imagery sprawling out from the corner in which Dean was sitting. There were, amongst many other things, prototype drawings of a bloke wearing an Elvis mask in what looked like the prison corridor. Well, I had to ask didn’t I?

Iconic figure 

As it transpired, that was Dean’s very intention; that prisoners visiting this space asked about the madness on the walls as a means by which to trigger dialogue. And as it also turned out, it wasn’t as mad as I was expecting. Dean, wishing to use his tenure as Artist in Residence to complement the therapy we are engaged in, had been considering the role that toxic masculinity and failed masculinity had played throughout our lives. As such, he had been seeking an iconic figure to represent idealised masculinity and, through numerous conversations with us prisoners, had arrived at Elvis as a suitable motif.

Learned to paint

Now, I’ve always had an aversion to art critic talk, as I have always suspected that they spew out any old nonsense, safe in the knowledge that the rest of us will assume they’re smarter than us and nod along like morons as a result. It is testament to Dean’s unfailingly affable and down to earth nature that I never sensed this from him. I’ve always loved art and have always wished to understand it better. At last, in a prison of all places, I had discovered someone who would patiently and willingly take me on this journey of discovery. Shortly after our initial meeting the lockdown happened. Nevertheless, through e-mail-a-prisoner we continued our discussion, and through the generous funding by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust, and facilitation by Icon, we all continued to receive whatever art supplies we needed. I even learnt to paint during that time, something I never thought possible. 

Elvis dies…

During the lockdown, Dean had moved into the purposely redeveloped Marie-Louise von Motesiczky studio and gallery utilising a disused building kindly supplied by our governor, who has been hugely supportive of the whole project. In this amazing space, Dean continued to develop his ideas, always adding to his three-dimensional sketchbook on the walls of the studio. As the images and collages grew, so did the scope of all of our discussions. We now understood what Dean was making salient in his work: that the very notion of masculinity is constructed by society, and, in moments of peril, when we reach for masculine ideals, we are always destined to fail. Just take a simple example, a masculine ideal is: ‘men don’t cry.’ Good luck with that in therapy. Here’s another: ‘men don’t show emotion.’ Says who? No one bloody knows! But we’ve all heard it said in some nonsense reference to what ‘real men’ are supposed to do or be. Take Elvis for example, he spent the latter years of his life trying to be the ‘ideal’ version of himself, and ended up dead, with his pants around his ankles, on the bog! That’s what you get from listening to society’s expectation of what they think a man should be. Well, that and the thirty Big Macs!

Boy done good!

After much discussion with us, Dean concluded that Boy George would feature in his work as, in his words ‘… a constructed yet destabilising male figure, a figure that seemed to own their identity and potentially challenged every male who has ever had to challenge their own maleness.’ Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with what Elvis or Boy George represent as people – Dean was using them as a visual representation of different ways of viewing masculinity. And so, in the end we wore those masks and sang that song because, well, who says I shouldn’t? I suppose the answer is that it’s the same, nonsense, 1920’s notion of being a man that also tells me I shouldn’t show emotion. Well, sod that. Besides which, it resulted in an amazing bit of footage for Dean’s exhibition.

And so at the end of his extended tenure, and after much collaboration with us guys here, Dean now has an amazing body of work that will be shown at the Icon Gallery for three months between September and December this year. For anyone reading this that’s free to go to it (ouch!), I would strongly recommend you do so. 

Nick London, a nom de plume, is resident at HMP Grendon


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