Grayson’s Artclub – TV series and exhibition.

It was the strangest of times…. it was the dullest of times… 

It was the most creative of times.

April  2020, in the midst of Lockdown 1,   Channel 4 broadcasted Grayson’s Artclub

A masterstroke of perfect timing. 

In the difficult times of lockdown, this show pushed the nation to think about their personal creativity and art.

I came late to the Grayson’s Artclub. Somehow,  I missed Series 1 (since caught up) but avidly watched series 2 –   the perfect antidote to winter in lockdown 3.

In this series of 6 x one hour programmes people were asked to send in their artwork together with a short video explaining the story behind the art. In response to the call, a massive 10,000 pieces of work were submitted to the show.

At the beginning of every show Grayson states:

I believe that art can get us through this crisis. It can help us to explore our creativity, inspire and console us and tell us some truths about who we really are.

Each programme features Grayson Perry and his wife Philippa in their own inimitable, natural style, relaxed and engrossed in making a piece of art that reflects their life-view.

Pulling together (seemingly) random thoughts they ponder the simple, big and everyday events going on around them. From Grayson’s on-going explorations of Alan Measles – his childhood teddy to Philippa’s love of “A Place in the Sun”. They draw both from life experiences and from imagination. Sometimes it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins.

They make art because they enjoy it – it’s something they love to do. 

Painting of man with inscription
By Joe Lycett

Grayson’s Artclub created a community of people happy to share their own stories, and experiences through art. For many people lockdown clearly was a struggle and art was a way of helping them get to get through it. And to relieve the boredom.

I have a strong image of people sitting at home watching TV and turning to art –  maybe for the first time, or in a long time, to give art a go. 

The gentle, humorous and effortless way that Grayson and Philippa respond to art is compounded by their absolute delight in seeing others making art. Their positivity and encouragement is genuine, their excitement infectious and it draws you in.

It takes a lot for someone to show any form of creative work to another person – let alone the nation. But, Grayson and Philippa were never going to critique the work, or ridicule people’s efforts. They are genuinely open, interested and appreciative. 

Everyone has a story to tell. 

When people turn to art they  explore what they see, how they feel and how it is – for them.

There were sad stories, personal stories and funny stories as well as insights and revelations. Most of all, there were new and honest perspectives of looking at the world (in lockdown)  in a way that we could all understand.

As Grayson notes:

This is something we have to learn about art – making ourselves vulnerable. Any creative activity we have to open and be prepared to fail and put our heart on our sleeve. These are difficult things to do  – sometimes.

Taking those first tentative steps into art clearly gives people huge satisfaction and meaning from the process. They know they are exposing something of  themselves and this offers a glimpse of their everyday life. Inevitably, whatever was going on in their life was something  to which we could all relate. If nothing else, lockdown was a shared experience, and we were a captured audience. 

The focus of Grayson’s Artclub is on making and doing –  with people ( and their story) at the centre of it all. 

We all have our own vision of the world. It’s our own lens … that’s in our heads. It’s made up of emotions, our experiences, our identity, our bodies. This is our unique artistic vision… When you are looking out of the window you are not just looking out a of piece of glass, you are looking out of yourself. 

As an artist, Grayson Perry truly values all the random thoughts and ideas that flit into our consciousness. To him, these unformed notions are as important as solid articulated opinions. A playful idea, a curious thought, a visual observation. It may be something, it may be nothing.

As we slowed down our busy lives in lockdown we became more aware of these thoughts in our own heads and learned to appreciate and enjoy them more.

A germ of an idea becomes a creative pause – a moment to stop and think. When we override the reasoning, logical part of our brains we find we can access that magical, joyful part of ourselves that comes from deep within. It shifts our mindset and it is the sweetspot of creative flow that every designer and artist lives for.

A vague notion… or is it something deeper?

For all of us the need to play and experiment is significant and personal. Random thoughts that may seem like a distraction stem directly from our creative urge. A whimsical impulse can suddenly become an inner-most insight. And, inspiration – when it comes – may not be from conventionally recognised  sources of beauty.

We tend to think of art as the still life, the formal portrait and the landscape. But, it seems that what actually inspired people was the strangeness and ordinariness of everyday life: the street, the bins, the view from the window: an awakening site-specific and of the moment.

By Philippa Perry

Yes, Grayson’s Artclub also includes famous artists and celebrities.  But, when talking about their art, the celebrities seem more human, more stripped down and vulnerable. They are just people who enjoy expressing themselves through art. Their art is no better, and no worse than anyone else’s. Mostly, it is quirky and fun. And it makes them happy.

The series culminates in a curated exhibition described by Grayson as….

A lasting artistic record of how we have all felt about these strange times we have all been through together.

With only 7 weeks to prepare, the exhibition was due to open in November 2020 – but COVID put a stop to that. It wasn’t until mid-2021 that the exhibition was able to open safely.

Grayson’s Artclub  ( from series One) is currently pulling in the crowds at  Manchester Art Gallery

Visiting the exhibition I felt an indescribable joy of being able to do something as ‘normal’ as going to an art gallery.

In addition to the exhibition, there is the joy of engaging with, and being in, a space that is grand – Manchester art gallery is a lovely building. But also, there is a familiarity about how they body moves (and sees) in a gallery space. It is a very different experience from being in a supermarket.

The selected artists were clearly moved to have their work chosen for this exhibition. Their work is being taken seriously, it is respected and shown alongside the work of famous professional artists, celebrities, Grayson’s work and Philippa’s. As a collective voice this exhibition brings different people together on an equal platform. For many, this is the first time their work will ever have been exhibited.

We forget how lockdown was – the little things.

It is only when we revisit it through other people’s visual experiences that we remember:

  • Spending time with our pets 
  • Watching Professor Chris Whitty on the daily bulletins
  • Clapping for the NHS
  • Gazing out the window
  • Bad hair

The intense – and social – way that visitors looked at the exhibits suggests they were remembering the story ( and the artist) from the series. For me, it was the other way round. When I went back and watched series 1 it brought me back to the exhibition. It added a warm roundedness to that experience.

Art is not just about what you see in front of you. This art is very much story-driven. At the exhibition I could l feel the intimacy of the stories, and the honesty and diversity in the way this was depicted.

In lockdown, because our lives were so restricted, people looked more closely at their own world. Things that ordinarily seem mundane. And, as Grayson explains, our home became our lifeworld: 

We carry round with us this kind of emotional map and when are part of the world out there our map expands because we meet people and they reinforce who we are. …And when in  lockdown  we have been closed down  and so our home, to a certain extent, has become the boundary of this extended sense of self…. We need to take care of this environment we are sat in because it is affecting who we are. 

Manchester Art Gallery is helping to break down many social/psychological barriers  to art. 

In the same way, a TV channel reached out to people at home, and they are now making the effort to come to visit the show.

In the series Grayson talked about ‘seeing people on the other side’. The fact that we can now visit an exhibition suggests that we are there – or nearly there. It just took a bit longer than we anticipated.

Art is a relatively simple process of making and doing. And, at the end of it there is something to show for it.  Expressing ourselves is so much a part of who we are, and what we do. It is primal. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like as long as it means something to us.

As Grayson says:

Creativity… it’s a way of dealing with what’s going on in your life. And it operates on a level that we don’t always access easily in our day to day relationships or language.

Often what holds us back from making art is that we believe other people do it better… that we are no good… people won’t get it… it doesn’t look exactly like a photograph.

But, he urges us to…

Push on with the awkwardness and on the other side is a great golden vista of pleasure, distraction and reward.

The TV show created  a community. It prompted people to think more about their own creativity and to realise the absolute joy of art; its’ process, its’ method and madness. 

Unsurprisingly, ‘The Home’ features strongly in many of the pieces. And as such, Grayson ponders the significance of how we now present our homes to others.

Now that we are in our homes a lot and also showing our interiors on Zoom, it has become a part of our identity more than ever. Art can help us to work out our deepest feelings about our homes. It is a kind of theatre set in which we play out our identity. 

In Zoom calls we are outwardly exposing our inner private space to all. Our private space, that normally people do not get to see until they visit, projects information about identity – but also our taste and our style. ‘Home’ is important to us on so many levels.

Home is a set of emotions we put onto the buildings we live in, onto our stuff. In lockdown we never had to think quite so hard before about what is that makes feel safe, secure and loved….. Personal space, both inside and in a garden, has become a more sought after commodity. These revelations about our concept of home and our feelings about it are good for us because they make us re-evaluate what we hold dear.

The art world has a reputation for being elitist, pompous and detached from ordinary people. So it is refreshing to see a wider approach to art – one that turns the tables and genuinely reaches out to people and creates an impetus that is so inclusive.

Art emotionally connects us to someone else.

It is their story, and view of the world that they share with us. We get it – or we don’t.

Through this exhibition Grayson and Philippa show us that art can be about positivity, humour and inner reflection and a heartfelt generosity of spirit.

It’s inspiring to see just how many people are open to that experience and want to be part of it. 

 

by Grayson Perry

All quotes are by Grayson Perry ( Channel 4: series 1 Grayson’s Artclub)

All photos taken by John Rooney from the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights across the social/spatial sphere.

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