Grayson’s Artclub – TV series and exhibition.

April 2020, in the middle of Lockdown 1, Grayson’s Artclub first appeared on our TV screens.

A masterstroke of timing. 

Somehow, I missed Series 1 (since caught up) but avidly watched series 2.

It was  the perfect antidote to lockdown.

Lockdown was the strangest and dullest of times. As it turns out, for many people it was also a time to be creative.

Across the nation this TV show encouraged people to explore their personal creativity and turn to art.

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 it.

What does art means to you?

In response to this call a massive 10,000 pieces of work were submitted.

At the beginning of each programme, Grayson Perry makes a bold statement:

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.

In their inimitable, relaxed manner Grayson Perry and wife Philippa, ponder the simple, big and everyday events going on around them.

This is how they see art. This is their life-view, their life-world.

From Grayson’s on-going explorations of Alan Measles – his childhood teddy to Philippa’s love of TV’s “A Place in the Sun”. Their ideas for art come directly from their life experiences, imagination and everything in between.

Painting of man with inscription
By Joe Lycett

Grayson’s Art Club reached out to us in our homes and somehow created ‘a community’.

Through art we can connect with others to share our stories and experiences

For the first time, or in a long time, people sitting at home watching TV thought about giving art a go.

Grayson and Philippa are clearly delighted to see so many people from all walks of life making art. Their excitement is infectious, their encouragement is genuine.

It takes courage for an artist to show their work to another person – let alone to the nation.

But, Grayson and Philippa were never going to critique or ridicule people’s efforts. They are genuinely enthusiastic – and appreciative. 

Everyone has a story to tell – even in lockdown! 

People began to realise that art is a means to express feelings.

Art is an an expression and observation. It can be a visual diary, a record of a moment in time. It is a way of communicating ideas with others.

Even in lockdown, in such restricted circumstances, we are still able to be creative – and to create something that is meaningful and real.

From this difficult time, the art that people shared in Grayson’s Art Club explores often very sad, personal and funny stories as well as deeper insights and revelations.

A new and honest perspective, this is ‘our world’ in lockdown, depicted in a way that we can recognise and 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.

From those first, tentative steps into art people appear to discover pleasure and meaning from the process of making.

Art is a means to express something very personal, it shows that everyone’s experience of lockdown is unique.

Grayson’s Art Club puts people, and their story, at the centre of art. 

As Grayson points out:

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 is fascinated by random thoughts and ideas that flit into our consciousness.

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.

In lockdown, as our busy lives ground to a halt, we became aware of different thoughts in our heads.

Once we are able to quiet the reasoning, logical, critical part of our brains we access a different part of ourselves.

That shift in our mindset is what leads to the sweetspot of creative flow – something every designer and artist lives for.

Random thoughts, that at first seem distracting, come directly from a creative urge. It is where a fleeting, whimsical thought becomes an inner-most insight.

Many people think of art as the still life, the formal portrait and the landscape. That is: a famous masterpiece by an established artist in grand gallery space.

Grayson’s Art Club is a shift away from this formal, conventional thinking. This is about tapping into people’s consciousness and experiences in real time – in strange times.

And it seems, what actually inspires people in lockdown, is the strangeness and ordinariness of everyday life.

The street… the bins…the view from the window.

When the world slows life becomes a site-specific awakening.

What is this world?

By Philippa Perry

Grayson’s Art Club features the work of famous artists and celebrity artists but here they are shown to be people who simply love expressing themselves and ideas through art.

Somehow this makes them seen more human and accessible. No different from anyone else.

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.

The exhibition was due to open in November 2020.

But COVID put a stop to that.

Finally mid-2021, the exhibition in  Manchester Art Gallery was able to open safely.

I was lucky enough to be able to see the exhibition.

My first feeling: the indescribable joy of being able to do something as ‘normal’ as: going to an art gallery.

After so many months being ‘nowhere’ suddenly I get to experience the joy of being in a beautiful and grand gallery space. And I ‘remember’ what it is like to ‘look’ at things, and to think about what is in front of me; to be in, and move around a room – with other people.

The joy of this exhibition is how it brings people together on an equal platform as a collective voice.

Undoubtedly, for many people this is likely to be the first time their work will be exhibited in an art gallery.

Here, in this venue, their work is respected and taken seriously. Their art is alongside the work of famous professional artists – including that of Grayson and Philippa – as seen in the TV series.

We forget how lockdown was….the little things.

When we revisit it through other people’s visual experiences 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

There was a raw intimacy to many of the stories. And an honesty in the way this was depicted.

The art on display is story-driven, this helps us to see beyond the visual to understand the underlying personal context. Many of the images are already familiar to us through TV series which gave us a way-in.

From the intense way visitors looked at the exhibits it seemed they were remembering the story/ artist from the TV series.

Because our lives were so restricted in lockdown, people looked more closely at their own world, at things that ordinarily seem mundane.

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. 

A TV channel reached out to people at home. And now people are making the effort to come out to visit the show.

It is refreshing to see galleries take a wider approach to art – that genuinely sets our to be inclusive.

With this exhibition Manchester Art Gallery is breaking down some of the physical/social/psychological barriers often associated with art

This is an exhibition for everyone.

Throughout the series Grayson talked about ‘seeing people on the other side’ – after lockdown.

And now… we are on the other side.

It just took a bit longer than anticipated.

Art is a relatively simple process of making and doing. At the end of it there is something to show for it.  

Our ability to communicate and express ourselves is a part of who we are.

It doesn’t really matter what art 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.

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.

Grayson encourages us to get beyond these thoughts.

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

Unsurprisingly, ‘The Home’ features strongly in many of the pieces.

Grayson ponders the significance of how we look at our interior space.

How do we 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. 

On Zoom we expose our homes, our homelife, and our inner private space.

Our home is a space that strangers do not normally get to see. And yet in lockdown, we openly present, expose ( or curate?) all this visual information about our identity, our taste and our style.

According to Grayson.

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.

Through this series and exhibition Grayson and Philippa show us that art can project a heartfelt generosity of spirit and empathy.

Art can be irreverent and mundane, humorous and deep. It isn’t always deadly serious, elitist – or perfect!

Through art we can tell our story – and share our view of the world.

by Grayson Perry

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

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 within the social/spatial sphere.

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