Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

'The Best Artists Can Come from Anywhere'

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

'The Best Artists Can Come from Anywhere'

Article excerpt

Cross-dresser. Artist. Award-winning television presenter. All-round good egg. Grayson Perry is rapidly becoming a national treasure - and now he's fighting to make sure art education isn't just for the elite. Helen Ward meets him

National treasure status is often bestowed upon the unexpected. No one can quite predict who the British people will take to their hearts. But few such rises have been more extraordinary than that of beloved artist Grayson Perry.

After winning the Turner Prize in 2003 for his beautiful, disturbing pottery and promptly grabbing the headlines by collecting the award in a shiny, pink Little Bo Peep-style frock, Perry quickly went mainstream. He has since made a Bafta-winning documentary series, curated a highly successful exhibition at the British Museum and even appeared on BBC One prime-time panel show Have I Got News for You.

"I'm a great believer in making art as popular as possible, even though that can be anathema to many people in the art world," he said at the recent launch of the Art Everywhere exhibition, for which posters of great artworks are being displayed on bus stops and billboards around the UK until 31 August.

We meet at his studio in Islington, North London, which is surrounded by a fairy-tale-esque high brick wall. He is not wearing a dress. He greets me at the gate and we cross the yard to the one-storey building. Inside, the large white space is mostly empty. There is some furniture: a wooden table with chairs and a sofa covered in a tapestry sample.

Perry sits at the table, unshaven and dressed in an orange lumberjack fleece jacket, a turquoise T-shirt and dark blue trousers. He is halfway through signing a stack of 1,000 paper inserts printed with the words "Playing to the Gallery" - the title of his new book, based on his widely praised 2013 Reith Lectures.

He was the first visual artist to be invited to deliver the prestigious BBC lectures, an annual series in which philosophers, historians, economists and poets have spoken about their world and their work. "This must be the first time that a cross-dresser has been the lecturer," said host Sue Lawley as she introduced him.

"Well, as far as we know," Perry replied.

He chose to talk about modern society's relationship with art: who decides what art is valuable, the art world's complicated relationship with beauty and how he became an artist. Wrapped up in this was a consideration of the changing nature of art education. Perry pondered why art should be taught and its role in helping children to find meaning in their experiences.

His hugely popular lectures were praised in The Independent for showcasing his "needle-sharp observations concerning the fickleness of taste and swerving, self-deprecating humour".

Perry, now 54, was born in Chelmsford, Essex. His childhood was overshadowed by family breakdown when he was 4 and an unhappy relationship with his stepfather. He summed it up on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs: "In many ways I had a normal childhood. A bit of divorce, a bit of low-grade mental illness, a bit of violence. These things, lots of people living in Britain today have that."

The young Grayson developed an elaborate fantasy world ruled by his teddy bear, Alan Measles, a "benign dictator" who led the outlaws hiding in a wooded valley (his bedroom) and ordered Grayson to make planes and cars for him.

Perry initially did well at school, first at the tiny local primary in the village of Woodham Ferrers and then at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford. But, at 15, his grades plummeted as puberty hit. He moved to his father's house, where his cross-dressing was discovered when his stepsister read his diary and asked her mother, "What's a transvestite?" After being kicked out, he moved back in with his mother and stepfather. He tried to join the army at 16 but the recruiting officer "bounced him back". …

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