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Celebrated artist Grayson Perry headlines Detour Ahead event at UEL

students at UEL

Turner Prize winner visits Docklands campus to offer insights into art world 

Don’t overload your art with hopes for external rewards – or burden it with expectations of originality. That was the message from Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry at the University of East London (UEL) on Thursday.

“Remember, it’s something you’re wanting to do and it must not become something that tortures you,” he said.

“You’re not going to make good art if you’re loading it up with expectations to deliver other things like income or praise or respect. You’re doing the art because you like making art.”

Mr Perry, widely considered to be one of the UK’s leading artists, told a gathering of students that most of what they created at this point in their careers would probably be derivative.

“To be a good artist, you’ve got to be a bit raw,” he said. “That’s important. Stick with it. It’s a long job. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Achieving success as an artist was not easy, Mr Perry acknowledged. He noted that he did not really achieve widespread acclaim until his late thirties – and it was during a sort of “golden” moment for artists in the 1990s. 

“London is still the capital of the art world but it’s very different now,” he said.

Mr Perry, a former UEL visiting professor, designed his talk, entitled “Nice Rebellion, Welcome In”, especially for UEL’s Detour Ahead event.  

Detour Ahead is one of the School of Arts and Digital Industries’ showcase events, offering third-year art and design students a week-long schedule of prominent industry speakers. It was created with an eye toward giving students an idea about what to expect when they enter the professional world.  

Besides Mr Perry, Detour Ahead speakers included Jonathan Barnbrook, a designer who created album art for David Bowie, Martin Usborne, co-founder of Hoxton Mini Press, and Philip Hunt, creative director of the BAFTA and Oscar-nominated independent animation producer, AKA Studio.

Mr Perry is particularly well known for his bright, classical-style vases decorated with unusual or controversial subjects – as well his habit of sometimes dressing in women’s clothing as his alter-ego, Claire.

He won the Turner Prize in Turner Prize in 2003 – the first time it was awarded to a ceramic artist. Grayson is also noted for his work with textiles. Last August he was appointed Chancellor of the University of the Arts London.

His television appearances include the Channel 4 programmes, In All the Best Taste Possible with Grayson Perry, which won a BAFTA, and Who Are You?, where he explored identity through the creation of portraits. 

Mr Perry said his next television project would be about masculinity, and admitted that he had learned quite a bit about himself in the process of making the show. 

“I might put on a dress sometimes but I am really quite a man,” he said.

Mr Perry’s tips to students included staying flexible, building relationships within the art world and making a point of selling their work, even if they had to price it relatively low.

He said the most expensive piece at his first show, in 1984, was around £80. “Don’t overprice,” he said. “The work is out there being an ambassador for you.”

It also did not hurt to do a bit of networking, he said. He recalled a night out at a Pizza Express restaurant when he manoeuvred himself into a position next to Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum. Mr Perry told Mr MacGregor he had an idea for an exhibit. It planted the seed for a show that took place at the British Museum a few years later.

Mr Perry said it helped for artists to have a ‘Plan B’. His own back-up was to go into advertising. But, fortunately, he always made just enough money in his twenties to continue as a full-time artist. In his thirties, he added, he had support from his wife, the psychotherapist and author Philippa Perry. 

After the lecture, Mr Perry said UEL students in the audience reminded him a bit of himself, with many of them sharing his working-class background. 

“They’re a fresh bunch,” Mr Perry said. “I imagine a lot of the kids here, they don’t have conversations about art around the dinner table with their mum and dad. So you’ve got to be really driven, and I think that’s important.”