Any chance to see the artist Grayson Perry in conversation is a very hot ticket indeed and an almost immediate sell out. Those of us who had the chance to see and hear him at the Yorkshire museum were among the lucky few who have had the chance to be in his presence. If that sounds a bit high flown then I apologise, but that’s how it felt. It’s not every day that you get to meet one of your heroes as I did, before the talk, after he had opened the museum for the evening. The man himself was as funny, wise and down to Earth as ever, of course. He can’t help the fact that some of his admirers become overawed.
The questions were all based around Grayson’s bear, Alan Measles, who was present on a rare outing having left his throne on the artist’s desk. One of Alan’s admirers even asked to walk down to the front and present him with a piece of writing, and she did just that, in spite of the fact that Grayson reminded her that Alan couldn’t read. Did I mention about becoming over awed? Alan is an example of what psychologists call a childhood transitional object. These can be hugely important to children and give them great support and comfort when things are difficult. For Grayson, who had a traumatic childhood, Alan was a lifeline, a place where he could “park part of me that didn’t work without a key that I had to hold onto to survive”. Alan was a talisman, a huge part of him, which allowed him to grow and create. He would commission Grayson to make Lego models and aeroplanes- allowing his creativity to flourish and develop. Looking back Grayson said that he “carried who I am now then”. As time went on and the anger associated with what happened to his owner early in life was “detoxified” his role changed and he became a guru figure. When Grayson was preparing his wonderful exhibition “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum he said that the artist that he had loved most was age, which gives things a wonderful patina, and Alan Measles is a beautiful example of that as he has become older, both wiser and more vulnerable. I found it very touching when Grayson said that he had “worked hard to get him the appreciation that he deserves over the years.” He is a bear with star quality- not every transitional object can carry the weight that is put on them as he does. They have to have it in themselves. Grayson was asked what he wanted to happen to Alan after his death and while he said that he would not mind as he would be dead, he also said that he likes to know where Alan is and it was clear that he was keeping very careful hold of him. Alan’s physical frailty is becoming a new concern as time passes.
There were many more general points to think about too. I agree with Grayson that in a digital age reality has become more powerful. Pilgrimages are a powerful theme in his work, and the many people (including myself) who had been anxious for the chance of a word, or more particularly a photograph, before the talk were proof of that. He is concerned that children’s innate, private creativity is being hijacked by large corporations like Disney who have a vested interest in persuading large numbers of little girls to share the same dream. This is something else which I completely agree with. Left to themselves children’s fantasies are a great deal wilder and more original that anything that Disney could dream up in a one size fits all fantasy. Like Grayson himself I continued childhood play until much later than many children do, so this is something that I feel strongly about.
There was a fascinating insight into what it is like to try to assess a finished piece of his Art with clarity when Grayson said that what he had produced was always fighting with the image of how he hoped that it would be and all the other things in the world. He is a supreme craftsman as well as an artist. He makes work for himself- as any artist must- and if other people like it that’s great. He remains deeply serious about what he does but he is also a perfect example of the artist as court jester, challenging boundaries, bringing the past to life and giving it meaning in the present. An experimental human!
I love what Grayson Perry does, not in an intellectual arty farty way but at a deep human level. I was a solitary, imaginative only child and I understand where the roots of what he does came from. I am not in the business of worshipping Alan Measles- that would be to misunderstand completely what is going on here- but I am deeply grateful that he was there for Grayson Perry and gave us so much to wonder at in a long creative career which is by no means over yet. I have now seen both of them in person and an ambition which I never thought to achieve has been fulfilled, along with a teddy bears picnic!