Grayson Perry and Claire

The year is 1960, the scenery is the bucolic landscape of Chelmsford, in the outskirts of London. On March 24th, Grayson Perry is born, the first child of a working class family. Still in his early childhood, Grayson’s dad decides to abandon his family. Naturally, this decision has made a huge impact on Grayson’s life, and not only during his formative years. A couple years later, his mother remarries, but this hardly comes as good news to Grayson.

Grayson’s stepfather is violent and abusive. He beats Grayson frequently, and both him and Grayson’s mother frown upon the young man’s peculiar tastes. Many times he would hide in his dad’s old shed to get away from all the abuse. Perry is a creative and curious boy, and by age 13 he was already telling his diary about dressing up in women’s clothes. It was his escape, just like building model airplanes, or a bit later, riding motorcycles.

Even back then Grayson’s opinions challenged themselves. At the same time he was pondering joining the military officer’s school, he got involved in the 70’s Punk scene. He describes himself as “a punk in the provincial sense… I was there in my bedroom with an old school shirt stencilling the word ‘hate’ onto it, looking out onto the lush turf of the north Essex countryside”. 

Unable to cope with her son’s unconventional tastes - particularly cross.dressing - and cheered along by her husband, Grayson’s mother kicks him out of the house. This is when he decides to pursue an education as an artist. He studies at Braintree College of Further Education from 78 to 79, and gets his BA from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 82. He starts off by choosing film as his medium of choice, but quickly gets tired of what he considers to be “an overly collaborative nature, with little to no room for self-expression”.

The young artist lives in poverty, and many times ends up squatting. When living in a community of squatters in picturesque and bohemian Camden Town, he renews his interest in ceramics and decides to chase it seriously, enrolling in night classes on the subject. His first works are simple glazed ceramic plates with text snippets on them, as his skills wouldn’t allow him to create much more.

After many years of experimenting with cross-dressing and wearing traditional women’s clothes, Grayson was disappointed with the lack of reaction he was getting. And that’s how Claire came to be. Grayson’s long time feminine alter-ego, Claire shows up in many ways, both in Perry’s art as in public appearances, ranging from a small girl in frilly little dresses, to a fully grown woman. As Claire, there’s a chance to dress in truly exuberant fashion, and he is finally able to gather the shock and awe responses he so longed for. All of his work has a strong autobiographical component, and Claire isn’t the only element of Grayson’s daily life that seeps into his art: "Alan Measles", his childhood teddy bear is also a recurring theme. 

Through hard word, Perry honed his skills, coming to create pieces of remarkable talent, such as “Saint Claire’s 37 wanks across Northern Spain” - a profusely coloured urn, mixing traditional shapes and techniques with innovative elements such as photos and hand drawn images. Being the renaissance spirit he is, Grayson was already exploring new avenues of expression, even at the time. That’s how, in a creative writing class in 1987,  he meets Philippa, a psychotherapist with a personality as extravagant as his own, and immediately falls in love. They get married in 1992, the same year in which the couple’s daughter, Flo Perry, is born. Also in 92 he publishes his first book, “Cycle of Violence”, and it’s around this time he starts using tapestry as another means of artistic expression.

After a series of exhibitions, acclaimed by critique and general audiences alike,Grayson hits glory: in 2003 he is given the Turner award, one of the highest and most sought-after honours in the art world. Of course, being Grayson, this could not have come without being shrouded in controversy. Besides being the first potter to be the recipient of the Turner award, he presented himself to the ceremony accompanied by his wife and daughter, but in full drag, as his alter-ego Claire. His decision came highly contested, especially from within the more conservative circles in Britain.

Harnessing this social discomfort as fuel for his art, the next year Grayson unveils a new exhibit. An installation of classically-shaped pots and vases, whose colourful surfaces served as nothing more than seductive camouflage for the images and messages in clear contrast with its decorative guise. Domestic violence, child abuse, pedophilia and cultural stereotypes were some of the problematics the artist undertook in his peculiar creations. Perry openly recognises the exploitative nature of his pots, describing them as a “guerilla tactic" under which a “controversy or ideology” was waiting to be discovered.

Grayson is, in his core, a steadfast defender of the oppressed. "One of the reasons I dress up as a woman is my low self-esteem, to go with the image of women being seen as second class. It is like pottery: that's seen as a second-class thing too." known for his observations on the arts scene and for dissecting Britain's "prejudices, fashions and foibles", Perry describes his role as an artist as “similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor – I dress up, tell stories, give things meaning, make things a bit more significant” His perennial fascination with his main themes - the unpopular, the second-class, the naive, the tribes we belong, the rural idyllic, the feminine - is one of his biggest strengths and turns him into a razor-sharp social commentator.

More and more focused on the community and struggling for the democratization of the arts, despite having designed many of Claire’s frocks himself, every year, fashion students from London’s Central St Martin’s em Londres enter a competition to design her gowns. Grayson obviously encourages them to be as bizarre and exciting as they possibly can. He has recently launched the TV series "Grayson's Art Club”, in which he receives and presents artworks made during the pandemic by everyday Britons, open to anyone who wants to submit their works.

The artist is still bewildering us with an impressive voyage of self-knowledge and personal comeuppance. He challenges us to let the artist within ourselves roam free and to reject the formalisms imposed by established institutions. So there may be more rebels like Grayson. And Claire.