Grayson Perry (born 1960) is an English artist, known mainly for his ceramic vases and cross-dressing. He works in several media. Perry's vases have classical forms and are decorated in bright colours, depicting subjects at odds with their attractive appearance, e.g., child abuse and sado-masochism. There is a strong autobiographical element in his work, in which images of Perry as "Claire", his female alter-ego, often appear. He was awarded the Turner Prize in 2003 for his ceramics, receiving the prize dressed as Claire.
Grayson Perry was born in Chelmsford on 24 March 1960. When he was seven, his father left the family because of his mother's adultery. Perry describes his father's departure as the event that had the largest impact on him in his life. He subsequently lived at Bicknacre, Essex, with his mother, his stepfather, a younger sister and two stepbrothers and attended Woodham Ferrers Church of England School.
In his childhood Perry took an interest in drawing and building model aeroplanes, both of which were to become themes in his work. To escape from a difficult family situation and his stepfather's violence, he retreated to his bedroom or his father’s shed where he became absorbed in a fantasy life, sometimes involving a teddy bear that had become a “surrogate father figure”.
He was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School. Perry took interest in conventional boys' activities, such as model airplanes, motorcycles and girls. He was in the school's Combined Cadet Corps and wanted to train as an army officer. He was involved in the Chelmsford punk scene in the late 1970s.
At the same time he had unconventional sexual desires and fantasies. He describes his first sexual experience at the age of seven when he tied himself up in his pyjamas. From an early age he liked to dress in women's clothes and in his teens realized that he was a transvestite. At the age of 15 he moved in with his father's family at Chelmsford, where he began to go out dressed as a woman. When he was discovered by his father he said he would stop, but his stepmother told everyone about it and a few months later threw him out. He returned to his mother and stepfather at Great Bardfield.
At this time he decided not to join the army and following the encouragement of his art teacher, decided to study art. He did an art foundation course at Braintree College of Further Education from 1978 to 1979. He studied for a BA in fine art at Portsmouth Polytechnic, graduating in 1982. He had an interest in film and exhibited his first piece of pottery at the "New Contemporaries" show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1980. In the months following his graduation he joined the "Neo-Naturists", a group started by Christine Binnie to revive the "true sixties spirit – which involves living one’s life more or less naked and occasionally manifesting it into a performance for which the main theme is body paint”. (Dawson, p. 81) They put on events at galleries and other venues.
When he went to Portsmouth in 1979, his stepfather told him not to return home. Perry has been estranged from his mother since 1990. After graduating he lived a hand-to-mouth existence in squats, at one point sharing a house with milliner Stephen Jones and pop musician Boy George; the three of them competing to see who could wear the most outrageous outfits to Blitz, a New Romantic nightclub based in Covent Garden, London.
Perry started pottery lessons in September 1983 at the Central Institute where he was taught by Sarah Sanderson. His first exhibition of ceramics was in London in December 1983. He began to develop images and text that represented his experience in terms of “explicit scenes of sexual perversion – sadomasochism, bondage, transvestism”. For a while he made glazed plates with text as he could not make anything else. He was never motivated by a desire to work in clay as such, rather he chose pottery because studio ceramics was in “thrall to a formal idea”. Film having proved an inadequate medium for communicating his ideas about gender and society, Perry found in pottery an effective alternative because of “the ways artifice could be deployed to make the innocent or honest pot have a purpose and mean something”.
The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted a large solo exhibition of his work in 2002. It was partly for this work that he was awarded the Turner Prize in 2003, the first time it was given to a ceramic artist. He attended the award ceremony dressed as a girl, his alter-ego Claire.
In 2005 Perry featured in a documentary produced by Twofour for Channel 4, Why Men Wear Frocks in which he examined transvestism and masculinity at the start of the 21st century. Perry talked about his own life as a transvestite and the effect it had on him and his family, frankly discussing its difficulties and pleasures. The documentary won a Royal Television Society award for best network production.
An autobiographical account of his formative years, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl (co-written with Wendy Jones), was published in 2006. He was an arts correspondent for The Times until October 2007 .
He moved to Gloucester in 2007.
In 2007, Perry made the following comments on self-censorship in The Times: “The reason I haven’t gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat” (Jihadist violence cows "fearless" artists into silence), a reference to Theo van Gogh.
Perry's work refers to several ceramic traditions, including Greek pottery and folk art. He has said, “I like the whole iconography of pottery. It hasn't got any big pretensions to being great public works of art, and no matter how brash a statement I make, on a pot it will always have certain humility ... [F]or me the shape has to be classical invisible: then you’ve got a base that people can understand”. His vessels are made by coiling, a traditional method. Most have a complex surface employing many techniques, including “glazing, incision, embossing, and the use of photographic transfers", which requires several firings. To some he adds sprigs, little relief sculptures stuck to the surface. The high degree of skill required by his ceramics and their complexity distances them from craft pottery. It has been said that these methods are not used for decorative effect but to give meaning. Perry challenges the idea, implicit in the craft tradition, that pottery is merely decorative or utilitarian and cannot express ideas.
In his work Perry reflects upon his upbringing as a boy, his stepfather's anger and the absence of proper guidance about male conduct. Perry's understanding of the roles in his family is portrayed in Using My Family,1998, where a teddy bear provides affection, and The Guardians,1998, which depicts his mother and stepfather
Much of Perry's work has an explicit sexual content. Some of his sexual imagery has been described as "obscene sadomasochistic sex scenes”. He also depicts violence and child abuse. e.g. in We've Found the Body of your Child, 2000. In some work he combines sexual imagery with representations of innocuous activities like classical music and tennis. In other work he juxtaposes decorative clichés like flowers with weapons and war. Perry combines various techniques as a “guerrilla tactic”, using the humble and approachable medium of pottery to provoke thought.
As well as ceramics, Perry has worked in printmaking, drawing, embroidery and other textile work, film and performance. He has written a graphic novel, Cycle of Violence.
Perry frequently appears in public dressed as a woman and he has described his female alter-ego variously as “a 19th century reforming matriarch, a middle-England protester for No More Art, an aero-model-maker, or an Eastern European Freedom Fighter,” and “a fortysomething woman living in a Barret home, the kind of woman who eats ready meals and can just about sew on a button”. In his work Perry includes pictures of himself in women's clothes, for example, Mother of All Battles (1996) is a photograph of "Claire" holding a gun and wearing a dress, in ethnic eastern European style, embroidered with images of war, exhibited at his 2002 Stedelijk show.