IT began with a chance conversation on a Museum Gardens bench on a summer’s day.
It ended with 140 portraits by a Wigginton artist from a family of football haters who became a season ticket holder, cheering on York City at the LNER Community Stadium as promotion to the National League was clinched last Saturday.
Sue Clayton’s portraits will be revealed en masse on Saturday at the York City Football Club Fans’ Centenary Celebration at Cliffe Village Institute, near Selby, where Bubwith-born club legend Chris Topping (463 appearances,1968-1978) will perform the opening ceremony at the 10am to 4pm event.
A3 prints of the entire collection will be available for the first time at the celebration: mounted and ready to pop into a frame for £25 each or £40 for a framed version.
“This year-long project came about from having a chat last year with Michael Miles, a lifelong York City fan who creates the Y-Front fanzine,” says Sue. “The passion Michael showed for his club captured my attention: it was one of those conversations where someone’s passion for something sparks your own interest to listen to them.
“I suggested I should paint a few fan portraits. Then, when he mentioned it would be the club’s centenary this year, I realised a new art project was germinating in my mind and I was fizzing with creativity.”
At first, Sue anticipated painting maybe ten portraits from the photographs and stories sent to her. Instead, the project grew and grew, not even stopping at 100 paintings to mark 100 years.
“It was so strange really, a total perseverance on my behalf, with many 3am finishes,” she says. “In reality it may have been prudent to stop when I reached 100 but I still had images I wanted to paint; I wanted to do the fans justice.”
Each 30cm square in size, the portraits span multiple media, from watercolours to oils, acrylics to charcoal, pencil to collage. “In the collection, there are brides, babies, fans pictured in celebration sadly no longer with us, sisters, dads and sons, friendships…the full range of life in all its glorious forms,” says Sue, who is now adding former players to her portrait portfolio.
She is drawn to “painting portraits of people whose stories I want to tell”, such as her exhibition of children and young adults with Down Syndrome, entitled 21, on display in the Tent of Hope at the NHS York Vaccination Centre at Askham Bar, York, last May and June.
“I’m equally passionate about making art accessible to all and love the concept of art meeting football,” she says. “A wonderful year-long journey has led me to the fantastic warmth of the fan community. From knowing so little about football, my son James and I are now fully signed-up season ticket holders roaring with the crowds on the terraces, culminating in the amazing play-off final last weekend.”
Sue believes passion creates the best portraits. “As an artist, I was on a roll with this project and became very quickly immersed within it. The range and scope of the photos sent in could let my imagination free, and it enabled me to paint such a range of ages within the series,” she says.
“From a sitter’s perspective, I think the fan in the act of celebrating, oblivious to all, just consumed with joy, is really delicious to paint. Equally, the moment capturing a fan watching the team intensely, apprehension etched on their face tells a great story.”
Saturday’s celebration is taking place at Cliffe on account of Michael Miles living there. “There’s quite a gathering of fans in the village, who call themselves ‘The Cliffe Minstermen’,” says Sue.
“Michael was eager to create an event just for the fans. The response has been phenomenal, with offers of help, sponsorship from the fans and fabulous raffle prizes donated. It’s a perfect chance to gather and celebrate not just the centenary but last week’s victory to go up a division.”
Look out for Jack Radcliffe’s match reports from the 2021-2022 season, on full display on Saturday. “Jack, who, like my son James, has Down Syndrome, has captured the hearts of the team, in particular goalie Pete Jameson, and the fans too,” says Sue. “His match reports are superb with such honesty and integrity. He led the team on to the pitch for the final game and did the lap of honour with them.”
“Football-type” food and drink will be available; a colouring competition for children promises fabulous prizes, and the raffle prizes will range from football kits and signed footballs, to a portrait commission from Sue and signed lyrics from Shed Seven’s Rick Witter for the club’s terrace anthem, Chasing City Rainbows.
The legacy of Sue’s portraits will build. “Work will begin soon on a book about the portrait project and some of the wonderful stories behind the faces,” she says. “I believe so strongly that these stories should not be lost and want them to be part of the archives for the club’s centenary.
“The portraits will form a large art installation inside the fanzone at the LNER Community Stadium later in the year as a permanent feature, and the Give It A Go Joe drama group has expressed an interest in developing these stories further to create some community theatre. Not bad from a chat on a park bench, eh?!”
As for the future of the original portraits, “some will go on display in York Hospital, and I would dearly love to show them again in their entirety in York centre before the collection will be broken up at the end of the year. If any galleries, museums or community spaces are interested, I would love to hear from them via firstname.lastname@example.org.”
CharlesHutchPress has a hatful of questions for artist Sue Clayton
Just how exciting was last Saturday’s play-off final?
“OH my!! Fab-u-lous!! I was already in bits when Jack [Radcliffe] led out the players to start the game. What a superstar Jack is and a great ambassador for the club. When that second goal went in, it was just amazing!
“The feeling of ‘we’ve got this…we’ve really got this’! Y-Front fanzine editor Michael Miles said he’d worked out he’d been supporting York for 34 years with three promotions; James and I come along and we’re promoted in our first year! Who knows what next season will bring at this rate!”
Were the stories you were sent as important as the photographs you transformed into portraits?
“Often the stories came after the photos were sent. I can’t say they directly informed my paintings but I did have a wry smile on my face with some as fans had told me some of their escapades.
“The one portrait that did affect me profoundly was the painting of Phil, the fan who was working as a teacher in Ukraine. His daily posts on Twitter, sharing the terror of the situation, haunted me. His portrait is painted in blue and yellow as a testament to this time.
“I’m hoping that more anecdotes and tales will emerge at Saturday’s event as the fans see the whole collection. There will be a book there to write down any memories and I will be interviewing fans as my next mini-project to get those stories down before they are lost.”
How did you settle on the 30cm square size and the wide range of materials for the portraits?
“I decided on the 30cm square format as I knew there would be a lot of paintings. I like a square, I feel it’s more contemporary and I always feel it works well if I want to closely crop an image and focus in on the action of the face.
“I’ve used a wide range of mediums because that’s me, I suppose! I enjoy the luscious butteryness of oils, the quick drying and layering of acrylics and the wonderful flow of watercolours. Spoilt for choice!
“I did worry that the whole collection might not adhere to one particular style: would people realise they were all by the same artist? It’s often advised to pursue a particular style so that your work is recognisable, but I’ve long decided to just do ‘me’ and try not to play to any rules.”
Last year, when announcing this project in CharlesHutchPress, you said you were “not a follower of football myself”. Earlier this month, you told the Yorkshire Post: “I grew up in a football-hating family, never watched football and we were the least sporting family going.” How come you have caught the York City bug, along with James, both becoming season ticket holders?
“Well, obviously I didn’t know what I was missing! Initially, I suppose I went for a bit of research to find out what it was all about. I soon became caught up with the match; it was a glorious day and the season had just begun. Having a season ticket meant I saw the same faces each match; a smile and a nod to other fans led on to conversations and before you know it ,you are part of a community.
“It’s not just the game of football, it’s the fans, the people who work with the team, the stadium, the traditions. It has also become a chance to share something special with James.”
Saturday’s centenary event carries the promise of “full football-type food and drink”. What represents such delights to you?!
“The warm smell of a fresh pie wafting by as the fans make their way to the seats (I have got to say, I have never tasted anything so good as the pie in Bromley!) I notice quite a few fans still like their Bovril.
“For the event on Saturday, the lads have arranged local pies, pasties, sausage rolls and peas. There’ll also be a curry or chilli and chips.”
How come Rick Witter is donating his Chasing City Rainbows lyrics to Saturday’s celebration?
“Shed Seven’s Chasing Rainbows was adopted as York City’s song when it came out in 1996 and was sung on the terraces by City fans. It can be heard at most matches. Rick has kindly supported Saturday’s raffle for the fans by sending in a hand-written, reworded version for the fans to now say ‘Chasing City Rainbows’. A lovely collector’s piece for both City fans and music fans.”
How will the portrait book project progress?
“The book is still an embryo of an idea but it will happen! I’d love for all the images to be recorded in one book alongside the fans’ stories. I kind of feel it is my duty to record this project, so that it’s not forgotten, archived away for future fans, along with the stories. My daughter Lily is a passionate reader and writer, so this will be a joint project with her.”
When will your portrait installation be in place at the LNER Community Stadium?
“No date as yet, as I have only just finished painting them. Talks will begin soon to get the ball in motion.”
What will be your next project?
“The book – a new, uncharted territory for me. I’ll also work on a range of portraits of ex- players. There’s a wonderful network out there; fans are loyal and never forget their heroes, so I think it’s time to honour them.
“But hey, who knows? I might find myself chatting to someone on a park bench again and that spark of an idea begins again. It certainly opened up a whole new exciting challenge for me last time.”