YORK portrait artist Sue Clayton is joining forces with Pocklington Arts Centre to present an outdoor exhibition, 21, in celebration of World Down Syndrome Day.
On display on the railings of All Saints Church, Pocklington, from tomorrow (19/3/2021) to April 19, the 21 portraits are all inspired by children and adults who have Down Syndrome, especially Sue’s energetic son James.
Sue, whose portraiture is marked by a vibrant palette and social purpose, has chosen the theme of 21 not only in a nod to World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD) falling on March 21, but also to symbolise the extra 21st chromosome that people with Down Syndrome have.
21 will be the second such exhibition to be staged by Pocklington Arts Centre (PAC) in lockdown after Karen Winship’s NHS Heroes outside “the Cathedral of the Wolds” from late-November to January 4.
Sue says: “I’m delighted to once again be teaming up with Pocklington Arts Centre to unveil 21 to mark World Down Syndrome Day.
“I take a huge amount of inspiration from my son James, who celebrated his 18th birthday in lockdown, so I’m very much looking forward to bringing this collection of portraits featuring children and adults with Down Syndrome at work and play to Pocklington.
“I really hope it helps to not only celebrate some incredible people but also perhaps to challenge some people’s perceptions of Down Syndrome to coincide with this international awareness-raising campaign.”
The 21 exhibition comes a year after Sue held a record-breaking attempt to create the world’s largest pair of knitted socks at PAC, where the huge socks formed the backdrop to her studio exhibition Downright Marvellous At Large.
The project involved keen knitters from the Pocklington community and beyond knitting and donating brightly coloured squares that were joined together to make the enormous odd socks.
“Why odd socks,” you ask? Odd socks are worn to mark WDSD as part of the global fundraising campaign Lots Of Socks to represent the odd number of chromosomes, whose shape matches a sock.
Sue’s original Downright Marvellous! exhibition at PAC in 2015 mainly depicted young children who have Down Syndrome, but her new portraits in part focus on the “unrepresented and significant” social presence of adults with Down Syndrome at work and at leisure. This is in keeping with her artistic vision to “represent those who are sometimes socially unseen”.
PAC director Janet Farmer says: “We’re delighted to be working with Sue Clayton once again on what promises to be a fantastic exhibition to help raise awareness of a worthwhile cause.
“Sue’s previous exhibitions at PAC have always proved to be so popular, so we’re looking forward to being able to make 21 happen as an outdoor event while the venue remains closed to the public.
“We hope as many people as possible enjoy this truly unique and inspiring collection of works.”
Sue, from Wigginton, is drawn to portraiture because “it insists upon the idea that the more you look at a face, the more you see. Every single aspect – the eyelids, the nostrils, and the complexion – reveals the personality and character of every individual person”.
After making a radical mid-career change to become a full-time artist, self-taught Sue soon gained recognition from Britain’s Got Artists in 2012 and later as Outstanding Visual Artist in the York Culture Awards for her York Heroes project in 2017-2018, shown at York Hospital.
Selected by the York public for Sue’s portrait challenge, the six “heroes” were Dame Berwick Kaler, York Theatre Royal pantomime legend; Mary Chapman, founder of Nuzzlets Animal Charity in Great Ouseburn; Professor Steve Leveson, York Against Cancer co-founder and chairman; Ian Donaghy, motivational public speaker, charity fundraiser, author and Huge singer; the late PC Suzanne Asquith, who was awarded a BEM in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her work with young people, and Andrew Fair, the perennial friendly face on the trolleys at Sainsbury’s at Monks Cross.
Sue’s portrait of Andrew in uniform, with his yellow hi-viz jacket and orange Sainsbury’s name tag, subsequently featured on the opening episode of Grayson Perry’s Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4 during Lockdown 1 last spring.
Influenced by Rembrandt, York artist William Etty and more contemporary painters such as Jenny Saville and Tim Benson, Sue enjoys working with dynamic colours to make marks “that should not be there but somehow work”, and her modus operandi is to capture both the likeness of her subjects and their inner life.
During lockdown, she has been teaching weekly online art classes. To find out more about Sue’s classes and her work, visit sueclayton.com. For further information on World Down Syndrome Day, and how to show support by wearing odd socks on March 21, visit downs-syndrome.org.uk.
Here, CharlesHutchPress turns the spotlight on Sue Clayton with a broad canvas of questions.
How will you and James mark World Down Syndrome Day on Sunday, March 21, Sue?
“We’ll be definitely wearing our odd socks on WDSD. We’ll be donning the official design odd socks from the Down Syndrome Association, but everyone is warmly encouraged to show support by wearing any odd socks they like, with the odd socks representing the extra sock-shaped chromosome.
“We’ll also be taking part in an online disco party that starts at 3.21pm on Sunday, so beware some serious Mum dancing! The day before, James and I will be doing an online portrait workshop with James debuting as my model. All monies raised from this will go to the local Down Syndrome support group.”
What works make up the 21 portraits in 21 in 2021?
“The exhibition features seven new portraits of young people from our region, with a new sketch of James from his 18th birthday included. The other portraits have been selected from past Downright Marvellous exhibitions. There’s a range of mediums used this time from pen sketches, acrylic, oils and watercolour.”
Your past Pocklington Arts Centre exhibitions have been held indoors. This time, the works will be on show outside, becoming street art, on view to all. What extra oomph does that bring to this show?
“Pocklington Arts Centre strikes again; they are such a great asset to the community. What a fantastic initiative this is. When most artists are struggling during this time PAC are helping by funding these exhibitions.
“I’m particularly excited as I’m passionate about making art accessible for all. This way, art is shown in an open environment to people who may not go to art galleries. If people can’t go to galleries and art centres, they will come to you!
“The paintings are vibrant and positive; it’s great to think they might make people smile as they pass by All Saints Church. I’m hoping the portraits will dispense the label and instead focus on the individual.”
You say you want to “perhaps challenge some people’s perceptions of Down Syndrome to coincide with this international awareness raising campaign”. What do you think those perceptions are and how can they be changed?
“I hope to share the individual and unique character of any person I paint; these models are no exception. A misconception may be that people with Down Syndrome will live sheltered lives, never leaving the family home or having a job.
“Many adults with DS make a great contribution to society, working in paid jobs or volunteering within the community. My greatest wish for James in the future will be that he holds down a fulfilling job to him; has a strong, loving relationship and can live as independently as possible, all of which I hope for my daughter too, who doesn’t have DS.”
What are you working on and when might your next exhibition be?
“I’ll soon be working on a new commission linked with the NHS, which I am very excited about. More details to follow nearer the time.
“I’m also working on a project that incorporates both large-scale paintings of the portrait and the nude side by side. Yet again, I hope to challenge the perceptions we make of people as we view the same person in a different way: do these change and why?”
How are the Zoom art classes going?
“I’m loving delivering art classes via Zoom. I can’t believe I was so reticent at the start of lockdown; I love it now! The thing I have found lovely is the sense of community and friendship that can form in a virtual class.
“I now have people from across the UK and even have someone Zooming in weekly from the Netherlands.”
What has Zoom taught you about the possibilities of opening up to new opportunities?
“The beauty of the classes is no travelling to venues, no forgetting art materials, plus it allows freedom to experiment more with materials as everything is on hand at home.
“I do two watercolour paint-along sessions each week, which allow participants to see in detail how to create the painting. Everyone can view it easily on thier own screen.
“Also, reference photos are much easier to share and I’ve created an online gallery so we can look and share our work together, again building the sense of community. Many of my learners have had to shield, so this has been a great way to still participate and not feel so isolated during this time.
“From a personal point of view, I’ve linked to a lot of art talks myself, expanding my art history knowledge. I particularly enjoyed taking part in one from Washington DC examining Van Gogh’s letters and the paintings described within them. Great stuff!”
How have you dealt with lockdown x 3 as a creative person?
“When lockdown began this time last year, my yearning to paint portraits waned; I’m very pleased to say this didn’t last long. Discovering I could continue to teach was a real bonus as, like so many creatives, I was very anxious how I could still earn money.
“The classes have been essential on many levels. They feed my creativity as I need to think about new and exciting challenges for my learners, but it’s also a wonderful time with fellow painters as we share thoughts and ideas.
“I’ve had the challenge of two children home-schooling and having a young person with special needs 24/7 can have its ups and downs but overall it’s been good.
“I often compensate by working into the early hours but I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to do this and keep my loved ones safe.
“It’s definitely been a time to learn for me; I’ve invested in learning more about art history. Excitingly too, I’ve now found avenues to link up with models far further afield than I ever thought possible, thanks to technology.”
What do you know about yourself that you didn’t know a year ago pre-Covid?
“Hmm…tricky question! Like so many people, I’ve had to embrace tech more and never thought I would enjoy it so much. I’ve learnt to have more patience as I’ve had to time apart from my partner but equally learned our love is very strong and how thankful I am that he’s in my life.
“I know I enjoyed slowing down a little and how much I appreciate those around me. I now know that I have the scope to teach to a much wider audience and I’ve loved how much I’ve enjoyed it.”
Why has Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4 been such a breath of fresh air for the art world in general, championing people’s art?
“Grayson Perry is just fantastic; I can’t wait to see him in York later this year [Grayson Perry: A Show For Normal People, York Barbican, September 6].
“The TV show is wholesome and heartening and really brings home the fact that art is for everyone and everyone can make it. He’s such a good communicator and shows an understanding of humankind with his empathy.
“I really like the way he shows respect for all the artists, whoever they are, allowing them time to talk about their art and listening. The connection between [his wife] Philippa and Grayson is great to see too. In a time of crisis, it truly shows the power of art, to create, to distract, to absorb, to think, to just be!”
Sue Clayton’s exhibition, 21, is on display outside All Saints Church, Pocklington, from March 19 to April 19, presented in tandem with Pocklington Arts Centre. For Sue’s short video on 21, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=lpoeCJW3_5I.