John Grayson, Enameller & Automata Maker

John Grayson specialises in narrative-based metal work. His practice focuses on exploring through craft, the defunct industrial metal forming and decorating processes employed by Victorian tin toy and Georgian enamel manufacturers. By appropriating the aesthetics associated with these industries, he makes contemporary satirical objects, often in response to political events.

What was your first memory of creativity?

Making has been ever present in my life. Both my parents went to art school, my father was a Fine Artist and so I was surrounded by his work and ‘the art world’ from an early age. However, I was fairly ambivalent towards Fine Art, preferring to make things, and there was a ready supply of tools and materials at hand – Stanley knife, scissors, cardboard, sticky-tape and PVA. Card was re-imagined as metal sheet and glue as welds. And so my toys were both tools at hand and the things
I made – cardboard facsimiles of the world I saw around me. In this environment tacit craft skills – tool manipulation and dexterity – were honed from an early age, and so art school beckoned.

What was your creative journey to get to where you are?

A Foundation course at Ravensbourne led to undergraduate and postgraduate courses at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, a broad based 3D Design programme, specialising in craft – fine metal. The making of narrative-based automata in tin was my main practice until 2004. Then a commission to make work in response to Bilston Gallery’s collection of Georgian enamel objects acted as the catalyst for a shift in my practice,
to the making of objects in enamel. I am currently a STEAM scholar at Birmingham City University researching the lost craftsmanship methods employed in the manufacture of English 18th Century enamels.

What impact have big name clients had on your career?

Major clients have been the catalyst for the development of my practice. The Craftsense commission for Bilston Craft Gallery, funded by the HLF and AHRB, was the first major project in collaboration with a large museum. I actively look for commissions that challenge me and move my practice on. The Crafts Council Parallel Practices residency at King’s College London is such an example. Based in the Faculty of Natural & Mathematical Sciences, I developed new knowledge on digital control systems and applied this to subsequent commissions.

How do you establish your own style over a period of time and still stay relevant?

Process exploration has resulted in the creation of a pallet of aesthetics that I then employ to communicate satirical narratives. Work stays relevant through the subject matter I depict, and in fact, because the works centres around political narratives, that by their very nature are ever changing, work becomes relevant and then dated very quickly.

Does your work develop thematically, or is it more distinctive and random?

Thematic inspiration is taken at the moment work starts – listening to the radio, reading the newspaper. Sometimes contemporary stories are synthesised with historic narratives, political tales are a recurring theme – VAT on Cornish pasties, Plebgate, Brexit! As I make, the work evolves as news stories shift in direction, arguments and counter arguments made…’alternative facts’ presented! In a sense the narratives I depict can date the objects. Sometimes themes are developed in subsequent works, as can be seen in The Discomobulated Brexiteer and La Brexiteuse à Petit Talons.

What inspires you or provokes the motivation towards creativity within?

Making motivates me, it has been constant in my life. It’s a love/hate relationship. When your practice is going well it is great! When it is not, you teeter on the edge of jacking it in. Craft making is addictive. The attraction for me is that craft is so many things to so many people, over and above purely the act of making. Craft can concern creativity, technology, innovation, culture, history and much more.

Which artists and designers do you admire or inspires you the most?

My inspirational interests are eclectic, and come from across creative disciplines. Artists such as Edward Bawden, particularly his print observations of London markets, his use of pattern, colour and rhythm are wonderful; Diego Rivera, particularly his portrayal of workers and political narratives in both the Rockefeller Centre and the Detroit Motor Murals; sculptors such as Panamerenko, his 1:1 scale maquettes of imaginary flying machines – the rubber band-powered helicopter is great. Music, Punk protest songs, Punch satirical cartoons…the list goes on.

What is it you love most about what you do?

Besides the act of making I think it is the variety of ever-changing creative experiences making has brought me that I love the most – handling objects in the stores of famous museums, meeting people to discuss craft, interacting with the public at craft fairs or whilst running workshops, seeing my work in print, exhibiting at prestigious venues.

Event Details: Conversations in Creativity (3pm) 27 April – Roach Bridge Mill