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Blackpool-based contemporary visual artist Garth Gratrix makes work that explores queer lived experience within minimal, formal and abstract sculptural installations. Harry Clayton-Wright is a performance artist and director of Queer Amusements. The pair settle down to chat about new commissions, exhibitions, Madonna and the perfect day in Blackpool.

Garth Gratrix is a prominent voice in Blackpool’s art and culture scene and the founder-director of Abingdon Studios which has been developing and creating a platform for artists over the past decade. This July-September they will be the first local artist to host a solo show at the Grundy Art Gallery.

Balancing the formal and the frolic as a spectrum to experiment with pleasure, play, agency and anonymity Flamboyant Flamingos follows Gratrix’s exhibition Shy Girl, held in Grundy’s Rotunda gallery in 2020. In the intervening years, they have built a substantial body of work and delivered exhibitions, events and projects at and with a range of venues across the UK.

To coincide with the new show, Gratrix has been commissioned to create a brand-new piece of public art as part of the multi-artform festival Queer Amusements. The piece will harness the luminescent power of neon to craft a captivating visual narrative and be located outside the gallery on Queen Street, inviting passersby into the gallery space. Creative Director of Queer Amusements and fellow Blackpool artist, Harry Clayton-Wright caught up with Gratrix in the run up to this major solo show to find out more about the piece and the process.

Harry: Hi Garth! How’s preparation going for your big solo show?

Garth: It’s incredibly exciting, daunting, nerve wracking and experimental. I’m enjoying testing new fabrication methods and partnerships, as well as exploring the wider idea that a solo invitation can still also provide an opportunity to connect and collaborate between my work and other queer icons (to be revealed). I’m also enjoying working with the Grundy’s curator, technical and engagement teams in helping shape and explore (or maybe cruise is a better word) the nuances within the show and how to allow moments of stillness, playfulness, flirty frolic and also quiet contemplation, rest and changes in pace. I’m a thirsty girl when it comes to minimal and abstract aesthetics, but that doesn’t mean to say my brain isn’t frantically going through a much more dense rolodex of ideas, references, theories, and thoughts. Then I add and subtract until a balance between material, narrative and experience feels right and that can be more intuitive in the space during install.

Garth Gratrix, Shy Girl Flamboyant Flamingo Crown of Feathers, beachtowel on powder coated steel, installed at Abingdon Studios (2021)
Queer Amusements has commissioned you to create a piece of public art as part of our inaugural programme, can you tell us about the process?

It is my first neon light work. As a working-class artist I used to look at artists at an established level and think you’ve made it when you can afford a real neon. There’s something about the medium that feels rich in history of artists using light as another means to communicate ideas that I enjoy. Given my work is more minimal or includes gesture or subtle messaging, I wanted to connect the decision to use neon, with lived experience and current personal affairs. Growing up I was often referred to as a Mummy’s Boy, as an internal family comment, that escalated within high school bullying and nomenclature.

That power of owning behavioural traits that others might see as slurs is a recurring reality for many queer people. This has been made more poignant this year by the loss of my mum (lovingly nicknamed Smumpy). Loss inevitably reconnects you to family history. Mum’s dad, Bertram Brickles, was a radio officer in the Navy during WWII, who was captured and imprisoned for roughly four years in Hamburg, before being released and living a long and happy life in Blackpool. The idea of morse code became a way to reconnect myself, my mother’s memory and that memory and lineage, through programming the neon to spell “Mummy’s Boy”, in some small yet meaningful way. It was important to me to find a combination of shape, colour and code to communicate words, as opposed to creating a text based neon more directly. I like the idea of the neon winking at people as they walk Queen Street, a historically important street for the LGBTQIA+ community – inviting further curiosity and a code to crack. It sets a tone for the show rooted in queerness, contemplation and lived experiences.

The neon itself is Flamingo Pink in colour, connecting material choices to the show’s main title Flamboyant Flamingos. What you will see more literally is a pair of equilateral triangles. The first triangle on the left is orientated in reference to WWII where a Pink Triangle was given to prisoners of war on their clothing as a badge of shame for gay men or trans women – the second triangle on the right is orientated to mark a change and new activism for the freedom and liberation of LGBTQIA+ people since the 1970s.

Where have you found physical inspiration for the piece?

I’ve been working with the triangle as a shape for a while in my broader output as an artist. It’s the strongest architectural shape and it’s a simple, yet effective, way to visually represent reappropriated and reclaimed symbols and meanings throughout time and in context of LGBTQIA+ struggles, protest and joy. Having seen Martin Creed’s ‘Things’ neon above Grundy’s main entrance for quite some time, I’ve always felt that one day I’m going to put a piece of my own above that door. A subtle alteration that announces the gallery as a welcoming space for queer people.

The use of morse code is new within my work, but connects to ongoing interests in methods of communication that are coded or clandestine in nature. Things that people do to ask for help, connect with safety, or flirt provocatively but with a degree of privacy, for example Polari as a queer sociolect. Even just being a kid with a torch at a window covering it with my hand to say SOS and as it shines through flesh and takes on a pinky red hue.

Is neon a medium you’ve ever used before?

It is a virgin voyage. What I love about choosing to work out of your comfort zone is that it connects you to other skilled professionals and becomes a moment to share thinking and concept. Not be judged based on your own craftsmanship, but your ability to collaborate and communicate to create the best piece togther. Not to mention, it’s always important to share the money within a cultural workforce and support other freelancers. It’s been great working with Matthew Collins and experimenting with morse code and light – even down to how fast or slow we want the message to play out, the act of slowing people down to decode an artwork, and also the care of colour options and scale (nine inches, ooo Matron) to ensure the first neon of mine connects into my broader practice and self-imposed rules that I work with. I have a nine inch rule, take from that what you will.

At this time, with what’s happened during the development of this exhibition, it has become one of the most profound opportunities for me to explore humour, homage and home.

What makes the beauty of using light the right medium in which to convey an artistic message and do you find it speaks to your heritage of growing up here in the town?

The moment when morse code became the idea to communicate a message was when the use of neon, for me, made sense. At this time, with what’s happened during the development of this exhibition, it has become one of the most profound opportunities for me to explore humour, homage and home.

What I like about this piece is how it maintains a level of performativity and therefore expectation – given Blackpool’s iconic heritage with works of light displayed each year – yet it also refuses and denies an instant reading. That makes a neon work by a Blackpool artist something that’s more about autonomy, perhaps less about the locale it sits within and more about global messages of solidarity. Neon is bold, yet my use of it still holds subtlety and calm. It feels like foreplay for visitors approaching the gallery. Its contents as a destination for contemporary ideas and thinking.

How much Madonna have you listened to while putting the show together?

Well, seeing as it was a virgin neon… The beach walks to think, strut and Vogue, de-stress with Holiday, have been more illuminating and confidence inducing as a result of Madge. I’ve combined that with revisiting ’90’s dance floor fillers as Mum was partial to a bit of Rhythm is a Dancer by Snap. I like to think that to keep your head in the game, it’s good to get out of your own head at times. Find a different groove to get into and let’s keep reminding ourselves that so much of life is better with play, fun, exploration and expression.

The independent scene has more than doubled in the last 10 years. It feels there’s a growth in confidence and shared support for those seeking to take risks and take up space in the town.

As a leader in the independent creative arts sector in the town, someone who has worked for many years platforming and advocating for artists and fundraising to provide professional opportunities, what excites you about the future of the arts in Blackpool?

The independent scene has more than doubled in the last 10 years. It feels there’s a growth in confidence and shared support for those seeking to take risks and take up space in the town. I’ve been part of what feels like a lifelong level of chat, challenge and candour to collaborate in ways that artists and creative skills are retained and invested in. There wasn’t a queer-led art space at the time I established Abingdon Studios and therefore there was limited arts and culture outside of pub and club culture and heritage buildings. I also curated the first arts and heritage exhibition for Blackpool Pride, 11 years ago and Abingdon Studios founded the first queer community archive project, We’re Still Here, supported by Heritage Lottery Funding in 2022. There’s so much opportunity with so many younger, mid-career and entrepreneurial people in Blackpool. Collaboration and cooperation have always been mainstays in how I strive to work, so the more the merrier.

There are new strategies in play that many of us have worked hard to usher in. Independents are receiving larger funding grants. I see so much potential in how the independents can act as a conduit to helping emerging artists develop and situate their work in the town. There’s a long way to go in working in a transparent and united way, and not all things have to interconnect, but mutual advocacy and respect is a great start and it’s just exciting to see an artist studios not in isolation anymore.

For anyone not from the town, can you describe your perfect day in Blackpool?

Late August/early September. Still flashes of sun, but quieter beaches. Wearing sunglasses and layers. Taking a long morning walk down the coast from North Pier, wind caressing your hair, coat swooshing as you strut. Heading back up into town with Blackpool Tower fully erect in the distance. You then turn up Queen Street off the prom to take in the Grundy Art Gallery show (early doors 10am) enjoying what will feel like a private viewing to yourself at that time, absorbing ideas and taking time to enjoy art. Gets the brain thinking. Then take a coffee break at an independent cafe such as Last Light Coffee. Then use that caffeine hit to do some arcades, stick to the 2p machines for the sheer nostalgia and sounds. Enroute, nipping into Aunty Social to buy locally-made creative wares. You hit the arcades on the prom… Observe how many people are there, still enjoying the town in its raw reality (inclusive of stereotypes and so much more). All the different personalities expressed through various shop fronts, plethora of signage and competing offers. The balance of work/leisure is in full swing. Bantering, bartering, bickering, brilliance.

Walk in front of the tower and take in its civic engineering whilst stood on The Comedy Carpet by artist Gordon Young. You’ll find many a laugh whilst cruising the jokes beneath your very feet. Nip into the Tower Ballroom to get a sense of its majesty and see old and young couples dancing and taking afternoon tea. Then jump on a tram to Waterloo Road. Warm yourself up for a moment and enjoy the horizon. Grab a Notarianni’s Ice Cream (the best), just to walk back with as the sun makes its way over to the horizon. Then, subject to your preferred pretences (class wise) go to The Beach House for the best sea views with a glass of vino (or non alcoholic beverage). Enjoy time going by in the form of the perfect sunset. Or do the same for your sunset but at the end of North Pier in Bloom sun lounge with a pint or a brew.

Fall asleep after a day of walking, culture, food, drink, dancing. Hopefully with a loved one or someone you’re loving on that evening… Fabulous.

By then you’ll notice lights gradually turning on and the town becoming illuminated via Blackpool Illuminations and our annual LightPool Festival. Turning the town into a playful scavenger hunt for light-based artworks.

Still got energy? You’ll want feeding. Wok Inn is the best for sea views and Thai fusion grub. Around the corner from there, go and take in an early evening community theatre extravaganza at The Old Electric. Then go and put the contents of your purses in the gay bars and venues like Flying Handbag, Funny Girls, Sherlocks, Garlands, Peekabooze and Mardi Gras.

Fall asleep after a day of walking, culture, food, drink, dancing. Hopefully with a loved one or someone you’re loving on that evening… Fabulous.

When does the exhibition open and run until? Any key dates for the diary?

Flamboyant Flamingos opens on Saturday 6th July. A launch event is scheduled 1-4pm with speeches at 1:30pm. It runs until 7th September with the gallery open Tue-Sat from 10am-4:30pm. The gallery is fully accessible with ramp access.

Also on Sat 6th July, Abingdon Studios will be hosting an Open Studios event from 4-7pm. Allowing visitors to see the studios and artists work in progress. Accompanying the Open Studios will be a solo exhibition in our Project Space titled Dunno Dunno by studio member and artist, Joseph Doubtfire. Abingdon is accessible via stairs only at this time. Refreshments will be provided.

Follow Abingdon Studios on Instagram (@abingdonstudios_projectspace) and our website www.abingdonstudios.org.uk for upcoming announcements and open call opportunities.

Follow Grundy Art Gallery on Instagram (@grundyartgallery) and visit their website www.thegrundy.org for upcoming engagement programme announcements to include Audio Visual guided Talks, performance and collaboration events that will add to the experience of engaging with Flamboyant Flamingos during the show run.

Follow Queer Amusements on Instagram (@queeramusements) and visit their website for more information about the full programme with the programme running from April to September.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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