In the latest edition of Overseas, ceramic artist Connor Coulston tells Mark Brierley how his hometown and family feature heavily in his work.
If you’ve wandered the halls of ROSL’s clubhouse over the last few months, particularly the Duke of York Bar, you may have noticed an unusual collection of ceramic ornaments dotted around, some rescued from charity shops, others hand moulded into teddy bears. This is the work of ceramicist Connor Coulston, who has combined his own pieces with found objects to create an interpretation of his nan’s fireplace. Perhaps not something you would expect to find at a ROSL exhibition, but then again, Connor is not the sort of artist to stick to convention.
Born and raised in Oldham, just a few miles northeast of Manchester, Connor came to ceramics almost by accident, although his talent was spotted early on. As we sit beneath his work on the great fireplace of the Duke of York Bar, he gives a frank explanation of how he came to be here.
“I first tried ceramics when I was 16, during my A levels. I originally made these clown faces, which started when I was just playing with the clay at first,” he explains. “My art teacher, Miss McIlroy, or ‘Big Mac’ as we called her, said "oh you've got a gift", so I kind of fell into it. Moreso, I fell into it when I failed my other A-levels, so I said to myself “I guess I’m doing that for my future!””
But it wasn’t as straightforward as that, with Connor next undertaking a foundation year in which he didn’t study ceramics at all, before joining the BA course at Brighton University and returning to ceramics once again.
“It wasn't until I started my BA I had to specialise in something. I don't like woodwork, it's a drain, I don't like metalwork, it's too tedious, so I thought ceramics was the best fit as I'd done it before. I tried the clay throwing segment first of all, but it turns out I can’t throw for shit! I'm more of a mould maker and hand moulder, as time went on I found that mould making was the most appropriate for my work.”
Success at the undergraduate level was followed by a place at the prestigious Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. “The RCA had always been my dream, so when I found out I had been accepted I rang my mum. She knew I'd been for the interview and I'd been panicking. When I told her she started screaming, then went really quiet, started crying and said, "You're my Billy Elliott!"”
Art imitating life
The comparison is an easy one to make, with Connor’s upbringing seeing similarly straitened circumstances as the titular dancer. “I come from a working-class background and suffered from child poverty growing up. Sometimes we'd have beans on toast every night of the week because my mum couldn't afford food.”
Those experiences growing up in Oldham, with his mother and particularly his nan, playing a large part in his life, have informed much of his work at the RCA and professionally.
“On the surface, my work looks quite funny and approachable, but it has this quite serious, almost sinister undertone” he explains. “There's a piece called Sex on legs which is a classical Roman bust, but with a condom over its head, painted with an England flag and the caption "England 'til I die".
“People see it as an England football fan, whereas it's actually about ugly hyper masculinity based on an abusive relationship my mum was in with an EDL (far-right group English Defence League) supporter. What was weird is when I posted it on Instagram, people laughed in the comments because they didn't know the context.”
More than meets the eye
Is he concerned that buyers and viewers of his work might not always get the more serious meaning behind his art?
“Grayson Perry hit the nail on the head when he said, "what artists don't realise is that we're in the entertainment industry", so humour is a big part of my work, as well as the deeper meaning.
“I think that comes as a response to my peers, who would often take themselves way too seriously. People say, "Look at this really beautiful pot" and I'm thinking "It's just a pot, a really well-made pot." How much more can a pot bring to the table? I want to keep it a bit cheeky and bit light-hearted.
“Everyone can have their own opinion because I want to make work that is quite accessible, but for me, I'm more concerned how a person from a council estate in Oldham sees it, rather than highbrow gallery. I'd rather appeal to the masses and be a champion of the people.”
That appeal is clearly there, with his skills having already been snapped up by Eton College, where Connor now works as the ceramics teacher. TV channel Sky Arts has also commissioned him to create an installation which examines what it means to be British, which was shown at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead in February.
“It's called Me, Nan and Oldham, and is about growing up in Oldham, one of the most deprived towns in the UK, and my relationship with my nan. My nan is my rock, but at the same time we do have very different opinions. During the Brexit debate, we fell out, airing our dirty laundry over Facebook. She's a bit traumatised that she's raised a bit of liberal. Sorry Nan.
“For the project I've made a 70cm replica of Oldham's civic centre, which is big for me. But because my work cracks all the time I've made a feature of the cracks. I've used a pure gold lustre, so it looks like a golden ruin to show its faded glory. When go to Oldham, it's the first thing you see and it's such a site.”
A far cry from Oldham, the microcosm of the Duke of York Bar makes it clear that he’s in demand, with several of his teddy bears having been snapped up within days of the exhibition’s opening. As our conversation turns to what might come next, there’s talk of scaling up his work in the same vein as his golden take on the civic centre, with the teddy bears getting bigger, a huge collection of found objects as part of a millennial pink vitrine, but all this takes up time and space.
“Touch wood, I have plenty time to work on my ideas. It's all well and good making work, but I've only got a tiny flat and it's starting to fill up. I need to start approaching galleries to sell my work, it's a business at the end of the day. You're an artist firstly, because you love doing it, but you've still got to make some money from it. I think people are a bit coy about saying that but it's definitely like that.”
That kind of clear headedness of what he wants to make and how he wants to make ends meet, his career as the art world’s Billy Elliot looks secure. But the love is there too. As our chat draws to a close, one piece in particular has clearly not just been made to sell. A purple glass heart takes pride of place above us at the top of the ornate mantelpiece.
"The only piece I'm precious about is the purple heart, it's the only thing I love. Everything about it, the colour, the shape, the curves, how it captures the light. It's such a beautiful object. I wouldn't sell that...well...unless someone offers me a very good price, then I'd be like, "bye"!