“I still can’t believe that something as great as this came out of such a bad situation. In March 2020, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, by February 2021 I’d had COVID-19 twice, but by December 2021, I was exhibiting a piece of art that I’d created in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It’s the stuff of dreams and definitely one of my life-defining moments.”
Alt text: A photo taken in an art gallery. A white lady with blue-rimmed glasses, long blond-brown hair, a black mask & a black-pink blouse, peers into a Perspex box that stands on a white plinth. Inside the box are 7 different sized & coloured bottles & jars. Each of them is labelled with the name of a family member & a pretend smell.
The evening of Wednesday 1st December 2021 will forever be one of my life-defining moments. I was a guest of Grayson & Philippa Perry, attending the Private View for series 2 of ‘Grayson’s Art Club’ at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Some months before, I had submitted my work to their Channel 4 show & to my astonishment, I was one of the 100+ artists selected to exhibit their work. There were 17,000 submissions. In an earlier blog, I described what it was like to be chosen & to appear in the 1st episode of series 2. This blog describes what happened in the weeks leading up to the exhibition, what it was like for me to see my work for the first time in the gallery, & then my feelings about the whole concept of ‘Grayson’s Art Club.’
My conceptual art piece is called ‘The Smells of My Family.’ I made it because I couldn’t see my family during lockdown (me, my sister & my dad are all in the ‘Clinically Extremely Vulnerable’ Group). It was painful to be separated from them when my life was in such turmoil, especially at Christmas when my sister & I also celebrate our birthdays. I asked my family members what their favourite smells were and then I pretended to ‘bottle’ them up in different coloured & sized vessels. Each bottle or jar was labelled with their family name and their favourite smell. The joking point of the piece was that I had completely lost my smell after contracting COVID-19 for a second time.
I submitted ‘The Smells of My Family’ to ‘Grayson’s Art Club’ along with a little film explaining what it was & why I had made it. In March 2021 I appeared on the programme & Grayson chose my piece.
I was too sick to work because I was so mentally & physically debilitated during treatment, but I was in lockdown with dark thoughts about cancer, fuelling my anxiety. I chose to do Art Therapy with my local ‘Maggie’s Centre’ online to help me process what was happening to me. Or maybe art chose me because once I started, I couldn’t stop making it. It burst out of me. It must have been there all along, latent, waiting like a gene to be let out of the bottle (really, no pun intended!)
In January 2021, I signed up for ‘64 Million Artists’ #TheJanuaryChallenge & I was making a piece of artwork or writing creatively every day. I liked it so much that I signed up for #TheWeeklyChallenge & now I’m creating pieces every week.
Immediately after the programme that I was in went out, I packed up my bottles & jars in tissue paper & placed them into a little wicker basket. I was really worried about them getting broken as I have different people coming into the flat to assist me with everyday tasks. To keep them safe, I got help to put the basket on the highest shelf in the living room. It stayed there until I got a call a few months later to say that my artwork was being picked up – & would I be available for filming again? My main thought at that point was relief that my kitchen had been finished by the council (I’d received a Disabled Facilities Grant to re-do the access as it was falling apart). The kitchen would definitely be a suitable room to film in!
At the same time, I was filling in forms & outlining to the curator how my work was to be displayed (another ‘first’ for me) so I & others could access it (I’m a wheelchair user), but it still didn’t feel real that I was exhibiting.
Early one Autumn morning, a film crew arrived to film ‘The Smells of My Family’ being collected. Together, we shot some film of me re-enacting wrapping up the bottles & jars in tissue paper & placing them into the wicker basket. To accompany the visuals, we filmed some dialogue of me describing how I felt about being part of the exhibition. Two guys arrived in a white van to drive the piece to Bristol. My partner, Stephane, filmed the van driving away from my flat & me waving enthusiastically. Everyone who came to the flat that morning was really nice, supportive & encouraging which is a characteristic of all the people working on this show.
About a month later, I was invited by email to the private view. I rushed to book wheelchair spaces on trains & an accessible room in a Bristol hotel. Luckily, I found a hotel near to Bristol Temple Meads Station which suited my requirements & was also a 5-minute push from the station – important as I had to get an early train back to London the next morning for a hospital appointment (the story of my life, huh?!). As booking confirmations popped into my email, the reality of the exhibition was dawning on me.
But I felt like an imposter, truth be told. Stephane is the artist out of the two of us – he’s fine art trained & paints most days. I’m just mucking around with stuff; capturing & then documenting the quirky ideas that float around in my brain. I’m not an artist & I was worried about how my work would stand up against the other artists in the exhibition. However, when I spoke to the Director of Swan Films about my fears, he simply replied; “Now Suzanne, everyone’s an artist.”
The day of the exhibition came. To distract from my nerves, I made a journal of the adventure. I shot some short films & took some photos with my phone & posted them up on my social media accounts. Stephane and I had a really nice late afternoon walk from the station to the hotel. The area reminded me of Berlin because it was characterised by cyclists & walkers & shared spaces separated by walkways & mini bridges. Living in London, I forget what it’s like to live in a city where everything is quite contained & Bristol isn’t an urban mass of sprawling junctions (although the one-way traffic system in central Bristol completely baffles me every time I visit!)
Then all at once I was standing inside the grand hall of the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, waiting for the speeches to start. I found myself unable to talk. I had all these plans to make a film about my artwork whilst standing next to it – it was all scripted out. I was going to seek out the other artists to discuss their pieces with them. All this went out of the window. I was like a rabbit in headlights, staring wide-eyed & mesmerised by the expanse of space inside the museum. If I hadn’t been sitting down in my wheelchair, my legs would have folded underneath me, pulling me to the ground.
The canapes & drinks were flowing like a proper private view. But I stood shyly in the corner, hiding behind Stephane, giving off the vibe ‘please nobody talk to me!’ LOL!
I glanced into the entrance of the Museum Shop & I realised that there was a catalogue to accompany the exhibition. That’s a really lovely thing to produce because alongside the artwork, it’s a permanent reminder for everyone that took part. I got a catalogue for my dad as well as myself (my dad likes having souvenirs, he absolutely insisted that he bought DVDs for the family of my MBE Service, ha!)
There were some poignant speeches made before the exhibition opened, including from Grayson and the Mayor of Bristol. It was slightly surreal listening to them as usually I’m the one making them (I’m the Founder of a charity) or I’m listening to speeches at events that are associated with work. I’d never imagined myself listening to speeches about an exhibition that I was part of. Again though, I hung around at the back, being low key, trying to stop my hands from shaking by wheeling a little up & down (my equivalent of pacing!) This was in contrast to Stephane who went as near to the front as he could & took photos.
Shortly after the speeches we met Grayson. He was adorable. That’s all I need & want to say. Some moments stay private, except to say that I hope he found the present that I made for him & Philippa. I feel pretty sure I put in on the correct table at the back that had lots of presents & cards marked ‘Grayson.’ The present-making hadn’t gone quite as I had planned it, but it was one of my installations in a jar on the topic of what would be the smell of COVID. This idea was borne out of a conversation that had taken place between Grayson & I earlier on in the year…scotch eggs perhaps…😉 That’s the smell that will remind everyone of COVID.
My artwork was in the section called ‘Family, Food & Nature’ & as I was queuing up (completely bypassing the fact that the Banksy was next to me), I noticed my piece through the doorway & it took my breath away. The bottles & jars in my installation usually sit in my cupboards, or on my dressing table, or on the windowsill in my kitchen. Now they were encased within a Perspex case, on top of a white plinth. It was completely surreal. They glinted underneath the lights; the colours refracted & reflected, drawing me in.
Once into the space, I went straight to my piece & pressed my face against the glass. And then I pulled back, saying loudly “Oh wow!” & a few tears came. It was quite noisy so I’m not sure that anyone noticed but a few people came over to congratulate me & to tell me how my piece had impacted on them which I was totally unprepared for, but very touched that they’d shared memories of their own families with me.
Shortly after I met Philippa & she was also adorable. Again, I don’t want to say much more but we had a long conversation about my work & why I made it, & she made me feel very at ease, so I started to relax a little more.
And so to the art piece itself, ‘The Smells of My Family.’ Me – nagging everyone to get their favourite smells to me so I had enough time to make the work (nothing new there, I’m always hassling them about something we (they!) should do!). My sister Louise & I laughing about the smell she chose for her son Samuel “because all teenage boys smell of Lynx” (other brands are available!) My brother Pieter’s love for all things football & his everlasting support for Sunderland with all its highs & lows – “A Victory After a Sunderland AFC Win (rare smell).” Each smell gives a little glimpse of my family member, their sense of fun & their sense of what’s important to them, now captured in a national exhibition that records a unique period of time in world history.
I want to say a few words about the other artists and artworks. I’d had a bit of banter with Harry Rose & Stevyn Colgan on the ‘Grayson’s Art Club’ Facebook page, but I was too shy to say hello on the night which was silly of me really. However, I did meet Sweet & Maurizio D’Apollonio who made ‘Dinner Date’, Wendy Allen & her ‘muse’ for her drawing ‘Daily Bread’ & Anneka Rice.
There are so many great & clever artworks in the show that all reveal aspects of human life, but my favourite piece is the one that stood out from the beginning of series 2 for me – ‘Joke Alphabet’ by Chloe Hunchen-Garner & Tom Hunchen. Together with her dad Tom, a legendary joke-teller, Chloe made a collection of all his jokes & together they picked out their favourites. Then they sent a ‘joke-making pack’ to all of their family & friends. They asked them to make artwork about the jokes, which were sent back to Chloe & Tom. Tom sadly passed in November 2020, but the family now have a permanent memoir which is unique to him. I found this incredibly poignant because I come from a family of jokers.
I must say some words about Becky Tyler; she uses an eye-tracker on her computer to paint because she is disabled; effectively she paints with just her eyes. The follow up programme about series 2 on Channel 4, which aired on 10th December, featured Becky teaching Grayson to use the eye-tracker to paint. Becky epitomises true creativity as a disabled artists for me because she uses a different technique to capture her subjects. This is completely tailored to her as an artist. She wouldn’t paint that in that way if she wasn’t disabled.
When you review both series of ‘Grayson’s Art Club’, it featured a lot of disabled people & this has done so much to change the public perception of what we can achieve as well as showcasing our talent & setting out our ambitions to the rest of the world.
It also features the human stories of others who were living a different, marginalised life even before the pandemic, & now some of those people have become more marginalised than they ever were before. Grayson seems to be one of the few enabling these personal stories to be publicly told. I’m thinking of Alex Robinson & his parents, & Emma Major from series 1, & Matthew Willis & his parents from series 2. Like me, their routines & relationships with others were interrupted. Everything familiar to us & that made us feel safe, was ripped away. That’s why the only solution to keeping us safe was to tell us to stay at home, is unbelievably cruel.
If it does nothing else, I hope ‘Grayson’s Art Club’ makes the public wake up to what’s really happening to some members in our society & what’s more, galvanises people into action to change the inequalities of life in the UK.
Grayson and Philippa Perry were so open & friendly with everyone on the night. They made the evening all about the artists. They’re generous & kind. My favourite bit in all the episodes was when they used to stop for lunch & eat side by side on the sofa in their studio, discussing the topics of the day. They’re every bit as gentle in person as what’s captured through the telly box.
My last accolade that I want to give is actually to my old dad, who, when asked about his favourite smell, just said it was ‘The Smell of Life.’ He’s seen & experienced so much upheaval in his life too, so when I read his text, I found it very emotional that he still found life wonderful. We’re on a level together here. I’m so into this sentiment of ‘The Smell of Life.’ I absolutely love life. I’ve come so close to losing my life several times over, from when I was a kid & being born with an impairment, to recent months where I had cancer & COVID-19. I learnt to live every day like it’s my last. Whatever has happened in my life, I’ve loved it. I love my family & I love my friends. I love my colleagues. I love live music. In fact, I love everything. I’m so, so happy to still be here & so chuffed to be a member of ‘Grayson’s Art Club.’ I can’t believe my luck.
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Photos from the Private View:
Stephane – my partner, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to go to Bristol as well as doing a lot of things in life.
Alt text: A white man in a blue suit & grey jumper, with tortoise shell glasses, stands in front of a statue in a museum.
Me with Grayson Perry at the Private View.
Alt text: A white man dressed in pink corduroy dungarees & jacket, with curly blond hair, is smiling, & standing next to a white woman with blond-brown long hair, blue glasses, a black mask, & a black & pink blouse. She is carrying a pink bag, sitting in a wheelchair & she is smiling.
Me with Philippa Perry at the Private View.
Alt text: The same white woman from the previous picture who sits in a wheelchair, is sitting next to a white woman with white & black hair in a short bob-style, wearing grey, round glasses & a grey dress, & red lipstick, is kneeling beside her. They are both smiling.
An image of the description board at the exhibition of ‘The Smells of My Family.’
Alt text: Black text on a white background that reads: ‘Suzanne Bull MBE. The Smells of My Family. “I was shielding during the pandemic and unable to see my family. As well as being Disabled, I was diagnosed with breast cancer when the UK shut down. I asked my family members what their favourite smell was. I pretended to ‘bottle up’ each smell for a permanent reminder of them whilst we were apart. Making art is a huge part of my life and I’m glad something great came out of a bad situation. Mixed media: glass jars, paper, fabric. Courtesy of the artist.”
‘The Smells of My Family’ in the exhibition catalogue.
Alt text: A double-page spread of a conceptual art piece with different sized & coloured bottles & jars, labelled with family names & pretend smells. There is a description of the piece & the name of the artist.
Me in front of the iconic Grayson’s Art Club sign.
Alt text: A white woman sitting in a wheelchair from previous images is in front of a large blue sign that is shaped like a cloud. She is pointing up at a sign. The sign says ‘Grayson’s Art Club’ in red & yellow.