Colin the Big Issue seller had a busy week last week. His pitch is right outside the main entrance of the Cornerhouse that has just opened its doors to David Shrigley’s new show How Are You Feeling? and the ever-affable artist designed the cover on the magazine. “I sold 220 mags,” said Colin, “it’s a shame they couldn’t have kept it running for a couple of weeks as the picture on the front is really funny and a lot of the customers were very chatty about it saying if they did or didn’t like his work.” It’s no surprise Colin did such a roaring trade and became a canvas for other people’s opinions because David Shrigley is a one of the biggest names in the art world. For years, every time I passed Colin, I always said hello, bought a mag and asked him how sales were going. This combination of Colin and David shot my curiosity through the roof, so I invited Colin to go and see the exhibition together.
Colin’s Big Issue spot outside the Cornerhouse in his office
After sharing a Cornerhouse pizza and a little about our lives Colin and I went upstairs to check out the work curated by Mike Chavez-Dawson. As we wandered around he said art didn’t feature in his life in fact he’d never been in an art gallery before. He’s sold the Big Issue since 1996 first in Birmingham and then in Manchester. The spot outside the Cornerhouse has been his office from lunch-time everyday for the last eight months. Inside all the venue staff said hey, hello or hi and our waitress said how nice it was to see him inside the building. I explained that this show was themed around mental health with an interactive and therapeutic remit to it but for me the real beauty of David Shrigley’s ability to connect lay in the words accompanying the images that let people know the deeper more serious message. I looked up pleased with my art critique but Colin was off and away saying ‘wow’ as he saw the gong in the installation room, he wrote ‘Not Bad’ on the How Are You Feeling? white board and laughed out loud when he saw the big black bag called The Burden.
“It’s like a giant rucksack.”
“Yeah you’re meant to pick it up and carry it around but it’s broken at the moment so you can’t.”
“Someone broke the burden?”
“Yeah, someone broke the burden.”
Colin’s a tall man, maybe as tall as David Shrigley at 6′ 5″, and he’s weathered well in forty-five years despite many personal battles. Up in the drawings room I watched as he mooched around with ease at the relentless barrage of images fly-postered one on top of the other on the gallery wall. He stopped and stared and chuckled at various pictures and as we were exiting he called me over to share matter-of-factly, “I relate to these”:
David Shrigley says he can’t draw
Since bursting onto the art scene with his razor sharp funny black and white doodles in the 90s, David Shrigley has become one of the most popular artists in the UK. The opening night alone attracted more than 1,000 people to see installations, drawings, an interactive play and an on-going life-modelling class with your own artistic efforts finding a place on the gallery wall. He’s gone on record many times saying that he can’t draw and works by intuition including a very funny anecdote about The New Statesman and his lack of technical skill in the Big Issue article by Katie Popperwell. Is he joking? Being self-deprecating? Truth in jest? How can a man who says that he can’t draw become the artist of his generation? Perhaps like R.Mutt aka Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, that is going to be another big joke on the art world? When he stayed on to set up his studio in Glasgow after graduating from the School of Art with a 2:2 in Environmental Art and eschewing the London Brit-Art scene, his ‘higher’ brow contemporaries theatre types and lovie dovies didn’t think it would be David Shrigley who made it. By the end of the millennium it was his art work that had become hot property and spawned a million imitators. Even dark arts master himself David Lynch got in on his style with Dumbland and you can read what the other David thought of his efforts. To demonstrate this self-confessed enigma of the can’t-draw-still-successful debate even more simply take a look at this picture by David Shrigley of Katie Popperwell (after staring at her for ages) and you decide.
Colin was engrossed in his chalk masterpiece
On the top floor of the gallery there is a giant naked male mannequin for visitors to have a go at drawing and leave their own mark on the wall. I opted out having two left hands but Colin said he’d done a bit of art at school and took to the task with aplomb. After a while I glanced nervously around at Colin to make sure I wasn’t going mad but he was engrossed in his chalk masterpiece. Suddenly the model’s big blue eyes blink and his relaxed penis pissed water (I hope) into a bucket on the floor in front of him. I got up and left Colin to carry on with his drawing to look at the other pictures by visitors on the wall. It’s nice and friendly I thought how often is it you get the opportunity to come and be a part of the art world.
“You alright Colin?”
“Yeah it’s been nice I’m just signing my name.”
As he stuck his picture on the wall I saw that he’d signed his full name – Colin Britt – and that he’d written BIG ISSUE like a tattoo on the model’s arm. A few minutes later we were back outside in the cold and he was shouting those words to people passing him by on the street.
The Big Issue in the North is available now from Colin outside the Cornerhouse most days from about lunchtime onwards for £2 of which he gets £1.
How Are You Feeling? a new book by David Shrigley is available from the Cornerhouse bookshop and website for a special price of £10 (rrp£12) during the length of the exhibition. I don’t know how much David Shrigley’s cut is probably not as good as Colin’s.
I live in Lancashire, in the North of England. I write for pleasure and to amplify people's stories who might not have such an equal footing in the mainstream media. Follow my blog, subscribe to my newsletter, join me to help build word-bridges between people, across the English Channel, over the Irish Sea and beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Oh you can hire me as well if you need words, because I really like helping people too :-)