Little Drawings, Big Issues

Nikki Smith ventures upstairs to our galleries to see HOW ARE YOU FEELING? with Colin Britt…

Colin the Big Issue seller has been busy recently. His pitch is right outside the main entrance of Cornerhouse that has opened its doors to David Shrigley’s show HOW ARE YOU FEELING? and the ever-affable artist designed a recent cover for 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 as David Shrigley is a now a well-known name in and out of the art world. Every time I passed Colin, said hello and asked him how sales were going, my curiosity rose about him. The next day I invited Colin to see the exhibition together.

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 a sweetly written Big Issue article by Katie Popperwell. Is he joking? Being self-deprecating? Truth in jest? How can a self-confessed 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 his biggest 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 didn’t think it he would be the one to make it big. 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 here.

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 Cornerhouse has been his office from lunch-time everyday for the last eight months. Inside all the Cornerhouse staff said hey, hello or hi and our waitress said how nice it was to see him inside the buidling. 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 giant rucksack called 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 called me over to share matter-of-factly, he could relate to certain drawings.

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 pisses 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.

Enjoyed this guest blog? Check out more from Nikki Wordsmith. HOW ARE YOU FEELING? runs at Cornerhouse until Sun 6 Jan 2013. The Big Issue in the North is available from Colin outside Cornerhouse most days from about lunchtime onwards for £2 of which he gets £1.