“It’s linking personal narratives into wider metaphors about the estate, our culture as a whole…” – Artist Conor Rogers on ‘Manor Boy’ exhibition
Local lad Conor Rogers graduated from Sheffield Hallam University in 2014. Five years later, he won first prize at the UK Young Artist of year award held at Saatchi Gallery, London. He works primarily in painting though his work also translates into sculpture and poetry, as seen in the artist’s latest solo exhibition, Manor Boy, which debuted at Yorkshire Artspace last month.
Exposed went to see the show in August and caught up with Conor afterwards, settling down for a post-meet pint at the Rutland to peel back the layers on an exhibition inspired by growing up on Sheffield’s infamous Manor estate.
Could you tell me, in your own words, what Manor Boy is about?
Manor Boy is a narrative I’ve compiled of the Manor Estate in Sheffield, where I lived. I’ve drawn inspiration from all the events that occurred and the cultural identities we carried through that time. In a way, it’s like a homage but also an investigation into my own identity, into the relationship with the spaces I was in back then.
The first thing that stands out is the prevalence of paddling pools, either in the centre of the exhibition or framing the paintings. Can you speak about the symbolism of that?
The whole series was essentially a response to seeing my mate, Mike, in a paddling pool with some tinnies. I’m very much inspired by momentary events. I wanted to use the paddling pools as a sort of badge, an emblem of the estate, which came to represent certain aspects of council estate culture: a sense of momentary joy and abandonment, discarded after being used, then left to fill up with trash and leaves. There was a connection between that and how we felt abandoned and demonised on council estates – I felt that particularly strongly coming into the arts sphere as a student.
I imagine that would have been a formative experience for your subsequent work. Did it stoke that fire creatively?
Yeah, it brought up a lot of questions about identity and class, which I’ve been investigating through art since. I applied for a fine art course but ended up on a course called Creative Arts Practice, which was not quite as conceptual and a bit more craft-based. However, I found myself being more academic and conceptual in my approach to that course, and through that I started understanding my relationship to painting. I went on a painting workshop and saw that people were painting on canvases, but I didn’t feel like that was genuine to my work. So I started painting on crisp packets, and through that saw my relationship to materiality, to things, to objects. A lot of these paintings are self-portraits as well as portraits of society.
Speaking of your route into making art, the government recently announced a 50% funding cut to arts subjects at university level. How does that make you feel?
It bothers me. There’s just a lack of care, concern or awareness there – it will be a decision made by a person, or a group of people, that’s never been involved with the arts industry. It’s people making decisions on other people’s livelihoods, and it comes down to other people judging that someone’s path or life doesn’t have much worth to it. It does fuck me off. So much value comes from our industry, it has such a huge impact on society. History will show you that throughout time artists and creatives are remembered by the people, not bankers or businessmen. Look back through history and it’s largely poets, writers, painters, inventors, creators, actors – they’re the ones who are remembered.
And that’s before you even get into the argument of how important art can be for people’s mental health.
It’s massive. It can be meditative, enable self-exploration and help people to uncover more about themselves. I use art as personal navigation tool and it’s incredibly important.
Is there a worry that you can become a bit too pigeon-holed or fetishised producing art exploring the working class in what is pre-dominantly a middle-class arts sphere?
I wanted to break through that, to tackle what people associate with being working class. I wanted to give a perspective on the reality of my upbringing and class divide. The way I do it is through a combination of objects, image and symbolic language. The thing is: we are very insecure people, whether you come from a poor background or a wealthy one. I try to ask people what their understanding of class is. I’m not criticising, just trying to start a conversation. I think the obsession in our society with labelling each other is damaging; it encourages people to subscribe to these pre-existing ideas and beliefs, rather than ask deeper questions and learn about each other. Manor Boy isn’t a big ‘fuck you’ to the elites, though. It’s more about trying to understand each other.
There’s also an uplifting feel to a lot of the works – it’s not doom and gloom by any means.
There’s a playfulness to my work, a humour. But there’s also an undertone of societal issues at play. It presents questions for people to engage with. I’m not judging; I use a lot of my work to gather an understanding of who I am. The idea of class, to me, is quite a naive way of trying to categorise people, to understand better who they are. There’s a lot of that present, I feel, in the arts industry, and people will refer to me as a working-class artist as I think it helps them feel like they’ve got a bit of ownership over you, like they understand who you are. Whenever someone will introduce me like, “This is Conor Rogers, a working-class artist,” I’ll stop them at that point because once people hear you’re a working-class artist, that’s all they assume you are. There’s a nuance to it and I’m trying to flip it, asking people about their relationships to these objects, images and use of language.
A lot of the everyday language surrounding the Manor Estate is quite isolating in a way – people often refer to it as ‘up on the Manor’; it’s almost built up as an area separate to the city itself. It’s a bit like the way some would use similar discourse to create a sense of other between the city and Park Hill estate during its worst days.
That’s why ‘Manor Boy’ is essentially me taking ownership of a demonised name or what could be seen as a slur. It’s not about denying it, the fact that people do see it as a negative environment, a place of crime. But I experienced the good stuff too, like a sense of community and humanity that taught me to be humble.
You cut your foot on a kitchen knife
While avoiding the mid-afternoon
Shackles of community centres
Mike’s got a pool!
So climb the fence to your freedom
The greatest escape,
Or a hop, skip and a jump.
I love this dump.
Where are we going?
Mike’s got a pool!
Mike’s handing out destiny
Mike will grow from a substance
That has been banned.
Time will show that we’re
Just dust from this land.
This is our Manor.
Sponge baths in sinks,
Rottweilers that stink,
And dad’s on the brink.
– Taken from Manor Boys
There are some powerful poems which you wrote for Manor Boy, your first foray into poetry for an exhibition. How did you find that experience?
Good, quite uplifting actually. I wanted to expand my own understanding of my practice. I had a really integral process of viewing the world and translating it into artwork, but I felt I could take it further than just painting, so I started looking at language itself, how I described things, and stripped it back into telling stories in a written form. I felt like the poetry started feeding into the painting and vice versa. ‘Manor Boys’ is a literal retelling of the time I escaped a community centre to visit my mate’s pool. I slid down the slide into it and cut my foot on a kitchen knife at the bottom. It’s linking these personal narratives into wider metaphors about the estate, our culture as a whole, and the poetry aspect also opens up new ideas for future works.
What provides the source material for the portraits? Is it done mostly from memory or images?
I often use candid photography as source material – capturing the everyday moments is really important to me, as it reflects who we truly are. I might move a few things about, of course, but the moments are what triggers everything, and then I give myself the freedom to run with it from there. A lot of my work is about transforming the throwaway, the abandoned, the renegade, and turning them into precious and beautiful things. A Rizla paper, for example – something that’s often thrown away and discarded being used to display poetry. I don’t really like the idea of paintings being flat images on square canvasses.
Betting slips also link into those aforementioned themes of momentary hope/joy – objects that are then quickly discarded and left to one side?
The idea came from childhood memories with my grandad. He used to take me to all the betting offices. It was a ritual: get up, go to bookies, go to boozers, go back to bookies, then home to bed. The poem ‘What are the Odds?’ is about those dreams of a better life, but I’m also playing with the idea of the betting office being like a holy place, something like a pilgrimage. It’s a place where people were looking for hope, for something more; but there’s also themes of mourning and loss, dealing with what they haven’t got – all that’s taking place at the same time. While waiting in the bookies with my grandad, I’d take pictures on my phone of certain images that interested me and then I’ve got my source material to start working on the piece.
Touching on your childhood, how did you first start flexing those creative muscles? I read that some of your first drawings were on the back of beer mats and betting slips.
Yeah, I used to draw on the back of betting slips when I was younger, and obviously that has now been recycled in my practice as I’ve got older. I’d get hold of those little blue pens you see in bookies, take them to the boozer with me and start drawing people playing snooker or the barmaids or whatever. It’s that subconscious thing of seeing the narratives playing out, even at a young age, and trying to capture them. It’s something I’ve done for a long time and will always do, I think.