My best teacher

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Darrell Viner was like a character out of a German expressionist film. He wore a leather jacket and had a stoop. Portrait by Peter Searle

Because I was very bright, I breezed through primary school. At King Edward VI grammar school in Chelmsford I was top of the class in my second year.

Then my hormones and family history struck (after his father left home when he was five, his mother married a man who was a bully), and I went from top to bottom of the class in a year. From that point on, school was something I tolerated, an escape from home.

I'd always liked model aeroplanes, tanks, running round with guns and going on pretend army camps: the whole military bit. It seemed fantastically Boy's Own and glamorous. I was down for Sandhurst. Then I faltered. It didn't seem to square with having girlfriends somehow. Love and war didn't go together. After sailing through O-levels, I tried to join the Army because of things going apeshit at home and my being thrown out. But the recruiting officer saw how I was and said: "I think you should go home and think about it."

For whatever complicated reasons - I think my transvestism was burgeoning - the idea of the army petered out once I was 16. I spent break times in the art department; that was my refuge. I drew and drew and drew. Keith Barnett, the art teacher, recognised that I had potential, and soon after said he thought I'd do well at art college. That was it. I metaphorically wrote "I am an artist" on a piece of paper and put it under the mattress and slept on it. I never had any doubts. That kind of commitment is very important. Otherwise people will smell the lack of authenticity coming off you.

Portsmouth polytechnic was where I found myself. Darrell Viner was one of the lecturers in the sculpture department and a practising artist. The main vibe that came off him was angst. He was like a character out of a German expressionist film. He always wore a leather jacket and he stooped. But he was the first person I'd met who admitted to having had psychotherapy. It was still the era of denim shirts, grey chest hair and macho art lecturers.

But Darrell had more emotional intelligence. He was sensitive, although his sculptures were quite threatening.

My work in that first year was abysmal. One reason it changed was because of Darrell. In the second year, I came back dissatisfied and he said: "You need to put more of yourself into it." He knew I was a transvestite. It was common knowledge by that point, although I wasn't going around dressed up as a woman much.

He said: "Write me 10 pages on yourself." Then he said: "Make a bit of work about that." I don't think he bothered to read it. I'd closed down huge tracts of myself as a child and my adult journey has been about taking possession of those. Darrell helped me stake out a little bit more territory. He knew from his own artistic experience that you have to involve as much of your person as possible. A lot of artists are terrified of looking at themselves. They think it's like taking a watch apart and they'll never get it back together again. It's tosh. They're scared of finding an empty box.

I made this piece called "Transvestite Jet-Pilots", which I look back on as the beginning of my work as it is now. I got an old dressing table and carved it roughly on the front with an aircraft's cockpit controls. Then I made these artefacts that went on top and inside that were to do with me and my "gender dysphoria". (That's one of the many names that transvestism goes under, depending on who's talking. Some I wince at more than others.) Everyone liked the piece. It was full of energy. Helen Chadwick was one of the lecturers who liked it and encouraged me greatly. She and Darrell were supporters and we kept in contact off and on until they died. Darrell was strict about telling you if he thought your work was rubbish, but I got the message that he was pleased with me. He always came to my shows.

Artist Grayson Perry was talking to Renata Rubnikowicz

The story so far

1960 Born in Chelmsford

1968-78 Woodham Ferrers primary then King Edward VI grammar, Chelmsford

1978-79 Braintree FE college

1979-82 Portsmouth polytechnic

Early 1980s Member of Neo-Naturist group, participating in performance and film works; uses variety of media, including embroidery and photography; known for his ceramics

2000 Group exhibition British Art Show 5, curated by Hayward Gallery, tours UK

2002 Guerrilla Tactics show at the Barbican, London

2003 Wins Turner Prize

2004 Commissioned by Channel 4 to make documentary on transvestites, to be shown in 2005; October 14-November 15: first solo show, Victoria Miro Gallery, London

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