Events Walthamstow

Trans artist, 74, wins prestigious £50,000 grant

I want to make work where anybody can walk in and maybe, hopefully get something out of it.
By Victoria Munro

Brian (centre) with David and Yuko Juda (credit: Alison Wright)
Brian (centre) with David and Yuko Juda (credit: Alison Wright)

At the age of 74 and after a career spanning more than half a century, Walthamstow-based artist Brian Dawn Chalkley has no plans to slow down.

Indeed, the artist, who has lived in the borough for the last eight years, recently won a £50,000 grant to support future work from David and Yuko Juda Art Foundation.

Born in Stevenage, Brian left school with no qualifications but managed to get a job as an architect’s assistant, an experience which inspired them to apply to Chelsea College of Arts.

In their 50s, they began embracing an alter ego called Dawn and came out as transgender, although they told the Echo they have “no preference” when it comes to their pronouns.

The work that won them the prestigious grant is inspired by dreams, using bed sheets and pillowcases as canvases and aiming to capture “a childlike naivety and accessibility” through materials like felt-tip pens.

(Credit: Alison Wright)

Brian said: “I want to make work where anybody can walk in and maybe, hopefully get something out of it. I’m trying to avoid an artistic hierarchy: this is not for people who know about art, it’s for people that just want to look at something.

“When I was shortlisted, I thought I had no chance and was expecting to be a bit upset and emotional when I lost but then they read my name out and I started crying.”

Brian currently teaches at Chelsea College of Arts and says the “terror and fear” they felt towards their own teachers as a child has motivated them to “change that kind of behaviour”.

They said: “[I grew up in] completely different times, very segregated times. There was no encouragement to develop, they had already made their minds up about you when you came in.

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“The school was training us to get apprenticeships at the missile factory but I failed at that, thank god. I remember me and another student said we might want to go to art school and they said ‘don’t be so stupid’ – but we beat them in the end.

“When I was 16, I got a job as an architect’s assistant, which changed my life. Just imagine, a working class kid in that role. It wasn’t something I wanted to do – all that maths wasn’t for me – but it introduced me to a completely different world.

“I want to create a bursary at Chelsea in my will so that working class kids can get grants to get into art school and experience that education.”

(Credit: Alison Wright)

Brian’s alter-ego Dawn first emerged in 1996, although they noted she “has always been there… covered up”.

They added: “I was pretty depressed and struggled to care about art anymore because, though I was a pretty good painter, I felt like I was leaving so much of myself out of it.

“When you become a new personality, it allows you to do a lot of things you never would have done. Dawn didn’t like art and didn’t have the same history as Brian.

“I did a lot of performances [as Dawn] and eventually started going by the name Brian Dawn Chalkley. I don’t perform anymore because I think I’m now much more integrated.

“There was a ‘death of Brian’ and a kind of ‘death of Dawn’ and now both work together in a way neither of them could have done on their own.”

Despite admitting they “don’t really engage” with the local arts scene, Brain said they would “love to do a show at the William Morris Gallery” and have no plans to retire.

They said: “What’s the point? What the hell would I do? I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with art but it is what I do and you do have to make a lot of sacrifices for it. Winning the award at this age is just the icing on the cake.”

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