How Morley Arts Bloc tutor Darran Gray is helping to build a creative scene in south Leeds

Art teacher Darran Gray believes in creating with fun and freedom. So he set out with his own approach and is part of a growing creative scene in Morley. John Blow reports.

Darran Gray surrounded by his Arthur Seabrigg works at Arts Bloc in Morley. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“If you want to prove to someone you can work hard, you go down a mine, or become a builder – you don’t draw a picture.”

That’s quite the statement for an artist – and a teacher no less.

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However, it cuts to the heart of Morley man Darran Gray’s philosophy that art should be about fun and freedom, not fidelity to any particular formal skill set.

Lynne Arnison's tinted charcoal piece of Brunswick Street in Morley.

It’s one he’s been trying to encourage in his Arts Bloc studio, which three years ago he opened up to the public, delivering tutoring sessions to people of all kinds in the south Leeds town.

Gray used to be the head of a school arts department, and though he’s still in education, he says that he essentially demoted himself and opted to work part-time to focus on his own artistic approach.

Morley, it should be said, has been promoting the arts for years through its annual arts festival, which has been going for more than 15 years and encompasses music, dance, literature, poetry, comedy, science, cooking, entertainment, workshops and school programmes.

Now through Arts Bloc, even more creative people are getting involved to develop a growing art scene in the town all year round.

Art teacher Darran Gray. Picture: Tony Johnson.

After more than a decade teaching art in secondary schools and years of developing his own style under the pseudonym Arthur Seabrigg – a nod to his great-grandfather and his family’s Yorkshire Coast roots – Gray decided to combine his two careers into one business concept.

Its vision is simply to promote the arts in south Leeds and for its base at Jubilee House to be a central hub for all things creative in Morley.

Free from the restrictions placed on the arts in education, early workshops focused on fun and individual creativity, providing children with the chance to experience the old concept of art for art’s sake.

Though he still loves to teach, Gray feels his own business is in contrast to the educational world of structure and grades.

“Since they invented the camera, we don’t need to draw photographically,” he says.

“A monkey can produce artwork, if it can express itself.”

He adds: “I find a lot of adults come to us and say ‘I can’t draw’. They’ve got this pre-conditioned idea of what a drawing is.”

Children, though, are very open to expressing themselves uninhibited.

Gray’s feelings towards academic grading and art go back to his own experiences as a student.

Although he was known as artistic at school – and has since exhibited his work his mixed-media work in London, Leeds, Bradford, Holmfirth and Halifax – his grades were lower than he expected them to be.

“The whole system let me down,” says the father-of-two.

“That’s always stuck with me. I was the main person for art with my school and didn’t get the certificate. I didn’t even know why until I became a teacher. I found that quite sad.”

He adds: “Lowry would have failed his GCSEs if he’d submitted his work."

Gray’s own work under the name Arthur Seabrigg involves taking “really old things from the 1930s and destroying” them to create something new.

The mixed-media work is inspired by history, culture and the visual recording of stories, and “inherited information”.

Painted elements are distressed, earth colours are muted, while “layers of foggy antique ephemera, including fragments of letters and song lyrics” create a backdrop, while vintage postage stamps are also incorporated.

“My friend who’s into antiques is mortified,” he says, but it took him years to “work out what my visual language was”.

Soon after setting up Arts Bloc, he was joined by Karen Atkinson, an art examiner with 30 years of teaching experience, and the business continued to grow, while workshops developed into adult classes and one-to-one tuition, as well as support for students.

The jump from full-time teaching was “good for my wellbeing, but not my pocket”, concedes Gray, which could only have been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

However Arts Bloc continued its work under lockdown, with one such project called Morley Heroes.

Ordinary people were nominated for something extraordinary they had done during the pandemic which deserved to be recognised, and a shortlist of 12 people – who knew nothing of it – was drawn up.

Portraits of those heroes have been created by artists connected to Morley and released on social media, with a video created and posted on the Facebook page Morley Art Gallery, and a physical exhibition is due to take place at the Town Hall in summer.

Heroes included Ray Thackray, who runs Morley TKD, a Taekwon-do club, and kept sessions going over Zoom during the pandemic, and Helen Stott, who kept a children’s group going with weekly videos in the same period.

Lynne Arnison, who is originally from Morley but now lives in Scarborough, created a tinted charcoal portrait of 99-year-old Albert Moss, who was “nominated just for his cheery disposition and being an all-round nice guy”, says the artist.

She visits her mother, June, in Morley when she can but has been unable to go during large parts of the pandemic while restrictions have been in place, and has also been trying to sort an exhibition in her home town for some time.

Arnison has missed Morley during, she says, so creating art based on old photographs of the town has been like “a bit of therapy”.

Through contact with Arts Bloc she has got involved with the creative scene in Morley, and was invited to contribute to the heroes project.

She is pleased to see all the artistic activity going on back in West Yorkshire.

Arnison, who volunteers with Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, said: “For Morley, I think it’s great. My mum still lives there and she’s really interested in what’s going off in Morley. I think it’s fantastic.”

Next, a Morley Art Trail is being planned.

Similar to other events of this kind that take place in Leeds suburbs such as Kirkstall, the event this summer is likely to involve art work being displayed large billboards in the park, a “butterfly avenue” of works hung from trees and murals, all pulled together with a map setting out the trail for visitors.

Events manager and Mayoress of Morley, Rachael Kennedy, said the project has been developed alongside a bid for cash from government’s Towns Fund.

Developed by the Morley Town Deal Board with support from Leeds City Council, the bid for up to £25m has been submitted.

Meanwhile, there are also plans afoot to commemorate Morley’s “historical heroes”, too, with the idea being to project portraits on to the pillars of the Town Hall.

And organisers are working to bring Morley Arts Festival back in late September.

Gray, 41, is in the process of creating a mural on Queen Street depicting his grandfather looking down at his namesake, Gray’s son Thomas, who is 11 today.

As well as another fitting tribute to ordinary people, it is a testament to Gray’s passion for art that is created with feeling over formality.

“You can’t get it wrong at Arts Bloc, he says. “There’s no ‘I’ve failed’ if you’ve expressed and enjoyed yourself.”