Author and visual artist Paul Harfleet won the second award of the debut Queer Britain Madame F Art Award with his vibrant piece Cock of the Rock. Part of his Birds Can Fly series that was born during the lockdown, it captures Paul’s love of fashion and birds, as well as his sense of humour. Paul is the founder of The Pansy Project, an international artwork that highlights homophobia and transphobia in public spaces.
We spoke to Paul about what Queer Britain means to him, how a lockdown project turned into a surprise success, and his mission when it comes to his work.
Have you always been an artist?
“I’ve always drawn and always been creative.
“I went to art school when I was 27. So I had some life experience before I went, which I think helped me really appreciate the experience. I was absorbed because I’d had a really wide interest in the world generally and it wasn’t until art school that I could give myself permission to explore various subjects that I felt I didn’t have the confidence to explore earlier. I really loved art school.”
What was a pivotal moment in your art?
“Everyone’s work evolves from the conditions they’re in at that point. I don’t know if I’d be doing the Birds Can Fly series if it wasn’t for the pandemic. In 2005 in Manchester, me experiencing three separate incidences of homophobia in one day was the catalyst. I was so outraged, and that’s how The Pansy Project began.
“I felt like it was going to be something that I would continue to do. I named it The Pansy Project because I suspected that I may mark my own experiences of homophobia in the future. I did and I have.”
So, art is both political and expressive?
“My degree was in painting, and my work was really far away from any sort of political work. During my MA, I was able to unpick my actual interests.
“Conceptual work is what I love. I just adore the neatness and efficiency of conceptual work. It can be immediate. You can bring two things together and suddenly the meaning is something different. I like the immediacy of it.”
What message does your art convey?
“When people ask, “Are you an artist?” and I say yes, they always ask what I do. I say, “I plant pansies at the site of homophobia and then I take photographs.” People laugh. The expression on their face is very predictable.
Then, it clicks. You can begin to see how they understand it, and the people reacting to it like that are often straight. They don’t even understand that homophobia has continued. They’re just not aware of it. My mission as an artist is to make people aware of the fact that that still happens.”
“I was on my own during the lockdown, as everyone was at the time. I remember talking to my sister on the phone, going “I don’t know what I’m going to do now! I’m just stuck. I’ve got to do something!” I remember being on the phone with her and seeing the birds outside. It was really sunny and lovely that March, so I just started thinking about the birds.
“I started thinking about how the birds were so different to everyone at that time because we were all locked in. The birds were just flying around, oblivious to everything going on. That’s why Birds Can Fly was created, because it was the opposite of what we could do.
“There’s something interesting to me about how birds, especially male birds that are really colourful, almost look like they’re in drag themselves. The idea of birds and queerness just really fascinated me.”
Why did you decide to enter the Queer Britain Madame F Award?
“I’ve had conversations with my peers in the past about setting up some sort of queer art space. And because I’ve got friends who are queer and who are artists, we’ve struggled to get into the mainstream museum world.
“When the Madame F Awards came up, I thought it was quite relevant to me, but I was very close to not applying because I just thought it wouldn’t be relevant. I thought there was a connection between my bird and Susy the Frog in the way of the natural world being glamorous. I thought maybe it would work. It’s funny as well because I was really close to drawing and ‘gently referencing’ frogs at one point!”
How did you feel when you found out you’d won?
“I was furious that I wasn’t first, of course! No, what was amazing is that I know Sadie Lee, and David Hoyle is an old friend of mine, so it was brilliant to be in that company. It felt lovely to be included, and it’s been so brilliant that Cock of the Rock is part of that first exhibition. It feels like a real honour.”
What do you want people to take away from your winning piece?
“Most people I see smile as it’s so silly. But the thing that I think works so brilliantly is because the bird’s name is cock-of-the-rock, so there’s that wink-wink, nudge-nudge about it. My use of what could be called drags adds to the image and the silliness and beauty of it.
“I hope it’s enough to make people think differently, perhaps about the name of the bird. Why is it called that? How has that evolved? I want curiosity to be sparked, and the images I create to be thought-provoking.
“It’s a joyful piece. There’s more obvious pure joy in that image in particular because it’s just so hilarious! But I suppose it’s that the Birds Can Fly collection is me. What I’ve been interested in my entire life is birds and fashion, makeup and gender – it’s all of that is wrapped up into one project. It’s a perfect expression of who I am.”
What does Queer Britain mean to you as a gay artist?
“I lived in West London area until I was 14, then I moved to Edinburgh. After that, I moved to Manchester. I was saying to a friend of mine that Queer Britain has really helped me feel more a part of London. London is so vast and everything is so clubby – I’m not so much of a club animal as I used to be. That’s where I found my sense of identity. And now maybe because I don’t club that much, it’s not as easy to find that sort of sense of community. Queer Britain has really brought that back to me.”
Paul’s prize-winning piece ‘Cock of the Rock’ is now on display at the Queer Britain museum in King’s Cross, London.
Read all about another talented artist in our interview with Sadie Lee.