It began with a chance conversation on a bench in the museum garden.
It ended with 140 portraits by a Wigginton artist of a family of football haters who became season ticket holders cheering for York City at the LNER Community Stadium as promotion to the National League was decided last Saturday.
Portraits of Sue Clayton will be unveiled en masse at the centenary of York City Football Club fans at the Cliffe Village Institute near Selby on Saturday, where Bubwith-born club legend Chris Topping (463 appearances, 1968-1978) will perform the opening ceremony 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. event.
A3 prints of the entire collection will be available for the first time at the celebration: mounted and ready to be framed at £25 each, or £40 for a framed version.
“This year-long project grew out of a conversation last year with Michael Miles, a lifelong York City fan who creates the Y-Front fanzine,” says Sue. “The passion Michael showed for his club caught my attention: it was one of those conversations where someone’s passion for something sparks your own interest in listening to them.
“I suggested that I paint some fan portraits. Then, when he mentioned that the club would be celebrating its centenary this year, I realized that a new art project was budding in my head and I was bubbling with creativity.”
At first, Sue expected to paint maybe ten portraits from the photos and stories that were sent to her. Instead, the project grew and grew, not even stopping at 100 paintings to celebrate 100 years.
“It was really that weird, a total endurance for me, with a lot of 3 o’clock finishes,” she says. “In reality, it might have been wise to stop at 100, but I still had pictures I wanted to paint; I wanted to do justice to the fans.”
The portraits are each 30cm tall and span multiple media, from watercolor to oil, acrylic to charcoal, pencil to collage. “There are brides in the collection, babies, celebratory fans who are sadly no longer with us, sisters, fathers and sons, friendships, former players… the full breadth of life in all its glory,” says Sue.
She is drawn to “painting portraits of people whose stories I want to tell,” such as her exhibition on children and young adults with Down syndrome entitled 21, which is held in the NHS York Vaccination Center’s Tent of Hope at Askham bar can be seen. York, last May and June.
“I’m equally committed to making art accessible to all and love the concept of art meeting football,” she says. “A wonderful one-year journey has brought me to the fantastic warmth of the fan base. Knowing so little about football, my son James and I are now full-fledged season ticket holders, roaring with the crowds in the stands, culminating in last weekend’s incredible play-off final.”
Sue believes that passion produces the best portraits. “As an artist, I was on the right track with this project and I immersed myself in it very quickly. The range and scope of the photos sent in really fired my imagination, and it allowed me to paint such a range of ages within the series,” she says.
“From a sitter’s perspective, I think it’s really delicious to paint the fan celebrating, forgetting everything and just being consumed with joy. Likewise, the moment a fan watches the team intently, concern engraved on his face, tells a great story.”
Saturday’s celebration is in Cliffe because of Michael Miles who lives there. “There’s a whole bunch of fans in the village who call themselves ‘The Cliffe Minstermen,'” says Sue. “Michael really wanted to organize an event just for the fans. The response has been phenomenal, with offers of help, sponsorship from fans and fabulous raffle prizes donated. It’s a perfect opportunity to gather and celebrate not only the centenary, but last week’s win to move up a division.”
Keep an eye out for Jack Radcliffe’s match reports from the 2021-2022 season, which will be issued in full on Saturday. “Jack, who has Down Syndrome like my son James, won the hearts of the team, especially goalkeeper Pete Jameson, and the fans too,” says Sue. “His match reports are great with such honesty and integrity. He took the team onto the field for the last game and did the lap of honor with them.”
“Soccer style” food and drinks are offered; a children’s painting competition promises fabulous prizes, and raffle prizes range from soccer shirts and autographed soccer balls to a commissioned portrait of Sue and autographed lyrics by Rick Witter of Shed Seven for the club’s patio anthem, Chasing City Rainbows.
The legacy of Sue’s portraits is built. “Work on a book about the portrait project and some of the wonderful stories behind the faces will start soon,” she says. “I strongly believe that these stories should not be lost and I want them to be part of the archives for the club’s 100th anniversary.
“The portraits will form a major art installation in the LNER Community Stadium fan zone as a permanent feature later in the year and drama group Give It A Go Joe has expressed interest in developing these stories further to create community theater. Not bad for a chat on a park bench, is it?!”
As for the future of the original portraits, ‘some will be on display at York Hospital and I would very much like to show them in their entirety again in central York before the collection winds up at the end of the year. If any galleries, museums or community spaces are interested, I’d love to hear from them at [email protected]”
By Charles Hutchinson