Luke Perry

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We spoke to Luke Perry, a Fine Art graduate and previous Alumni of the Year who has had a truly incredible career as an Industrial Artist and Sculptor.  

Luke’s aim is to bring equal representation to public art by shining a light on subjects that are often ignored. His projects across the Midlands and wider UK include 'The Ribbons' as part of the Birmingham AIDS and HIV memorial, and 'Forward Together' in Birmingham city centre which celebrates the diversity and spirit of the region. 

Explore how public art can give a voice to communities and discover more about Luke’s journey so far and his favourite projects.

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Alumni Podcasts

Discover the incredible journeys of BCU alumni in our captivating podcast series. Join us as we delve into their diverse experiences, successes, and lessons learned, offering inspiring insights into the world beyond graduation.

Alumni Podcasts

Hello and welcome to the BCU Alumni Podcast. I'm Bethan from BCU's alumni team and in each episode, we welcome a different member of our alumni community back onto campus to find out what they've been doing since they graduated from BCU. Today we're joined by Luke Perry, a Fine Art graduate and previous Alumni of the Year who has had a truly incredible career as an industrial artist and sculptor. After graduating 20 years ago Luke became the director of Industrial Heritage Stronghold which is a non-profit organisation which builds public artworks which aim to celebrate the character diversity and the heritage of communities. Luke's work shines a light on subjects that have been long uncelebrated to bring equal representation to public art. His projects across the Midlands and wider UK include the Lady Chain Makers monument in the Black Country, the ribbons as part of Birmingham AIDS and HIV Memorial and Forward Together in Birmingham city centre which celebrated the region's diversity and spirit. His work stands for equality and civic pride and Luke's main ambition is to bring an understanding of our history, a respect for our present and most importantly who we really are. In this episode, we will be exploring how public art can change the face of towns and cities and give a voice to communities as well, as discover more about Luke's journey so far and his favourite projects. Luke it is an absolute pleasure to have you here today, you've actually just come from the School of Art for your photoshoot where you studied, so what was it like to be back on campus where it all began for you?

Well, I think it's also one of my favourite buildings in the world. It's an incredible space it's built for light it's built for people and it was built at a point where architecture had sort of no bounds of budget the Victorians knew how to build a building, they didn't know how to keep people happy in a sort of domestic or Global sense but they were very good at architecture, and so it's it's a it's a wonderful place for that. And also I mean I'm quite familiar with it so go back every once in a while go and you know big shout out to the fine art exhibition, yeah and Canaan Brown who I mentored has just done his exhibition there, so I'm never far away. So as a Black Country girl, I actually came across your work long before I joined BCU thanks to your Lady Chain Makers monument in Cradley Heath.

Your family runs a chain and rigging manufacturing company which has been in operation for over 100 years and it's actually one of the last remaining factories of its kind, so was this what led you to study Fine Art then?

I think I studied Fine Art because making things is just in my blood maybe if you believe in that kind of thing it's certainly something I can't not do and my family who are very wonderful just they encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, which is wonderful what a privilege you know, and then and my whole family even the chain makers and you know my nan who was a an upholsterer and she worked with her hands as well, I think they always aspired to be artistic people but they just didn't have that luxury of doing it as a job, so when I kind of had a leaning towards art they just pushed and pushed and pushed so, but in a nice way, so kind of that was probably it. And I think sculpture I'm drawn to because it's three-dimensional you know and it's something you do with your hands and something you can appreciate with your hands and been growing up as part of a making family that's just a dominant thing. You know if you're a gardener, if you're a cook, if you're a carpenter, if you if you make dresses, it's all something that you create with these tools that we're lucky enough to give with thumbs and fingers and so that was the natural draw I suppose. Okay so obviously I just spoke about the Lady Chain Makers and you know even now it is still a piece of art that the local area just adores I mean so many people obviously, including my own family, were just delighted when you were able to give a voice to a group of women who did change history so your work obviously means so much people all over the UK but at what point was it that you thought I I want to do that like I want to be a public artist? I think almost when I started just realised it was a possible I think I've always loved public art because it is what makes a space for me that, as well as the people that shape it, and I feel like when I lived in London briefly, I did that thing where I thought I'm an artist I've got to go and work in London because that's what you do yeah which of course is a complete fallacy that's not the case at all, and but when I was there my family were well my grandad got really ill and he was he was the sort of, because he was never that well because he was a chain maker worked in the metal industry no one's well in the metal industry really you never find 100%, said he the eyes were always on him to see when he was going to recover or not recover or whatever and there was a point where he was essentially dying and I thought why isn't no one why is there nothing that looks like him in my area? You know there's these sculptures to these rich old white guys that owned the factories that he worked in, but why is there nothing about the people that made the area? And I remember I wrote to the council and said I want to make a sculpture and of course, I had no idea what I was doing yeah and or getting myself into and um and they said "well apply for something" imagine that, these are this is back in a different government and so I applied for a commission and um and I got it which was up until quite recently the highest budget I'd ever had because that was pre-2007. and a lot of stuff's gone on since then but yeah so that was that was I suppose when I I first realised that it was possible to make public art as a job it's certainly not an easy job, if you do it for the right reasons, but I I'm completely in love with my career which is an incredible bit of luck.

So where is the sculpture of your grandad?

Oh well, there isn't well arguably there isn't one because I wanted to make a sculpture of chain makers just to celebrate that there was, that they were the hub of that area that's why there is a community there right like there's a reason for every community and it will often be work-based, and but the commission that I got was actually the massive black column outside Tesco's because Tesco's.

Oh in Cradley Heath? Oh no I didn't realise that was yours.

That's mine as well so Tesco's levelled half of Cradley Heath built an aircraft hangar that they sell food in, and I talked to the community and said "what do you want to represent you?" And they all said "well we really miss the buildings can you knock us up a chimney?" and I was like well it's not really what I got into making art for but I could do a chimney. So I built this chimney and then separated it into loads of different sections and worked with different members of the community to come up with what they missed, and then those sections of that industrial chimney that's all riveted together represent that so if you look at it there's a sort of spider web of images. It was the first thing I ever built, which again ill-advisedly was probably I've almost learned to weld while making that sculpture, but yeah it was it was a great thing to do. But then there is a sculpture of my grandad in the background of the Lady Chain Makers monument, there's a sculpture of him hugging my nan as part of a representation of the striking workers because the lady chain makers strike was so instrumental, but it was supported by the whole community so the five figures that sit behind it one of them is my wife, one of them's my nan and Grandad, there's my mum, there's my auntie and also the last chain makers at the last female chain maker she's there Annette Bradney um she's the wife of Mick Bradney he taught me and her daughter Saran, Mick Bradney's sadly no longer with us but he was a fantastic guy. So there's a lot of very sort of special representation there in itself.

Yeah that must be so mad to be able to be like actually yeah like that's my own family.

Yeah they're not getting another one.

Okay so let's just like turn back the clock you were a student here at BCU obviously at our School of Art back in the early noughties.

Very early yeah.

So what was it like to be a student in Birmingham back then?I mean it wasn't that long ago but it was a very different city then.

Quarter of a century nearly, it was I mean I I remember the old Bull Ring as a big concrete thing yeah, and it was it was nice and grotty around here you know like I kind of enjoyed the Birmingham where large portions of it smelt of wee. It's just I suppose there's a there's a joy to unpretentiousness that at that period of history that was kind of the case. Birmingham's still got a wonderful vibe I love it here, it is a really unpretentious city and it's so full of so many different sorts of people. But I suppose when I was here it felt, it was a it was a different vibe there was a different economical power yeah the the country seemed inherently optimistic, if albeit we were protesting a massive war so the place was full of anti-war protests as well at the time, so it was a really exciting uh time to feel like you're part of a big change yeah and and it was it was I suppose it was really exciting and frustrating and equal measures because if you've got a huge amount of I I suppose ambition and you've got a load loads of beliefs that you can change the world which everybody should have and I certainly did when I was young, and I do a bit now for a bit now, but I realise that I'm not quite as egotistical as I was. That was a great time and I love the the space, Margaret Street is an incredible place to be the lecturers were wonderfully supportive and judgmental in equal measure which is great because I needed that yeah I still love it here I think BCU is a special University.

Okay so in terms of the, let's go back to public art then, so can you I guess almost like explain the process to me then like do towns and communities reach out to you or do you go to certain areas and you get inspired, and you think I want to do some work here?

It's a real mix there's honestly no commissions that have come the same way. It used to be the case that there would be a commission and you could apply for it because council's funded, that sort of thing that's not really the case anymore, so I could go kind of example base wise so the the Lions of the Great War sculpture that's outside the Gurdwara in Smethwick, what happened there was I mean my wife were going around the battlefields in Ypres and Flanders and we just like said "there's so many names here like, yeah from all over the Commonwealth" and I mean we were mildly aware at this sort of 2013-14 that there was some Commonwealth soldiers but nowhere near the amount. And so I got back I called up some people that I knew I got in touch eventually with pre-guild MP for Edgebaston she put me in touch with the Gurdwara and we we developed a project and then they raised some funding and Sandwell Council kind of like said you could have a certain portion of land, and we built this project from scratch based on the fact that you know I mean it was just a little thought that we had but then I talked to the Gurdwara and they said "yeah we've been waiting 100 years for this" Yeah. And there are communities all over the UK that are screaming out for representation and as soon as you you just tap that a little bit it's it's like you've put a pin into you know like a waterbed, it just comes it just comes right out and everyone's like yes oh my God you need to do this and this and this and and you need to represent this and and have you thought about this have you seen this film have you talked to these people because yeah there is such a dearth of representation for women, minority communities, like you know any name name a community that isn't a white wealthy man and and they have not been represented and that's why public art is so necessary because you can't be what you can't see and if you if you're a little kid growing up, and you are not part of what would be considered like the mainstream culture, you feel different you're not going to feel like it's okay to be you unless you see things that make it feel like when you want to be, when you are the person you want to become that that person is important and so by putting sculptures out there that give people a voice, I don't it's not even giving them a voice, they've got a voice it's just showing that voice, then it makes people feel like being them is valid and important and exciting and that there's this sort of more out there to go at you know. And as soon as you do like the Lions of the Great War sculpture, when we did that it felt like it was almost the first of its kind in the UK, and it very much was in certain regards but then all of a sudden like I think it was part of a movement of frustrated people who then went right we want one of these we want one of these yeah, and it like a love feeling like we're part of a little incendiary group lighting fires that then people get really like kind of oh well we need this in this and this and that's great yeah and you know it's happening all over the UK in all sorts of different mediums, it's not just public art, or literature, or film it's everything and it's it's necessary and it's it's unstoppable really.

Tell me a bit about the projects that you you either currently working on, or your kind of like most recent ones.

I suppose the most recent two sculptures that I've unveiled one is the Black British History is British History piece which is in Winson Green on the canal there. I'm working with a I've been working with a fantastic charity called Legacy West Midlands and they put me in touch with the black community in the area and also I've mentored a BCU student called Canaan Brown, who's just won a load of awards because he's amazing, and we looked at making a piece about black history that wasn't what most artwork about black history is in which seems to be either the history of victimisation or or in some cases even more negative like crime and things. So we, Canaan and a load of the people I work with, wanted to look at the the successes of black history, which is the majority of black history in this country almost all of it is massive amounts of success, and so we looked at everything from the Aurelian Moors back in you know 2,000 years ago, there's been a black community in this country for 2,000 years and that's if you don't discount that the Cheddar man was black, the first recorded black Britain well first recorded Britain would have been black, but so they're looking at this huge history of success going through the Georgian period you know all the way through to now and then that's represented at the future where there's a kid sitting on the Smethwick Marshall Street sign and he's got his fist in the air. So that's something really cool we've just unveiled. We unveiled also the Ribbons piece which was, I worked with a wonderful artist called Gary Jones, and that's to give representation to AIDS and HIV and it's just this brilliant beautiful pair of intertwined ribbons that become hearts. It's a simple piece of design, but it's a really difficult thing to make. But it's now it's it sits there at the start of the Gay Village where I kind of spent a load of my youth, I kind of almost grew up there, and it's this symbol of kind of positivity yeah. And it's taken this thing that during the sort of Thatcher reign was this death you know like death sentence and everybody was, you weren't allowed to talk about being gay, it was illegal to teach to discuss being gay in an educational setting and to the point where my kids where they hear the word AIDS they're like "Yay, Gary we're gonna see Gary" you know like it's this positive thing, literally it's a positive thing, and it it's changed a lot of attitudes and it's getting rid of the stigma. Because people die because they don't talk about it, so it's a thing to talk about and I just feel so privileged to be part of both of those sculptures because it's this ability to just be part of a cog making things that make the world happier for people, yeah and less ignorant. And the other piece that's in the fabrication at the moment, I'm welding up just finished working on it, is a a sculpture on the strength of the hijab and I'm working with um a community the CCF over in Smethwick, and we've designed a piece about representing women who wear hijabs and just how you know it's a really proud piece, and we think that's possibly the first sculpture of a woman in hijab in the world because they're a very underrepresented group of people. But this is a piece that though that little kids, I mean Malala lives in Birmingham how proud should we be of people who wear a hijab, Malala lives in this town. So you know it's it's an amazing thing to be part of a community, that I've got this incredible heritage and there's no representation. So we've made this sort of nearly six meter sculpture which we're going to install that is just a piece of representation that makes people feel important, and that's that's going to be the next thing to install.

Right so can you give me examples then of pieces that have had like a real significant impact on an area or community, and and I guess also some of the kind of like untold stories that you've been able to tell through the public art in those communities?

Well I think certainly I've when I worked on the SS Journey piece which is in Handsworth so that was a piece which was, it's a sculpture about essentially celebrating immigration so how brave you have to be to leave one part of your the world where you call home, move to a different bit of the world where you you might not speak the same language, you certainly are not familiar with and set up a life there, and Handsworth is a sort of go-to point for a lot of people that are moving to this country and then they might stay there for a bit and go elsewhere, but it's a wonderful place for that that's why it's so incredibly colourful and brilliant. But it's in the park there and it's over the front of a ship so this is, I think we did it in about 2016 maybe, right and it it was referencing the Windrush before people started talking about the Windrush really and there's a sculpture of a guy who who's quite famous in Handsworth there, called Hector Pinkney, and he's he's sitting on the, well standing on the front of this boat with the sort of 1960s outfit with a big flat cap, and it's it's just this piece which celebrates how brave you have to be to make a life like that. And and I know a lot of people in Handsworth, I kind of spent a lot of time there when I was a kid and then and their family kind of go like you know "oh yeah, yeah, we all love the sculpture of Hector yeah" and and it's made people feel I know, that you know, there's a lot of feedback I've got is it's made people feel like it's a safe place for them to be. And I think certainly I'm so proud of the Ribbon sculpture because yeah not only is it about this thing that that you know is nothing to be ashamed of, so it's talking about AIDS and HIV but also, it's this, it's about love and it's becoming used as a like, a community centre for the queer community. When there was, the young trans girl killed, her memorial was there and it was this it was the it was part it was, you know hundreds of people around it holding candles around this sculpture that me and Gary made and to to be part of something that people can use for good that's incredible. And I, you know, no matter how much it hurts to make these things, and it really does hurt, and it's just worth it it's great it's really vindicating to to make things that people use as part of the good fight I suppose.

Okay so I mean obviously you've got so many pieces [Laughter] but like favourites, if you've got any that you're like oh God that was really good?

It's difficult, it's a really difficult thing to put your finger on. I think the Lions of the Great War piece in Smethwick that felt like at the time, it was in the Guardian as the first anti-Brexit piece, that's what it was called right, and I was very proud of that because my politics are not hidden at all. And I feel also the the Lady Chain Maker's piece, which nearly bankrupted me, was so worth it because that's so close to my heart. Yeah the the piece about about the Saragarhi, so one of the things I was really proud of is, the piece in Wednesfield which is a Sikh Soldier, celebrates the battle of Saragarhi which is where the British Empire which is where it was, being the British Empire, it was dividing people and being where it shouldn't have been at the time, and it had an outpost where there were 21 Sikhs and one Muslim chef and that held off against I think 14,000 Afghan tribesmen, and it's a huge huge part of the Sikh identity you know you say Saragarhi too a practicing Sikh and they would most likely know what it is. And I was asked to make this sculpture, and I do really feel like it's a very good sculpture as well,l like I'm getting to the point where I'm not ashamed to say that I I feel like some of the things I make are good, I don't know why.

Definitely shouldn't be ashamed to say that.

I know but it's like, I don't know if it's a guilt thing maybe when I was growing up, you just know you don't say that you're good at things you know, that's a Black Country thing I think you don't talk yourself up really. No. But I feel like that's a good sculpture, I feel like I would look at that and go oh well they've spent on that, and I'm really yeah I'm really proud of that and part of being part of that. I'm proud of how the Gurdwara celebrated the one Muslim chef because it was that was a cancelled part of history no one talked about the one Muslim guy because the British at the time played the narrative that 21 Sikhs beat 14,000 Muslims, they were trying to divide people and it didn't fit the narrative that there was a Muslim chef that laid his life down taking up arms as part of the British Raj. But they we found out about that in a history book and the Gurdwara was so big on trying to make reparations that they dedicated a whole side of the plinth to that guy Khuda Dhad and that so again we're like moving mountains culturally doing that really. So I'm really proud of that too and I'm very proud of the hijab piece that we've just made, I say we it was there was a whole community of people getting involved in it I can't name them all but yeah Legacy West Midlands and Kami Baines who's been driving it forward incredible, we's not a big enough word.

So this is something we like to do in every episode a quick Birmingham quickfire round, okay where is your favourite spot in Birmingham?

My favourite spot in Birmingham is I think it's the Gay Village yeah yeah I love it there, and also I I spent a bit of time working at the Glee Club quite a bit of time working at Glee Club and I met my wife there, we both spent time in Gay Village because we're both out Bi people and yeah it's just brilliant I feel I feel safe there, I feel like I love being there, so yeah that's it gay Village.

Snobs or Popworld?

Snobs, really not a cheesy music kind of guy, if everywhere else was shut I would have gone, and I'm talking the old Snobs I haven't even been in the new Snobs.

Oh wow that is very savage. Blues or Villa?

lues because it's a type of music, I'm assuming you're talking about football which I know is very popular in England. Sorry football yeah. Okay football yeah Blues is all Villa, I don't know oh well I suppose because I'm kind of friends with Benjamin Zephaniah and I and he sort of slept on Aston Hall for a while, it's probably I could have affiliations to the Villa. Yeah I suppose you'd have to go Villa really. He'd be upset with me otherwise.

Broad Street or Digbeth?


Where is your like favourite Brummie landmark?

I feel like landmarks wise it's the people that make Birmingham. So from like the minarets to the gurdwaras, to the tattoo parlours and the music venues, and you know the people sitting on steps just having a chat, and yeah the fact that there's a place for everybody, it is the people that make the landmark of Birmingham that would be it for me.

And what is your like favourite Brummie like word, slang word?

Well, it's hard because a lot of them have been stolen from Black Country of course which is yeah where it really came from because that's the old old English, but I would probably have to say ere yar, because allegedly that was my first word because when they gave me a bottle they'd ere yar so I would just hold my hands up and go ere yar.

So you've been selected as one of our Local Heroes at this year's Alumni Festival so what.

Must've been a very small radius that locality then.

No, you are definitely a local hero Luke, so what does that mean to you?

It's really lovely, I don't accept praise very well so being nominated as a local hero I suppose, what that must mean which is useful to me, is that you guys appreciate the values of what I'm trying to be part of and what I feel like if I'm trying to be part of, if anything is a movement to make sure that there's room for everyone in this country that we keep moving forward, that we keep including people and that we don't identify ourselves by who we're excluding as opposed to who we're including. So it's it's always nice to feel like you've got allies and if if I'm a local hero then it means that I've got friends which is brilliant thank you.

And final question then, if you could go back to your very first day at the BCU School of Art - what year was that?

I dunno about 2001 and 2000.

Yeah what is the one piece of advice you would give yourself?

One piece of advice, it's difficult because I as this question, if I wouldn't want to do anything that changed my life, because if I ever didn't meet my wife that would be the worst crime I could do against myself, but if there was someone in a similar situation.


For example rather than just me I would say stick to your guns like, just keep working absolutely nail your colours to the mast do not think that because there isn't something that you can see, that there isn't something out there. I couldn't see that there was my job but I worked out there must have been someone who was making public monuments.


You know I'm a lot of things now that I wasn't then, and that's got to do with the I suppose the bravery of of taking a few chances and surrounding yourself with positive people who make you feel like you can be yourself, so yeah I suppose a bit of advice really would be to surround yourself by people who make you feel like being you is okay and then use their love, use that energy to just keep going at your dreams.

Luke thanks so much for coming onto the podcast today it's honestly so great to talk to you and hopefully we'll talk to you again very soon.

Absolutely, see you in a bit.