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Johnny Vegas talks of living his best life with new Walker Art Gallery exhibition

4 weeks ago

Johnny Vegas talks of living his best life with new Walker Art Gallery exhibition
Johnny Vegas (Credit: Pete Carr)

As he and world-renowned Wirral artist Emma Rodgers put the finishing touches to the showcase of their work in the joint display, Metamorphosis, Johnny Vegas admits: “I think I’m going to cry…but they’ll be good tears. 

“I’m living my best life right now and I can’t tell you what it means to be exhibiting here at The Walker. I haven’t slept for two weeks!

Johnny Vegas
Johnny puts the final touches to his pieces

“I don’t know what to compare it to … maybe the first time I saw my name listed on a bill for stand-up?!

“Showbiz had run its course. I mean, I’m not stopping that, but this is where my heart lies.”

And he jokes: “I don’t want to start harassing people, but I’m going to come in and watch people to see their reactions.”

Metamorphosis is an exhibition of work by the two sculptors shown in a partnership with The Walker Art Gallery and the Bluecoat Display Centre.

Anatomy Of The Horse (Credit: Gina Hatter)

The exhibition at the Walker begins April 30 until March 31, 2025, and the selling exhibition will run at Bluecoat Display Centre from Wednesday, May 3, until Saturday, June 15.

Both will show two-dimensional works alongside sculpture in bronze, clay and 3D printing, with a common theme of flight throughout. Exploring the idea of ‘metamorphosis’ – a mental or physical transformation – the pair have created works inspired by the Walker’s collections.

Johnny’s work draws massively from his experiences of living with ADHD which he describes as an ‘accursed blessing’, with concepts of flight, faith, and fear of failure prominent.

Johnny Vegas
Curator Nicola Scott with Johnny and Emma

But any metamorphosis is perhaps his too, returning to art three decades after he graduated in art and ceramics at the University of Middlesex – ‘it’s my rebirth’ – something for which he is hugely thankful to Emma who he says is an inspirational teacher.

Emma laughs about ‘inheriting a 52-year-old son’, but it’s clear the pair have a unique bond and a friendship, as well as a working partnership that both are enjoying.

“He wandered into the foundry (where Emma works) just over two years ago for a workshop,” smiles Emma. And the pair have been close since.

Emma Rodgers (Credit: Gina Hatter)

Johnny says: “I found someone who was a great teacher and wouldn’t let me quit. Emma re-energised my art and got me re-engaging with it.”

Emma, famous for her animal sculptures, adds: “It was great to see his ideas come to life, and it’s exciting for me to see his work evolve. There’s a narrative and a value to Johnny’s work.”

Metamorphosis came about when Nicola Scott, curator for National Museums Liverpool, and Samantha Rhodes, director of Bluecoat Display Centre, were introduced to Johnny’s work by Emma: “They asked if they could come and see some more,” she says, “and they fell in love with it.

Johnny Vegas
Emma Rodgers & Johnny Vegas (Credit: The artists)

“Art runs through Johnny’s veins, in so many ways, and if I didn’t adore him, I would be jealous of him!”

One of Johnny’s pieces is the Jester, an impressive porcelain figure which he says explores the meaning of success, asking where the fear of failure dwells and ‘why do we feed it so dutifully?’. He acknowledges it as a self-portrait.

Another is ‘He Who Wears the Crown’, inspired by forgeries made by former Thames mudlarks William Smith and Charles Eaton, who sold medieval finds to antiques dealers before turning to forgery with crowned figures. Johnny says it considers the idea of imposter syndrome, which he describes as ‘an integral DNA thread of any entertainer’.

Johnny Vegas
Johnny with curator Nicola

Emma’s works include Anatomy Of The Horse, influenced by Liverpool painter George Stubbs, and Antihypnotic Journey, inspired by an ‘antihypnotic’ painted pot from the Walker’s own collection, in which a woman steers a disintegrating craft while creatures climb aboard. “I wanted to see the vase coming to life and invading reality,” she says.

Emma and Johnny work closely: “We often sit together when we’re working,” explains Emma. “At the beginning I was working a lot more closely with Johnny, I was his technician, but he doesn’t need me for that now. Johnny has grown in confidence over the last few years.

“But it’s good to bat ideas off one another, sometimes you see things the other doesn’t.”

Johnny Vegas

One person Johnny would love to be able to see the exhibition is his late father Laurence Pennington, who died from cancer in 2017.

“I wish for all the years when I was at art school and my dad got grief because ‘your lad’s doing pottery’, that he could walk in here with me.

“He had a deep appreciation for anything creative, and for breaking free from social expectations. He would have absolutely loved it.”

Johnny goes on to say he’ll be pleased if people go to see the exhibition because they see his name: “I don’t think people expect this of me, but it’s always been there.

Jester, Johnny Vegas (Credit: Gina Hatter)

“It was art that brought me into Liverpool as a young boy, and as an art student, going to the Bluecoat to see like-minded spirits.

“If my name brings people in and they don’t like it, they might see something else they like.

“And if they don’t like it, that’s fine. Art is subjective, and as long as I believe I have got it right within my soul I welcome that.”

Curator Nicola Scott says: “I think people are going to love it and I think it will attract people who don’t normally come to the art gallery which is fantastic.

“I like the way Johnny’s work is very personal. He is being very open and very brave, I think people will relate to that.”

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