The ‘unabashedly trans, disabled and mixed-race’ illustrator was forced to leave behind a promising career in psychology due to a chronic illness
Just six years ago, 22-year-old Julian Gray was studying a master’s degree in psychology at university with the intention of earning a doctorate and later becoming an academic. But when his health deteriorated, he had no choice but to drop out of college.
Diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and ME, Julian realized that his career in psychology was no longer feasible for him. In a quest to find other things he was good at, he turned to his childhood hobby of drawing for inspiration.
Now 28, Julian, who lives in Droylsden, is preparing for a huge feat: he’s headlining his own exhibition at the Lowry Theater with his comic and illustration works. This is something that once seemed unlikely.
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“I wouldn’t necessarily be here if it weren’t for my condition,” Julian told the Manchester Evening News. “I’ve been drawing since I can remember, but I was a bit discouraged to make a career out of it, so it’s something I never really took seriously.
“I was on the right track to do a doctorate and become an academic. I had been diagnosed with ME when I was 19, but I didn’t really have any advice at the time to manage my condition.
“I was just diagnosed and carried on like it wasn’t really there, which wasn’t the best decision in retrospect. It slowly got worse until it got to the point during my master’s where it suddenly just became too much to handle.”
Born in the UK to British and Chinese parents, Julian moved to Hong Kong as a baby, where he remained until he was 18. He returned to the UK to study and has remained here ever since.
Self-proclaimed as “unapologetically trans, queer, disabled and mixed-race”, Julian said he developed a love for comics at a time similar to when he was first diagnosed with CFSME.
“I started reading comics around the age of 18,” says Julian. “I had a friend of mine who recommended Watchmen to me and after reading it I realized it was something I really liked.
“I used to think of comics as just superheroes saving the day, but it showed people’s internal struggles and the darker side of things. I also have a thing for the stories that revolve around dystopian worlds and societies – which is not necessarily something that features in my own work.
Julian’s work is a mix of his own comics, illustration pieces and freelance work. It is often used to highlight equality and people from a minority background – things that are often not always present in the mainstream art world.
His Witch & Warrior comic is a medieval story about a trans knight who falls in love while The Invalid’s Valet is described as a romantic tale between a crippled aristocrat and his valet. He draws on his own experiences with chronic illness.
He explains, “Growing up, even now existing as a 28-year-old trans, queer, disabled, neurodivergent artist, we all like to have a bit of escapism in our lives. When you go to see movies and you don’t see anyone like you, it sends an unconscious message that all of those people can have these adventures or experiences but you can’t because you don’t look like them or look like them.
“Everyone wants to go off and do fun and interesting things and live vicariously through these characters that we see. When they don’t look like you over and over again, it’s really hard to feel like you can relate to them.
“Obviously there are elements of human connection between people, but there’s something to be said when it’s white, straight, able-bodied men who are usually the heroes of traditional Hollywood stories. The idea that if you don’t fall into that category, you can’t be a superhero is depressing enough.
While it’s not something Julian actively decides to take up in his work, he says he realizes how important the portrayal of LGBTQ+, disabled and ethnic minority characters can be to readers.
“There will be days when I’m on the go in my wheelchair and I’ll be frustrated that I can’t get into a store because it’s not accessible,” he explains.
“But then I come home and read the story of a disabled person who is having this great adventure and maybe it will help me see that being disabled is not so bad and will help me to channel the frustration I feel.
“A lot of marginalized people have this struggle where they will see this frustration as a problem with them when instead it’s usually a problem with society not treating people the right way.
“Having representation can be one of the blocks in that tower of feeling inadequate and instead making people feel proud and positive about who you are. When I was younger, I think having that representation would be really important to me.
Julian’s exhibition, Stories For Us, opens at the Lowry this weekend and will run until May 2. Alongside her own work, she will also give visitors the opportunity to engage in the process of creating comics through drawing and writing, even displaying their finished creations in the gallery space.
The exhibit itself is something that Julian says was a far cry from what he imagined would have been possible. And it almost didn’t happen.
“When the curators at The Lowry approached me about putting on an exhibition, I was about to say no,” says Julian. “I’ve generally found it’s not a world I relate to – it tends not to be around comics or illustration as much as it is visual arts or fine art.
“In the past, I’ve produced works especially for an exhibition that I don’t think would have come naturally to me otherwise. But when they explained it was specifically around the comics and my work, then I got really interested.
But, ultimately, he hopes the exhibition will pave the way for artists and illustrators from other walks of life – whether trans, disabled, working class or from an ethnic minority background.
Speaking of representation in the illustration world, Julian says, “There are certainly plenty of other trans comic creators out there, but I would say they tend to be more spread out and seen more as independent.
“You would rarely see them published, and as far as trans comic creators go, we’re still struggling to break into the mainstream. There are many great stories that go uncovered and marginalized creators are, of necessity, forced to release their work for love without any funding.
And, ultimately, it’s a “pinch for me” moment for someone who never saw illustration as a real career when scribbling on textbooks or creating spin-off comics in his room.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the experiences I’ve had,” adds Julian. “I couldn’t do the job I was trained to do because it wasn’t really something that worked well with my health.
“I saw illustration as something I could do from home that could work around me. I just realized it’s something I really love doing and my condition has really permeated the themes. of my stories.
“My condition is now an integral part of my identity. There are a lot of downsides to having CFSME but there are also a few upsides and I guess this is one of them. I think it would be almost impossible for me to be who I am and not have that be such a big part of my job.”
Julian Gray: Stories For Us takes place at the Lowry from March 19 to May 2. More information here.
You can follow Julian on Instagram and visit his website here.
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