Interview with Michele Curtis about the Staff Lounge portraits

Have you visited the new Staff Lounge in Royal Fort House? If so, you’ll have spotted the portraits by Bristol-based artist Michele Curtis in the Yellow Room.


About the portraits 

Two of the three portraits are part of the ‘Seven Saints of St Pauls’ series which features the founders of St Pauls carnival, who came to Bristol as part of the Windrush Generation and made significant political and social changes here.

The first portrait celebrates Carmen Beckford MBE, who moved to Bristol in 1965 and quickly became an important figurehead for improving race relations in the city. Carmen was Bristol’s first community development officer at Bristol City Council between 1978-86, where her role was to integrate communities and help to build young people’s self-esteem. To do this, she established the West Indian Dance team and when ‘St Pauls Festival’ was created in 1968, Carmen was in charge of entertainment.

The second of the ‘Seven Saints of St Pauls’ is Roy Hackett, a leading organiser of the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, a successful campaign to overturn the bar to employment of Black and Asian bus drivers and conductors. With the support of local MP Tony Benn, the campaign paved the way for the Race Relations Act of 1965. Roy still lives in Bristol and continues to be a well-respected, loved and active member of our community.

The third portrait is Cheryl Morgan, a trans woman and active campaigner for the rights of LGBT+ people. Cheryl is hugely influential across the city as a Director of The Diversity Trust which runs trans awareness training throughout the South West; is co-chair of OutStories Bristol; and co-hosts the Women’s Outlook show on Ujima Radio.

Cheryl has worked with the University in a variety of ways. She has taught trans health issues to medical students; worked with the history and IT departments on an interactive map of Bristol’s LGBT history; and helped the Students’ Union with trans rights campaigns. 

About the artist 

The artist Michele Curtis was born and bred in Easton and was training as a graphic designer when her tutors suggested she nurture her talent for drawing and contribute to Black History Month. Michele decided to focus on ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances in her ‘Seven Saints of St Pauls’.

Sometimes it’s hard to relate to a portrait, especially if it was done a long time ago. There can be a real disconnect, especially for young people Michele said.

I didn’t want to depict Martin Luther King or Malcolm X – names people are already very familiar with. I chose people whose stories need to be told. These are people who have done great things for the community that still affect the city today.”

Rebecca Scott, Chair of the University’s staff BAME network commented, “Black communities often lack positive representation. Through partnering with Michele Curtis for the Iconic Black Bristolians Exhibition, the University was able to support a showcase of black talent and contributions across the city.”  

After being displayed in the Black Bristolians Exhibition two of the ‘Seven Saints of St Pauls’ portraits were chosen for the new Staff Lounge in Royal Fort House.  The third portrait of Cheryl Morgan was commissioned separately to provide a broader representation of our University community.   

The pictures in the Staff Lounge will soon be accompanied by interpretation panels to highlight the context of the work.