The tale behind Aardman dog's multiple makeovers

Gavin Strange explores the highs and lows of Gromit Unleashed, a charity project that brought 80 specially decorated models of the much-loved character to Bristol.

Hello there pickle, my name's Gavin Strange and I had the honour of calling myself a Gromit Unleashed artist this summer. That meant I spent the warmer weeks of 2013 painting a five-foot Gromit statue, all in the name of Wallace & Gromit's Grand Appeal, which raises money for the Bristol Children's Hospital.

And what a project it was. It was one thing getting the opportunity to put my own spin on a much-loved character from the Aardman universe, for a great cause, in the company of Paul Smith, Gerald Scarfe, Sir Peter Blake and Cath Kidston (not to mention One Direction's Zayn Malik) but there were so many other fantastic things that happened that I never expected.

For the first 10 weeks, the Gromits were arranged in a trail around Bristol. Aardman founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton had chosen for mine to live outside the headquarters, just by the harbourside. That in itself made me so proud and happy, but what happened over the following weeks was simply bonkers.

Strange's Gromit sat right outside Aardman HQ

Thousands upon thousands of people came to visit the statues. In fact, over one million visitors took part in the trail. Not one million hits or internet stats - 1,000,000 real people. That's never happened to me before. I'd be happy if a healthy 15 people saw something I did, so that number blows my mind.

Over one million visitors took part in the trail. Not one million hits or internet stats – 1,000,000 real people

Because my Gromit was stood right outside my workplace, I had the pleasure of seeing people appreciate him on a daily basis. However, it turned out to be a doubled-edged sword - I became obsessed with looking after him. Every day I would check for scuffs and scratches, I'd get upset if I noticed a new mark and go out after work to give him a bit of TLC.

It became a running joke with my workmates, as whenever they were leaving the building they'd see me outside on my knees with a paintbrush in my hand. I didn't mind though; I had so much pride in my dog, and it meant a lot to me that he was outside Aardman, so I wanted him to be perfect. It also meant I got the chance to chat with lots of people on the trail. Each had their own favourites and stories of what they'd already seen, it was heartwarming to hear.

The downside of having the statues outside and open to the public was that some were damaged by idiots. Even though we all knew there was a chance of vandalism, I think everyone involved presumed that with such a loved character and for such a wonderful cause, it wouldn't happen.

The initial reaction from everyone was anger, and I personally had to bite my tongue, reduced to posting my own sweary sentiments on my private Facebook page. However, there was an unexpected positive side that came out from it - the public really took it to heart and were outraged at the vandals. One of the venues that had to have its Gromit removed for repairs put up a huge, six-foot 'Get Well Soon' card in its place which thousands of people signed, and this in itself became an attraction.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the Gromits all congregated for an auction to raise money for The Grand Appeal. With the 80 dogs up for sale, a figure of one million pounds was touted around. Everyone close to the project had their fingers crossed but their mouths closed - we didn't want to jinx things. It turns out we needn't have worried, as we hit over a million quid by a quarter of the way through.

Well, I could write an entire book on the excitement and emotions of that night, but I'll keep it short and sweet - in the end, all those artist-designed Gromits sold for a whopping £2,357,000. How crazy is that? Everyone was simply lost for words, my phone was buzzing all the way through the night from friends and family watching the auction live online, simply flabbergasted at what they were seeing.

The artist-designed Gromits raised over two million pounds for charity

My Gromit, a bright pink and gold thing covered in illustrated statistics about the world of Aardman and Wallace & Gromit sold for £29,000. And that's what was so wonderful, that me, just a regular designer- idiot from the Midlands could raise the same amount of money as Paul Smith and Sir Peter Blake's dogs did. Just being able to sit alongside those creatives that are revered for leaving their mark on the industry inspires me to work harder and to dream bigger.

However, the most incredible thing is that art and design has been used as a tool to raise money for sick children. For me, it's been the biggest privilege to have been involved in such a positive thing, something that has had an incredible impact on every person connected with it.

Next time you doodle a character in your sketchbook, just imagine where it could go and who it could effect, because Gromit Unleashed has proved that design can touch peoples lives in the most incredible way. Cracking, lad!

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 221.

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