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Features / Sculpture

Matthew Raw: the east London artist making clay great again

Words:

Bryony Stone

Photography:

Marina Castagna

Ceramic artist Matthew Raw “got into clay” during his BA in Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics at university of Brighton. “Growing up I was more interested in photography and graphic design, but had an instinctive draw towards three rather than two dimensions,” Matthew tells It’s Nice That. “It was the immediacy and variety of using my hands to shape clay that attracted me. It is such an expressive medium and I began to make work inspired by events and situations around me. Coupling this with a non-interest in functionality, and I guess that that’s how it’s panned out really.”

In the seven years since he graduated from RCA, Matthew has raised up the profile of the often-overlooked raw material. Working from east London Studio Manifold, a collective which he co-founded, he has won the Jerwood Prize (for his life-size rendering of the tiled outside wall of a pub), made a mosaic for London Design Festival, taken over the ceramic studio at the V&A for a six-month residency and breathed new life into Seven Sisters tube station with Assemble for an Art on the Underground project.

Tripping on the heels of the two projects the artist has already completed this year —Youthscape Tiles, Youthscape HQ in Luton and London Bridge Clay Project at Southwark Cathedral — Matthew is dusting his hands off as he prepares to open the doors on Clad, a ten-day long solo show at Ragged School Museum, east London during London Craft Week.

We caught up with the ceramic artist to talk about the past, present and future of clay.

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A key theme underlining your practice is migration, which you define as “the movement of people”. How does the current political landscape play into to your work?

The current situation is scary. Like all Brits I enjoy a freedom to move around the world and see new stuff. However, this ability isn’t shared by lots of people in the world, and it seems like it will become even more difficult. I like to explore attitudes towards the movement of people, and analyse the language that surrounds them. Migration is a wide-ranging global issue that changes daily, but one that I like to find individuality in, cutting through statistics to find interesting voices and experiences. I have been looking at the movement, and restricted movement of people since 2005, and have formed opinions along the way. But by interpreting these thoughts through making continues to allow me to challenge my own perceptions, coming at them from a number of angles. The pieces capture what I was thinking at a certain time in my life, and I like the honesty of this method.

We hear that you used a canal boat to transport your work from your studio in Hoxton to the Ragged School Museum, Tell us a bit more about that. Do you consider that decision to be part of the artwork as a whole, or as a practical decision?

A practical decision would be to hire a van! I’m in love with the canal system, and in particular the Regents Canal. This meandering line physically links my studio in Hoxton to the Ragged School Museum – the venue for my exhibition – in Mile End. It will take two and half hours to get from a to b (including passing through three locks) and by doing so I will celebrate this connection, alongside referencing the rich history of moving ceramics on the canals: Josiah Wedgwood (a major player in the development of ‘industrial ceramics’) invested heavily in the canal system because he was sick of losing high percentages of his work due to crap 18th Century roads. The roads are better these days, but not as fun as loading up a barge and crawling along thinking about the changing face of East London.

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How does London’s canal system figure into your life and work more generally?

I dabble with it everyday on my bike, nipping on at Broadway Market, and hopping off at Kingsland Road en route to my studio. Soon after moving to London I worked at the Towpath café. That was great to exist on the canal and see who and how people use it. It inspired me to want to live on a barge, but my wife vetoed that early on! I’m no expert, but canals are amazing feats of engineering and were crucial in shaping our industrial past.

Your work seems to constantly return to London’s richly layered history. Name some specific reference points — physical buildings, places, books, poems — that have influenced Clad.

In a way, London has always been too big and powerful for the size of the British Isles. I love how the Museum of London breaks down the history of its rise and rise. The Docklands wing of the Museum focuses on industry, and that is my favourite – you walk out of the door and realise that the situation (with old Poplar behind, and Canary Wharf in front) is super contemporary and continues to shift. A mud-larking walk along the bank of the Thames with ‘Clayground Collective’ was very inspiring a few years ago. That led to making a piece called ‘Churn’ in partnership with a poet for a show in Camden Library. East End walking tours by David Rosenberg have proved a unique way of learning more about my surroundings, and ‘A People’s History of London’ by Lindsey German and John Rees is always a good reference point.

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Why do you think it is still important to reference the past?

From my artistic point of view there is so much inspirational historical material around me. From a linked societal angle, I think it’s important to understand the past so that you can respect where the future is taking us. I used to come to Hackney in the 80’s and early 90’s to visit family. It had a very different feel to the area that I now live and work. I think it would be arrogant of me to swan in as a white middle-class artist and only have eyes for what’s in it for me now, without understanding who came before and how the diverse mix of people have and do co-inhabit the borough.

Tell us about a couple of the eight pieces of work which have made their way into Clad.

The pieces for Clad are all based on ‘the tile’ and the grids that we find around us. Modern grids found in cities are generally graphical, and I have been inspired by them, but I also class a cobbled road as an urban grid, which is obviously much more organic.

The piece that is the largest in scale and has the most components is ‘Individual Motives’. Big hand-pressed tiles are textured with details of etchings found in Dr Barnardo’s ‘Night & Day’ journals, written when he created and inhabited the Ragged School. After firing the tiles I am taking them to the studio of Martin Smith (acclaimed ceramic artist and former Royal College of Art Ceramics & Glass head of course), where we will trim them down using a diamond saw to achieve a crisp edge. I’ve never done that before, but I need the tiles to ‘butt-up’ against each other in a precise way.

‘Panel Discussion’ is made of four three-dimensional tiles inspired by a 15th Century Italian shrine that I explored when resident artist in the V&A Museum’s ceramic collection. I was exploring what a tile could be, and this deep panel tile gave me lots of artistic permission. In this piece a quote from Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew flows from one panel to another, and as the title suggests, I envisage it opening out conversations about people coming to, and leaving East London. I worked with graphic designer Thom Swann and lettering artist Stephen Raw to lay out the text, before the letters were made from coils of clay – as with lots of my work, the piece starts it’s life tightly designed, before the clay takes over and shifts it’s aesthetic.

Clad takes place in a Victorian school. Do you hope to inspire a new generation with your work? How do you think young people can find a way into ceramics?

Actors dress up as teachers at the Ragged School Museum and re-enact a strict, ball-busting Victorian lesson… not sure I want to bring that back, but education is an important part of my practice. Art education is in a pickle, and ceramics departments especially have been closing extensively over the past decade. They are expensive to run and need space to work well. Queue their closure, as they aren’t competitive when, for example, they are compared to clean, computer-based courses. This contrasts to ceramics’ popularity at the moment. It leaves a bit of a conundrum. I would recommend having a go with clay to anyone, but I hope my love of making, and how an idea can be communicated and interpreted through the medium comes across.

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