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14th June 2017

Q&A with Matthew Raw

In 1892 the poet, writer and ambassadress Violet Fane spoke the words “All things come to those who wait.” The phrase has since been used in various facets of popular culture, its contemporary reworking – “Good things come to those who wait”– remains a frequent utterance for those who choose a more contemplative approach to life. 
 
When it comes to Clay Station, never has a phrase been more true. The Transport For London (TFL)-commissioned project sees Turner Prize-winning architecture collective Assemble collaborate with ceramicist Matthew Raw to transform the entrance of Seven Sisters Underground station into a vibrant kiosk. When the entrance launches in autumn 2017, it will be over two years since it was first commissioned. In an increasingly profit-driven world, where project deadlines are squeezed, creatives working on large-scale commissions are often afforded little more that months between conception and completion. Clay Station is refreshing in its refusal to adhere to this norm.  
 
TFL commissioned Clay Station as part of Underline, an ongoing initiative that brings art and music to Victoria Underground line through a series of artist-led projects and installations. Building on London Underground’s rich ceramics heritage, Clay Station involves the production of more than 1,000 handmade tiles as part of the refurbishment of a disused commercial unit at the entrance to the station. Matthew’s tiles will be used to clad the exterior of the building. With no two tiles the same, the project is an immense undertaking.
 
Matthew has designed the tiles with the kiosk’s public and high-traffic location in mind. Each tile is created by colouring slabs of white clay with coloured stain which are then mixed together in different combinations before they are sized, rolled, moulded, cut, dried, fired and glazed. The result are tiles that are soaked in colour. Should one chip, the tile’s vibrant colouring remains.
 
In the weeks before Clay Station’s public opening, the kiosk will host a series of workshops for local residents and community groups. An on-site kiln will allow members of the public to create small-scale ceramic objects inside the space. 
 
Ahead of Clay Station being launched this autumn, Zetteler grilled Matthew on the project. The resulting interview, published below, sees Matthew discuss the unique tile-making processes driving the commission, the importance he places on first-hand research, and his exasperation at Underground stations that looks like a “crap budget bathroom”.
 
 
You’re currently working on Clay Station, a project commissioned by Art on the Underground to regenerate a disused kiosk at the entrance to Seven Sisters station. You are collaborating with the architecture collective Assemble on the project. How did this collaboration come about?
The project has been over two years in the making. Art on the Underground approached Assemble to be part of Underline – a series of artist-led interventions on the Victoria Line. They identified a neglected entrance to Seven Sisters station and wanted to incorporate handmade tiles into the project. It was at this point that they approached me to help them with the technicalities. Several tile-making sessions later we were on a roll (no pun intended) and were successfully combining our different skill sets to create some unique approaches. Six months or so down the line, Assemble officially named me as a collaborator and we finalised the design and began planning for production. That brings us to today where we are working hard to produce the 1500+ tiles needed to clad the kiosk building.
 
Could you tell us a bit more about the processes and techniques you’re using in this commission? How did you develop the tiles?
We are trying to celebrate the fact that we are making the tiles from scratch. By that I mean that we are designing the actual clay make-up of the tile. We are not simply glazing an existing tile in a jazzy colour, instead we are taking a more hands-on approach: forming the tile itself by mixing different coloured batches and rolling it out to expose the inner textures. A year of testing different mixtures and colours has resulted in the colour palate we are using. I am especially excited by our bold yellow tiles – I hope that they will bring joy to that forgotten entrance.
How does this research relate to your solo show Clad?
I was inspired by the sheer size of the tiled areas at Underground stations. Platforms are long and the tiles curve up the wall – the engineering and scale is impressive. One of my pieces – Create a Scene (GOB) – was directly inspired by a Parisian Metro station that arches over the viewer.

Observing pre-existing tiled surfaces in Underground stations gave me permission to explore layout and arrangement in my own work. This has, for example, manifested itself into pieces that include cobbles and stacking, as well as plucking typography off of a tile so that the letters stand alone, hung on the wall.

We’ve seen tantalising teasers of the handmade tiles you’ve been working on, which will form the eye-catching cladding to the kiosk’s exterior. We’re also intrigued by what will go on inside the space. Can you give us any hints? Will you continue to be involved in the project once the tiles have been completed?
The inside of the kiosk is a unique triangular space. A small kiln will be installed in one corner of the space for the remainder of the project, which is part of a one-person studio space. In there, some of the more complicated, bespoke tiles will be rolled and cast. This way, a tile will be created, glazed and fired all in the location that it will live.
You work at the cross section of ceramic art, typography and architecture. What’s your fascination with “the tile”? How do you use it as a vehicle to articulate ideas, messages and conversations?
I’m attracted to the fact that we all know what a tile is, most people have a daily interaction with them. Despite this, tiles are very much in the background – functional but overlooked. They are often coloured and have a rich and international history. I think I’m at the beginning of my journey with tiles. Alun Graves, the senior curator of ceramics and sculpture at the V&A museum, says in his short essay written for my exhibition booklet: “Tiles are deployed in places where people congregate: in pubs, railway stations, shops, schools, hospitals, the shared spaces of public buildings.” This excites me greatly as it offers scope to explore tiles in so many contexts.
 
Laypeople often see the tile as a flat, one-dimensional, decorative object. Are you challenging that notion with your use of textures and shapes? What potential do you see in this three-dimensionality?
My six-month residency in the ceramic collection at the V&A (2014-15) was intended to explore how three-dimensional a tile can be. You can take a great amount of artistic license and I deemed all sorts of forms to be tiles. That said, I’m currently enjoying making flat tiles which are then attached to sculptural 3D forms. In doing this you play with geometry and faceted surfaces to challenge people associations with the stereotypical notion that tiles are limited to one dimension. 
 
How would you describe your relationship to the urban environment, and more specifically London?
At the moment we are at peace. However, I’m continuously concerned with who will be able to enjoy and influence the urban grids of London in the future.

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