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Eight questions with illustrator Matt Lee

Who are you and what do you do?

I am an illustrator, educator and design consultant from the UK, currently based in Bangalore, South India. Before I moved to India I worked in London as a freelance illustrator for publications like The Guardian and FT. My work has been shown in galleries and exhibited in  North America, Europe and Asia. I have a passion for Indian matchboxes, surf music and preppy clothes.

What’s the difference between illustration and graphic design?

Graphic design and illustration are closely related fields that often overlap and it can be difficult to make a distinction between the two. While illustration is generally more pictorial and is also closely associated with fine art, the perception that illustrators only create beautifully crafted pictures is outdated. Like graphic design, the work that contemporary illustrators create often travel across platforms – from billboards to books to iPad games, and in a continually evolving industry the ability to traverse between disciplines, diverse media, applications and contexts is becoming increasingly important. Both disciplines require autonomous, original and entrepreneurial practitioners that can focus on content, audience, communicative value and problem solving.

What makes you want to get up in the morning?

I am motivated by new ideas and challenges. For me, discipline and routine are important to my practice. I usually start my day at 6 in the morning with an hour of yoga followed by a traditional south Indian breakfast of masala dosa, idli, upma or pongal. After that I head into my studio and usually stay there until the early evening.

What can a first-time visitor to India expect to see?

It depends where in India you visit. India is such a vast country and the culture and landscape changes dramatically from region to region. When I first arrived in Bangalore I was really taken by the vernacular visual culture that I saw around me – the local language lithographic movie posters that are plastered repeatedly across walls, psychedelic truck art, the amusing matchbox designs that litter the pavements, religious symbols and iconography, hand painted type, geometric rangoli patterns outside suburban homes and clay devil heads that are used to ward off evil on newly constructed buildings. It has been fascinating for me to learn about a culture that is so different from my home country and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to develop my practice in such a visually stimulating environment.

What's the story with Indian matchboxes?

Walking around Bangalore city you come across matchboxes everywhere. Cheap and disposable, they litter the highways and footpaths and are often to be found scattered around a roadside tea stall or cigarette kiosk. The visuals include historical and religious iconography, Indian pop culture, appropriated western imagery, mundane objects, and various animals. I think that the disparate juxtapositions that you often find in these designs encapsulate perfectly the heterogeneous and hybrid visual culture of modern India. While traveling across India I have collected over 700 matchboxes and each design has come to signify a personal memory. Collectively, the visible scars of the battered boxes tell a story, mapping the places I have been and the experiences I have had. I came across my first matchbox a couple of weeks after I first arrived in Bangalore. It featured an illustration of a killer whale with a caption above that read ‘dolphin’. I found this quite amusing and so I kept it. Looking back, I think that my first connection with Indian matchboxes was that aside from being great examples of disposable design, they often seemed quite random and they made me smile. New designs are printed all the time. In a vast country, as India is, I can only ever have a fraction of the designs available. The enjoyment is in the process and so the series is never complete. Each new design that I come across does not offer a resolution, but just adds to the continuing story.

What song moves you?

God Only Knows by The Beach Boys.

Your Death Landscapes are extremely interesting. But what do they have to do with death?

I like the ambiguity the title provides. I think the title is important because it helps frame how the work is perceived. Like many of my other projects this series explore themes of presence/ absence, form/ formlessness, permanence/ impermanence and the title is a link to that. The Death Landscape project began in 2008 and it is something I have revisited several times over the past few years. The evolution of the project follows a similar progression that has taken place in my practice over the same time period. Coming from a background in commercial illustration I have always been interested in the theoretical processes and practical boundaries of communication and this project allows me to explore these interests in a variety of different ways. It also allows me to explore a very limited set of iconography and see how far I can push it.

What advice would you give to visual artists at the beginning of their careers?

Stay inquisitive, stay curious and be adaptable to change. Technology and industry are constantly evolving and the career path of a designer is rarely linear. To sustain a creative practice over many years you will sometimes need to navigate through and embrace uncertainty. You will also need to continually evolve and to do this you will need to be a lifelong learner and a reflective practitioner.


All images courtesy of Matt Lee. View more of Matt's work.