Interview: Creating sculptures with award-winning artist Matt Hill
Signature Luxury Travel & Style chats with award-winning artist Matt Hill about his passion for steel sculpture, experimenting with geometric patterns and shapes, and what it’s like to be a star on the rise in the art world.
When considering objects made from steel, it would be perfectly reasonable to conjure images of skyscrapers, bridges and ships. Matt Hill’s work is the antithesis: instead of industrial structures, he creates compelling corten steel sculptures inspired by the natural world.
Hill didn’t take the conventional route to an artistic career. The son of a carpenter, he spent most of his twenties in Japan, before returning home to his native Australia. While working in the building trade, Hill began tinkering with nuts and bolts, creating small sculptures shaped like dogs. From there his ambitions grew and Hill started experimenting with shapes and styles that celebrated the contrast between natural contours, sharp symmetry and utilitarian materials.
Hill’s hallmark sculpture, the Simple Sphere, is focused on his continual exploration of what he identifies as ‘the perfect form.’ So perfect, in fact, that it won the Best Small Sculpture at the Albert Park Art Show in 2013. From here, he went on to create another sphere titled The Shadow Sphere, formed by fused semicircles of steel. Striking in daylight, it really comes alive once darkness falls – illuminated by lights in its base, The Shadow Sphere casts circular patterns on the space around it, becoming a beacon of symmetry.
As well as his abstract spheres and cubes, Hill has become renowned for his sculptures of animals. A pair of geometric elephants, Ellie and Billy, won the People’s Choice Award at the 2017 Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show. The following year, Hill’s kangaroo sculptures won him the award for the second time.
Replicating his success worldwide, in 2017 Hill was once of just six global artists commissioned by the Metalové Sympozium in the Czech Republic to create a sculpture – his life-sized rhino, Hope, has now become a permanent fixture in the city of Mlada Boleslav. Hill also brought his unique style to Japan, becoming a featured artist at Ki Niseko Hotel in Hokkaido, as well as being selected to produce a woven screen building façade for the luxury hotel Aya Niseko.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a carpenter by trade and I have always enjoyed looking at technical plans. Being a carpenter, I suppose I’ve had an eye for visualising 2D plans into 3D images. Most of my earlier pieces were drawn in plan or elevation view and I’d use my imagination for the rest. I now use 3D software which takes the guess work out. Still a lot of imagination though!
How would you describe your own work? What is your mission as an artist?
I have many missions with my work. With my animals I try to create something that makes the viewer do the double take. It’s the best when I sell a piece and they get back to me and say their friend commented on my grazing horse only to be told it’s a sculpture – same for my eating kangaroo. All of my animals have character; whether they are soaking up the sun, grazing or just looking curiously down the driveway. With my lit-up series I wanted to create artwork that looked great during the day but even better at night, I still have so much to explore with this. I have quite a few concepts drawn up but need to find the time now.
Would you say your father’s carpenter career was the original impetus behind your work and interest in sculpture?
Dad showed me how to use every woodworking and metalworking tool in his garage. He has them all! I owe a lot to him (I still have all 10 fingers). I moved to Japan when I was 23 and came back just before my 30th. I was at a very loose end and Dad insisted I weld bits of metal together. If I was to learn, I needed to make something, anything. I put together a little dog from pipe and re-bar – I sold about 150 of those little dogs. I honestly didn’t really have any interest in sculpture until I started myself; I now go out of my way to look at local galleries.
You spent some of your twenties living in Japan. In what ways has this influenced your work, if at all?
When I was working as a carpenter in Japan I found it really difficult to buy materials as easily as I could at home. I made windows, doors, kitchens and even a timber-clad bathtub. I couldn’t buy putty or filler so, because of this, I found that my accuracy increased, as did my passion for the job. I have always loved Japanese joinery, it’s amazing! All of my spheres lock together in the same way to the point that they don’t need to be welded at all. I loved my time in Japan and have been really lucky since, having had the opportunity to work with three Japanese hotels. One has 220 square metres of my patent building facade on its interior and exterior. A very proud job.
You work mainly with corten, steel and glass. What drew you to these materials?
After working as a carpenter and with timber for so long I wanted to use something else. I never liked the idea of coming home to build a coffee table, but making the same from steel would be great. And if I cut it too short, I can weld another piece on.
Do you listen to anything while your work or do you prefer a quiet studio?
I can’t work without music and podcasts. I have come from working on commercial construction sites where there are people and banter on every corner. I miss that a lot and now have a friend helping me. The trouble is we both have earplugs in all day and can’t hear each other anyway. In saying that, I think my neighbours hear more of the music than I do!
Elaborate on the term you coined ‘the perfect form.’
The perfect form … this really goes back to question number two. I try to create pieces that make the viewer do the double take. I try to give cold steel warm life.
You cite David Attenborough’s 2013 Africa series as the inspiration behind Ellie and Billy the elephants, and have since then created a number of large-scale metal animals. What drew you to creating works centred on nature and the environment?
I have always loved elephants. Dare I say they remind me of my parents chocolate labrador, Bonnie. I found that with my earlier spherical pieces that they would work well in a stark concrete courtyard or next to a tree. Maybe it’s the colour, but they complement each other. Early last year I donated a rhino sculpture to The Australian Rhino Project, where it sold for $42,500.
In the last few years, your work has become increasingly popular, not to mention you have received a number of awards worldwide for your creativity. Does the extra attention add any pressure when creating new works or affect your process in any way?
My process is the same but I need to give myself more time in between commissions. I’ve just moved into my house so it’s great to concentrate on one major job at a time! I spend my mornings working on the marketing side of my business and drawing, days welding and my evenings drawing again.
You once said you like your work to be “aesthetically appealing during the day and more so once night falls”. Is this an ethos you think should apply to all sculpture work?
I think this is part of what hooked my interest into art – I wanted to create pieces where the buyer would get a two for one deal.
What is currently inspiring your future works and ideas?
I have so many ideas; I’m looking into the history of flight with one piece, time and future with another. I just need the time to get them started.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a commission for the Museum of Sport in Melbourne.