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At home with Shrewsbury artist Matt Sewell

The Atlas of Amazing Birds is a beautiful new hardback book by Shrewsbury illustrator Matt Sewell – and a perfect Christmas gift for children. My Shrewsbury spoke to the artist about changing direction.

At home with Shrewsbury artist Matt Sewell

The artist Matt Sewell is well-known in Shrewsbury for his characterful British bird murals which brighten our townscape. He is also author of 10 successful books, including Owls, Our Garden Birds, Our Woodland Birds, Our Songbirds and Penguins and has just finished a gorgeous new coffee table book The Atlas of Amazing Birds, just in time for Christmas.

With this beautiful celebration of birdlife across the globe, Matt may have finally put his feathered friends to bed: “There is nothing more for me to do,” he says.

The last six months I’ve been spending a lot of time in my studio painting, experimenting - trying to work out where I’m going next.”

He is still working with nature, but (in his own words) ‘psychedelic-ising it’.

He loves to paint big! Shrewsbury is peppered with Matt’s wall art. There is a beautiful one in the Market Hall celebrating the Shrewsbury story of ‘Noddy the Night Heron’ who appeared in the Dingle in 2017. Matt has just finished a new mural of an albino magpie, by the golf course in Reabrook. These days he asks permission, but rarely meets with resistance – the council recognises the value of having street art here of international renown.

There is the distinct feeling Matt is deliberately ‘unsettling’ himself. He is in a new period of reinvention, going back to his youth, to large pieces, murals and protest art. A planned new exhibition in Manchester will likely have a conservational message (Matt is 100% behind Extinction Rebellion).

It’s a nice place to have arrived at, after decades building his royalties. Now he can (almost) sit back and let his books and merchandise do the work for him – his characterful birds can be found on everything from mugs, to aprons, tea towels and trinket trays. One of his most successful books is still his first. Our Garden Birds (Ebury Press, 2014) has sold over 100,000 copies. Dinosaurs & Other Prehistoric Creatures is doing particularly well in America!

The Early Days – Art with a capital ‘A’

Matt comes from a long line of butchers (his dad ran a meat factory). His mum had artistic flair and had worked as a florist, but it never occurred to Matt to study Art (with a capital ‘A’), which he regarded as ‘dead artists for old people’.

It was watching late night animation on Channel 4 that sparked his interest and after leaving school at 16, Matt found his way to Art College in Ipswich, where he studied Animation.

From there, he moved to Bristol (hub of British animation) in the hope of picking up work as a runner, but became inspired by a collective of artists doing something much more exciting – what we now know as ‘street art’; it was an underground culture that would give birth to the anonymous, subversive street artist Banksy.

Bristol had its own thing going on and I was very much a sponge,” Matt said.

On moving to Brighton in 2000, Matt got involved with the illustration print publisher ‘The Scrawl Collective’, producing loose, street-oriented illustration – Matt’s own designs often featured characters, abstract shapes and birds.

We were a new generation of people coming through, doing murals with a graffiti feel, but which weren’t graffiti,” Matt said. “The collective was very ahead of its time. People have whole careers based on it now. We were getting commercial jobs, painting offices in London. We were taking inspiration and doing our own thing (streetwear, record labels).

I was a skint artist, living hand to mouth, but they were some of the best years of my life. I was unbelievably free. There was couple of years where I just kept everything a bit more real, working, living, painting, being creative with a group of guys doing the same.

For me art is about having that spark ignited. It’s about discovering things. It’s about the feel. It gives me such a buzz.”

By contrast, the traditional world of Art and Design seemed very staid: “Back then, if you wanted to succeed as a graphic artist, you had to go through these proper graphic houses - not just photocopying stuff like we were doing!”

Following his mum’s wise advice (‘Shy Bairns Get Nowt!’) Matt decided to make illustration his single focus and, in his own words, ‘go for it’.

He barraged arts directors and designers with his postcard designs (nowadays you’d just tag them in a Tweet) and picked up commissions with the The Big Issue and The Guardian, gradually building his portfolio. He would go on to design for the likes of Barbour, Helly Hansen, the National Trust and Silverstick Clothing.

After 10 albeit successful years doing commercial art for brands, Matt was questing again for new direction. It was on a career break in Australia with his girlfriend (now wife) Jess, a nurse, that he realised birds could be his new future.

All About Birds

It’s amazing now when I look back,” Matt says. “Birds have always been there in whatever I was doing, almost by accident.”

He spent his childhood spotting birds in the woods around Willington, in rural County Durham (he was a paid-up member of the Young Ornithologists’ Club). “I remember climbing up ladders and dad showing me nests. I had binoculars and bird posters and my Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds which I still use as a reference. Then I got into heavy metal and girls.”

Marvelling at the birdlife of South East Asia and Australia, he realised he could reconcile his childhood passion with his talent: “I was blown away by the wildlife. It’s hard not to be. The birds are incredible. It’s like being in an aviary everywhere you go.

I realised that if you are doing something you should be doing it from the heart, otherwise you will get burned out. I knew that when I got back that I should be focusing on birds.”

Matt began contributing ‘Bird of the Week’ to the arts blog Caught By the River (the blue tit was one of his first ever sketches and still remains one of his favourite birds today). It was obvious the drawings would sit well in a book – and thus his first and most successful collection Our Garden Birds was born.

It couldn’t have come soon enough for Matt and Jess – this was post the 2008 credit crunch and much of his former work had dried up. He admits some of the sketches are ‘a bit rough’ compared with his current output (he scanned them in with a £50 home scanner) but Matt’s distinctive, hand-drawn style was born: “As long as you get the bird’s markings and silhouette right, then you can make it cute, take liberties – give it its own character,” he said.

Painting has always come easily to Matt but, he admits, writing is a ‘bit of a slog’. For his latest project The Atlas of Amazing Birds he had to shut himself away in a rented Airbnb room near Wroxeter (The Hayloft) to finish the words. The Atlas is his pièce de résistance – an ebullient explosion of colour, documenting Matt’s favourite birds from across the globe. It’s a great ‘talkie’ book for bedtime reading, as Matt has a knack for picking out quirky facts to accompany the visuals.

It has been wonderful to do birds I have always wanted to do – Japanese and Australian birds like the pink robin. How can you not have that in a book?!” Matt said.

Of course it’s not really a full stop for Matt and birds, just the end of deadlines, for now – to allow him to shout louder on behalf of the environment.

Observing birds over the years, I have seen so many changes,” he explained. “It’s frightening what might happen in my children’s lifetimes.”