All photos taken on the island of Lesvos copyright Carla Coulson
I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful Greek Island of Lesvos last year to catch up with friends Matthew Usmar Lauder and Claire Lloyd.
This creative couple left London a couple of years ago to live on a Greek Island…. Just writing those words sends shivers to all sorts of weird places!
I had the luxury to peak into their lives and drool a little! As a creative I have always dreamed of a beautiful space to work in so when I saw Matthew’s studio I was doing cartwheels.
Matthew has been an artist his whole life and he generously opened his studio to me to take some pics and poke around. It was such a joyful, beautiful, creative space I wanted to share it with you.
Matthew has also generously shared a little of his life, art and loves for all of us to get inspired in 2015
Tell us a little about your background and life as an artist?
I grew up in a hippy artistic family, in fact for the first two years of my life my name was ‘Moonfrog’. I’m so pleased they decided to call me Matthew, otherwise the school playground would’ve been hell. I was encouraged to draw and paint as a child and was taken to radical art shows and 1970’s ‘happenings’. Of course I didn’t know what was happening but I was intensely interested in it all.
I got my BA and MA at art school and ended up becoming a ‘Scenic Artist’ at the Royal National theatre, eventually through hard work, enthusiasm and luck, becoming the head of department and running the place at the age of 24.
I went ‘freelance’ and after 20 years of working in commercial studios and around the world I yearned to have my own studio and be an artist like I always planned. I would find myself painting these huge backdrops and fantasise that the paint and canvas was mine to do with as I pleased…
I was picked up by a very cutting edge contemporary gallery called ‘Mobile Home’, had a one man show and got great reviews. I set up studio in Hackney and went almost everyday for eight years, getting much out of my system that had been backed up, following any idea or tangent I desired. It was beyond cathartic.
Were you visually attuned at a young age?
I only ever wanted to draw, I showed little sign of capability in any academic sense and had no interest in school except for art. Every report card read, ‘easily distracted, could do better’. However I did have to work exceptionally hard to become technically proficient in both draughtsmanship and painting. I knew what I wanted, I saw what excited me and I realised that I had a terrific amount to learn.
Any mentors or favourite artists?
The list is endless, many, many, but two stand out…
One week before I was about to take my ‘O level’ art exam I suddenly panicked that I’d never really painted a ‘formal’ painting. My wonderful mother, and terrific painter, walked me round to the local railway station with a canvas and paints and we painted a picture together. In that hour she taught me about paint, tonal value, colour mixing and composition.
A year later, aged 15, I was determined to get my drawing skills up to speed. I turned up at the local ‘adult education centre’ to try ‘life drawing’. I was painfully shy in those days and was truly overwhelmed at the sight of a naked woman. I stood behind my easel my face glowing red with fear and awkwardness, scratching away with a stick of charcoal.
How has living on a Greek Island influenced your art?
Everything seems to play a role in influencing me it seems. The island initially gave me much needed escape from the city of London. It afforded me retrospective objectivity, especially about the commercial art world about which I had become pretty jaded and cynical.
Then it was the island beauty that inspired me. I used to visit southern Spain every year with my mate Marcus to find and paint the wild landscape I had always dreamed of, as the English countryside has always somehow disappointment me.
I’ve always had a fantasy dream job, to be a ‘Magnum’ photographer, like some might like to play the trumpet like Miles Davis, impossible but never the less a lovely thought… (I would also like to play the trumpet like Miles Davis…). Lesvos has encouraged me to peruse my passion for photography, presenting a literally endless amount of inspiration and subject matter.
This is a place to be creative, it is peaceful, beautiful and the television was left in London.
You are currently painting on found objects is this your preferred medium?
I freely admit to being a tip-rat and scavenger, it comes, initially, from being quite poor as a child and having to make or find things we or I required.
With art materials it eventually became my choice, painting on an old characterful piece of wood is much more interesting, sometimes, than a sterile rectangle of white canvas.
You have opened a small studio in the heart of your local village, what has this brought to the village?
Most people in the village haven’t the faintest idea just what it is I do in my studio and indeed what my studio is… ( including me at times). Some think it a shop, others a museum to house the spoils of my obsessive digging through the village landfill or dustbins. Locals have actually started bringing me old things to add to my collection – (something I certainly encourage…).
When I first set it up one summer I left the doors open, I knew people were curious and I figured let them get it out of their system… And in they certainly came, one old guy, George, helpfully suggested I add a hand rail for the elderly to climb the steep stars to my painting room.
Later in the winter I had to fit a wood burning stove to keep away the cold and damp. As I was installing it I idly decided to take a head count of passers by who had decided to offer comment, suggestions or just plain watch. There was eight men, three dogs and two big local tomcats, all crammed into what really is a tiny room.
When you and your partner Claire Lloyd moved to Lesvos you turned your hand to creating furniture for your home? Was this a challenge for you or just an extension of being an artist?
A massive challenge I’ll admit… I only suggested I make the first one because some local carpenter had seen us coming, tried his luck and quoted a total fortune. Claire took me at my word.
I had failed even ‘woodwork’ at school, the class being literally a collection pen for hardened thugs and students regarded as ‘remedial’ (myself included).
I simply wasn’t interested at that point, I didn’t have the need or desire for a pine made train or tea tray… or how to make them.
So the first cupboard took me ages, (half a year to be precise). I eventually got a little better as the demand from Claire went into spectacular overdrive.
My woodwork suits the environment in that it could only really be described as ‘rustic’, but I am very happy with our bed and large table that I made, both of which I was utterly convinced I was not capable of completing.
Aegean Sea by Matthew Usmar Lauder
What’s the best thing about being an artist?
I think creativity is one of humankind’s greatest achievements, (the other, I feel, is compassion). I would say we are all creative in one way or another and could all be artists if we applied ourselves. I’m lucky that I have been able to work utilising my own skills and I’m very happy and fortunate that I now have a language in which I feel I can, at best, eloquently express myself and my ideas.
You and Claire rescue and re-home cats and dogs.. what has this brought to your life?
Rescuing, rehabilitating and re-homing dogs and cats has given me the greatest feeling of having done something worthwhile. I worked as a volunteer at the island’s wildlife sanctuary for a year and a half so I could contribute, but also because I could get to see and perhaps help some of the island’s beautiful animals. There is come catching up to do in many parts of the word regarding the treatment of our fellow creatures.
All photos taken on the island of Lesvos copyright Carla Coulson
Tell us 5 great things about living on a Greek Island..
1. Finding a real community and understanding its worth.
2. The beauty and abundance of the landscape and wildlife.
3. My involvement with the wildlife, volunteering at the islands wildlife sanctuary, rescuing and finding homes and love for cats and dogs and trying to positively educate people with a sometimes old fashioned and negative view of their fellow creatures.
4. Being able to wander down the street with an extraordinary hat on and people accepting me or even going so far as to compliment me on my choice…
5. Peace and quiet… the place just makes you relax.
A huge thank-you to Matthew for sharing his beautiful studio and a little of his life with us.
The lovely Claire (who you want as your best buddy she is so cute) is also an inspiring photographer who wrote My Greek Island Home. There is a lovely interview with Claire here and if you fancy test driving ‘leaving your life ‘ for a Greek Island this gorgeous couple have a guesthouse to rent here.
For more Greek Island inspiration click here.
“The secret to so many artists living so long is that every painting is a new adventure. So, you see, they’re always looking ahead to something new and exciting. The secret is not to look back.” Norman Rockwell
Feel free to share.. x