What would you do with your life if money were no object? Matt Hill pondered this question while he killed time watching an Alan Watts speech on Youtube after a long day in the workshop. He had newly returned to Australia after spending the lion’s share of his twenties running a bar in northern Japan, and was feeling like “a loose end trying to fit back in”, he says. Fathered by a carpenter who in his son’s words “has every tool anyone could want”, Hill was parentally primed for a career in welding. “But I wasn’t interested unless I was going to make something,” he says.
Where the typical modern young man would compose a tasteful Spotify playlist for his crush, Hill, not one to follow the fold, instead crafted a nifty dog out of nuts and bolts. “I sold about 150 of those little dogs,” says Hill, who crafted many variations of the design for buyers smitten with the hounds’ makeshift-look bodies and rusty coats. “From there, I worked on a commercial building site
where I picked up the basics of AutoCAD.” In his newfound software skills, Hill found a way to channel his perfect storm of artistic ambition and tinkerer’s talent into a fully fledged sculptural practice, and soon his ‘Simple Sphere’ design was conceived – the first in his line of spherical masterworks that would become synonymous with his name in the contemporary landscape art scene locally and overseas.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Showcasing Hill’s expert layering and eye for perfect symmetry, the Simple Sphere proved more than the sum of its 27 semicircular parts when it won Best Small Sculpture at the Albert Park Art Show in 2013. The inventive piece was quite the show-stopper. “I find inspiration in symmetrical shapes,” says the artist. “Anything with a pattern intrigues me. I mostly focus on spheres as there are so many variations of the most perfect form.”
With interest growing in his mesmerising geometric aesthetic, Hill felt compelled to push the boundaries of what he thought possible by incorporating light into his designs, making them all the more striking particularly in a landscape setting. “I like to focus on how light and shadow will add a visual element to a garden space,” he says. “Even in a tight location you can add one of my pieces to create an ambient light show.”
When approached to produce a bespoke light sculpture for a compact courtyard space, Hill accepted the challenge happily. Dubbed ‘Light in Limbo’, the enchanting piece comprised a series of 5–10mm steel rings that appeared to hover off-axis, creating dynamic shadows along the surrounding walls at twilight to the surprise and delight of not only the viewer, but the artist himself. “I wasn’t sure what it was going to do as I installed it during the day,” he says. “The client sent me some night-time photos and a really rewarding comment about my work. I like it when clients send me photos afterwards.”
“I like to focus on how light
and shadow will add a visual
element to a garden space.
Even in a tight location you can
add one of my pieces to create
an ambient light show.”
The quiet power of his shapely abstract works reflect a Japanese minimalist influence, no doubt picked up in the artist’s youth. In 2016, it was a feeling of coming full circle that accompanied an exciting job offer from luxury Hokkaido hotel AYA Niseko to craft a woven privacy screen that would form a sole part of the new building’s identity. “It was my longest-running job to date,” says Hill. “It involved many prototypes and samples made, a trip to China to oversee its manufacture, and then attending the grand opening. It was a great feeling to see the project finished. What started as a woven cube turned into a 200m2 creation throughout an amazing hotel.”
INTO THE WILD
In pursuit of a greater challenge, Hill tasked himself with cranking his canine subject matter up a notch; he was to craft a 3D Labrador to scale out of 2D corten-steel planes. The large and complex project marked a leap forward from his previous conceptual works – he jokes in an Instagram comment, “I wish I had started with a sausage dog!” – but the resulting polygonal pup was nothing short of astounding, and became the impetus for an important evolution in his body of work.
Much in concord with his personality, the steelsmith’s artistic inspiration is decidedly down to earth. A viewing of Attenborough’s 2013
Africa inspired him to replicate the magnificence, grace and strength of the continent’s animals in his signature faceted origami-like style. At the time, he had only his kitchen bench as a workspace, but for Hill this was a non-issue. “I put together a three-metre-long, two-metre-high African elephant together inside,” he says. “As an artist, you can’t let your surroundings dictate what you want to achieve.”
Hill’s inseparable African elephants Ellie and Billy won the People’s Choice award at the 2017 Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show, with his hippos making the top five and his comparatively small yet equally striking giraffe winning second place in the Metal Fabrication division.
The sculptor was elated at the overwhelmingly positive response his life-size replicas received from the show-goers, who were impressed by his skill in
capturing the tender side of the animal kingdom using a material as hard-edged and unforgiving as corten steel. “I take more pride in the People’s Choice awards,” Hill says. “That’s the general public choosing my work over more than a hundred pieces.”
The success of his wildlife series prompted the artist to move beyond exploring the physical dimensions and venture into the ethical. Revealing an interest in not only animals themselves but in humankind’s complex relationship with them, his angular creatures have become increasingly multidimensional in both form and concept. The more provocative and statement-making beasts of burden in his collection explore angles of a political nature, namely his controversial ‘Rigor Mortis Roo’, whose implications challenge social attitudes around the topics of roadkill, environmentalism, and the “done-to-death” kangaroo motif in Australian art. His hefty three-metre-long, 150kg+ ‘Hope the Rhino 2’ proved worth far more than her weight in steel when the proceeds of her auction, with a record bid of $42,500, went to support the Australian Rhino Project’s efforts in ensuring the survival of the species in Africa.
Looking back, Hill recognises that his first Simple Sphere marked a significant juncture in his career – one that that would determine the trajectory of his creative direction. “I think I am most proud of that piece,” he says. “I often wonder if it didn’t sell, would I have made another.” His evolution in the last five years is made starkly apparent when considering his three-
metre-tall brown bear piece, which towers over the artist’s tall frame. If this hefty creature is anything to go by, Hill’s creative ambition is not to be taken lightly. With every piece requiring lengthy hours of patience and work, his dedication to his craft is a veritable force of nature.
“If I had a dollar for every
photo taken of my sculptures
I wouldn’t need to sell them.”
They say there’s always a piece of the artist detectable in their art, and in Hill’s case it’s the friendly character he shares with his animals. At the hand of another artist his designs could take on a cold and hostile quality, but Hill tempers their
steely forms with a touch of humour, lovingly imparting a name and an affectionately tongue-in-cheek narrative to each one. Speaking of ‘Harry the Hippo’, the sculptor says, “While it is unlikely he will kill you – as others of his kind would attempt to in the wild – he will certainly make for pleasant company, bringing any outdoor or indoor space to life”.
Whether his expressive pieces invoke awe, adoration, curiosity, shock or a potent mix of each, Hill can always count on an immediate reaction from the viewer. “If I had a dollar for every photo taken of my sculptures I wouldn‘t need to sell them,” he says. “I once drove my elephants, one in a trailer and the other in the back of my ute, past a busker on the Mornington Peninsula. He stopped playing his song to say how awesome they looked. When I drive to exhibitions I always have people taking photos, waving and giving me the thumbs up.” Herein lies the reward for Hill. “I love what I do and I really appreciate the love I get back.”
Intrigued as he is by viewers’ responses, Hill’s drive to create comes from someplace within. “Art for me is choosing my direction,” he says. Bolstered by his two People’s Choice awards at the 2018 Lake Light Sculpture exhibition in Jindabyne and his kangaroos’ second-place win at the 2018 Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show, the sculptor remains focussed on his artistic goal to pursue what he ‘could’ be doing rather than what he ‘should’.
Between an endearing new canine pairing for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT and continued experimentations within his elegant sphere series, Hill has plenty to keep him busy in the near future, and his distinct pieces are sure to make an appearance at the next round of local landscape art competitions ahead. By 2025 he hopes to have a bigger space to work in and an extra pair of hands so he can find more time to put down the tools and head for the surf.