Richard Mark Rawlins (b.1967, Trinidad and Tobago) is a graduate of the RCA print programme (2019). Rawlins’ research takes a transnational approach to the contested and resultant histories/realities of colonialism and its consequences. His work has featured in Drawn Out 2021 and Drawing Biennial 2021, Drawing Room, London; The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2021; Ingram Prize 2020; Wells Art Contemporary 2020; Photofringe 2020 and The Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival 2020/21. Rawlins’ work has been acquired by the Wedge Curatorial Collection, Toronto; AMBA Collection, London; the Soho House Art Collection, London/Brighton and the Art Collection of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your art practice?
I studied commercial art and design at George Brown College in Toronto, Canada. After that I worked in advertising for about 20 years. Within that sphere you can say that my art practice was born. I was in love with the work of artists: comic artists like John Baldessari, Roy Lichtenstein, Kerry James Marshall, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Curt Swan, Bob Kane, and of course graphic designer/artists like Paula Scher, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister. Around 2007, I started taking it (my practice) more seriously. I got more involved in the local art scene, was part of a contemporary art space called Alice Yard which hosted an international art residency, and I even co-founded an Erotic Art week which exhibited works in public spaces around Woodbrook, Port of Spain, a major art-related hub in Trinidad.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?
I didn’t start out wanting to be an artist. Along with other things like being a fighter pilot (I was rotten at math, so that was out the window early) and comic book artist as a kid, I wanted to be in advertising. One of the shows I watched as a child was Bewitched, about a witch that was married to an old school advertising executive. The witch’s husband Darren and partner Larry Tate were brilliant salesmen. They would appear in front of clients with these layouts and the clients would invariably be “wowed” by the work. The layout reveals always stuck with me. So, I think that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t become an account executive though (I was never much of the suit and tie type), as I took a different route… from graphic artist to, eventually, creative director.
Where is your studio located and how does a typical day in your studio begin?
I am lucky that my studio is in my home (it made lockdown somewhat bearable). I’m based in Hastings, UK. I moved there 2019. Having a home studio is essential for me as I work all hours and whenever I need to. It’s not a big studio mind you, but it works for me. I just shift things around as I need it. My days are relatively long as I am often in my studio by 4.30am-5 most days and work until evening. I usually start my days reading or doing admin stuff.
Tell us about ‘Like a Rope’, your 15 metre drawing that was recently shown at the Drawing Room in London. There is a strong feeling of your presence in the smudges, gestural marks, and rich graphite areas.
I returned to Trinidad in 2019, while all my Home Office leave-to-remain visa stuff was being sorted. While there I was staying with my mother-in-law for the period, and she says to me: “So what are you going to do for the next eight months? Here’s a pad and here are some pencils… you might as well draw.” (She also made a makeshift studio for me out of her garage.) And bless her soul, for the next few months that’s what I did. Draw. When I started ‘Like a Rope’, it was a response to my coming back to Trinidad on Carnival Monday and walking through the streets of Port of Spain. I started thinking about how Carnival had changed over the years, how some things had become more commercial and exclusionary and there was just so much “rope” cordoning of masqueraders from the viewing public in the streets.
This work started as a commentary on those observations. It wasn’t my intention to make one entire drawing on 38 panels, it just worked out that way. With respect to the smudges, I worked resting my hands and elbows on the paper, sometimes face flat against the paper much as a child would sometimes draw, and whatever the oils on my skin and forearm did to the paper, it was okay. I stopped seeing the whole piece once I hit 20 or 30 feet, as I had run out of a straight-line space. When I returned to the UK, I laid it out in decks on my studio wall to continue working on it. But in all that time I had not seen it in one continuous line until the opening of the exhibition Drawn Out at Drawing Room, London. I also think that not being able to see the whole drawing as it progressed helped the work. It allowed for new ideas and for me to not be stuck with any one form or rather style of drawing.
While you work across a range of media, drawing seems to play a strong role in your practice. Can you tell us what attracts you to drawing?
Drawing provides me with a note-taking immediacy. My drawings all feel like notes to me. Little scribbles here and there and deliberate marks in other places. Drawing could go as fast as I want to go idea wise or slow right down to allow me time to think through ideas. Its where I start everything, as a designer or as an artist.
Do you have a favourite drawing material?
I just love the messiness that can come with using graphite and charcoal sticks. I like the idea of leaving fingerprints behind in the work… “proof of the human hand”. In her essay ‘Hands at Work’ for ‘The Human Touch: Making Art Leaving Traces’ catalogue, Jane Munro talks about “finding fingerprints on the surface of an artwork generating the frisson of the forensic, an eerie proximity to a creative life that is, or once was”. I can totally relate to that. And I’ve just been introduced by my friend Charmaine to Winsor & Newton’s 140lb Watercolour Block and just love drawing on it, as I often draw and use inks or acrylics within the drawings, and this paper can take it all without buckling.
When you start thinking about a piece, do you know right from the start what media you will work in? How do you decide?
To use a Caribbean term… “I make work as the spirit moves me”. I work often with what I have at hand. I am very practical that way. When people ask me about the colours in my paintings, while I may be inspired by hundreds of things, it’s often what I have at hand.
I read that you studied printmaking at the Royal College of Art. How does that foundation in printmaking influence your art practice in other mediums?
It really was my love for the commercial processes of printmaking that one would encounter when involved in advertising as a graphic designer. Chief among these two being screen-printing and lithography. Before I went to RCA, I worked primarily in screen printing. There are no artists’ fine art print facilities or studios in Trinidad, and screen printing is quite democratic in nature as a process. This meant I could get everything I needed to be able to make prints. In a sense it was there before I went to RCA. RCA gave me access to the big toys. I spent my first year primarily making lithographic prints. While at school I had read the Art of Dissent, Black Panther, the revolutionary art of Emory Douglas and Beauty is in the Streets (about the 1968 Paris Uprisings) and started using lithography to make works of commentary in that vein. My tutor Robin Smart was the one who showed me how this could be achieved. He got me tuned into the process.
What was the best piece of advice you were ever given?
There are two that come to mind: “put your head down and just make the work” and “when given the opportunity to speak, do not waste your words”.
Do you have one piece of advice to share with an artist just starting out?
Put your head down and make the work.
All images courtesy of the artist. Click here to see more of Rawlins’ work.