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Not just a form of words

04 April 2014

The artist Stephen Raw is exhibiting his work based on Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at the Church Times Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature at the end of May. He talks to James Walmesley

Stephen Raw

Word and image: Sarcophagus/Altar ("This Burnt Offering"), 2002, from "Was it for this the clay grew tall?"

Word and image: Sarcophagus/Altar ("This Burnt Offering"), 2002, from "Was it for this the clay grew tall?"

THERE is a very good reason why Stephen Raw is exhibiting his artwork at a literary festival. Fundamental to what he does is "a love of language". He is fascinated by the way in which "language is given a visual dimension through the signs we simply call letters." These are the sources of his inspiration: "Letters are images in themselves."

His preoccupation with words has led him to work collaboratively with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, whose work he admires enormously. "We've worked together on poems realised as textual art for cathedrals, universities, libraries, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, most recently, the Pendle Witches Walk in Lancashire," he says.

The admiration is mutual. "Stephen's aim in his art is to make language visible," Duffy says. "His paintings are word landscapes, wherein the physical world of the poem is perpetually illuminated. In the swirls, loops, and circles of his lettering we are brought close to the aliveness which makes great poetry last."

It all started at school (Raw was born in London in 1952). "I was always interested in letters at school - designing new alphabets, what we now call fonts," he says. "I've got a notebook full of them." This led him to art school: Wimbledon, and then Ravensbourne College of Art, where he studied graphic design, exploring contemporary typefaces as part of his course.

But the idea of life as a conventional graphic designer held no attraction for him. It was the letters that lured him; so he decided to look more closely at calligraphy, completing a postgraduate diploma in Manchester. He taught for a while, and spent two years at the National Arts School in Papua New Guinea.

While he was there, he "produced a little A4 sheet of sample bits of lettering, because I had this ludicrous notion I was going to return to England and go round publishers, and say 'I'm a lettering artist.'" And so he did. He has been a self-employed artist ever since.

"I started getting some work. I've had to wear different hats to survive over the years, with bits of typography on the inside of books; and from being a designer and operating like a freelance illustrator, because that's how art directors have used me - all the time wanting to do other things as well."

HE IS often described as a calligrapher, but he is not fond of the label. "I don't call myself a calligrapher, because calligraphy is actually only one quite narrow band of the whole visual-language spectrum," he says. "At one end of this spectrum, you have incredibly skilled calligraphy, and then at other points there would be hand-drawn lettering, type design, and digital creation of lettering. I am on, and at various points of, this spectrum."

He has exhibited widely in Europe and the United States. One of his most recent commissions was to design the memorial stone to the founders of the Royal Ballet, located near Poets' Corner in the floor of Westminster Abbey.

I first met him a few years ago, in Manchester, where we were both working with the charity Manchester Aid to Kosovo, which he now chairs. I had come across his work a few years before that, through the epic-scale community-arts piece he undertook in St Francis's, Wythenshawe, in south Manchester.

Members of the community had painted, and added individual letters to, a massive wall-covering of the prayer of St Francis. He did a similar, enormous peace-banner in the town of Podujeva, in Kosovo, near the Serbian border, in 2009, which covered half the town hall.

Peace and justice are common themes in Raw's work - demonstrated in his most recent exhibition of large text-based artworks, "Was it for this the clay grew tall?" This collection of works - inspired by Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, and the poems of Wilfred Owen - will be shown at the Church Times Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, at the end of May.

THE starting point for this exhibition is Owen's poem "Parable of the Old Men and the Young", lines from which coat the large and imposing Sarcophagus/Altar:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son. 

The retelling of the ancient biblical story "poses contemporary questions about the nature of sacrifice", Raw says. "When reading it, I had this horrific feeling of empathy for what it would have been like to have been required by your family and peers and your society to have to sacrifice one of your own children.

"When I made the piece, I measured my youngest son, Ben, while he was asleep in bed, as he was about the age of puberty - so he was just about the age when child sacrifice went on. I was thinking about the horror of having to sacrifice a child you loved, and of sacrifice in war, and of soldiers being sacrificed, and parents' sacrificing their children to war."

The sarcophagus is a good example of the way in which Raw approaches text. "The piece is not a poem on a page in a typographically conventional way," he says. "It's a document, none the less, but you have to walk around it. You have to physically interact with it."

INTERACTION played a significant part in the creation of the series of works, too. In 2012, Raw drove to Ors, in France, where Owen was killed attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal, during the last week of the war. He was travelling with four watercolours that contained the text of the first four lines of Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth".

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

His intention was to leave them in Ors for about three months, to be weathered by the elements. "The paintings were exposed to the vicissitudes of the French weather for three months . . . during which the paintings changed irrevocably. After I had booked the ferry, I actually regretted I had made the decision to spoil them.

"Its pathetic, really - they were just paintings I had got attached to. It was just a very small metaphor about distress, and the horrific distress of war."

Raw also collected soil from the banks of the canal where Owen and his comrades were killed. He brought the soil back to his studio in Manchester, and mixed it in with acrylic paint to produce another painting based on an Owen poem, "The Next War". Raw encourages people to touch the surface of the painting to feel a brief connection with Owen and Ors.

OWEN's Christian background is a vital ingredient in "Was it for this the clay grew tall?"He quotes Owen's letter to his mother in the introduction to his exhibition catalogue: "One of Christ's essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill."

Owen said: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn." I asked Raw if he, too, was issuing a warning. "I haven't got a manifesto - I give myself permission to explore, visually," he says. "The thing that attracts me about art is that it is essentially open-ended; so I have an open-ended idea about pacifism.

"Would I be the pacifist? I would like to think I would be, in a situation; I don't know. I haven't been asked to defend something against aggression. My only examples in my personal history are my grandfather, Stuart Trew, who fought at Passchendaele in 1917, and then joined the Peace Pledge Union after the war; and then my father, who [in the Second World War] was a conscientious objector."

Raw's own Christian faith informs his work. He grew up "in a conventional Nonconformist Christian house - church two or three times on a Sunday". In Manchester, he is a member of Chorlton Central, a joint URC-Baptist church that suits his inclusive approach to Christianity: a belief that he is "accepted by God in the same way, I hope, I would accept other people, for whoever and whatever they are themselves". His church has "lots of gay couples in the congregation", and is "very socially engaged in peace and justice issues. . . I am very fortunate to still be accepted by them," he says, laughing.

HIS faith resonates with his attitude to his work on the First World War: "That's my constant questioning about what it is to be trying to be Christlike. . . It's a horrible cliché, but the adage 'What would Jesus do?'"

But he is not trying to be evangelistic, or propagandist, through his use of Owen's text: "Yes, they are getting straight to the point. However, the great thing about poetry - like a good visual poem, I think - is it doesn't give everything up in the first, second, third, or fourth reading.

In fact, you might come back to a poem five years later, and you read it, and you've moved on, and you're different; or you might know a bit more about the poem itself, and you see something else that the poet has hinted at."

He takes a similarly long view with his own creative work, quoting a maxim of Hippocrates: "Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgement difficult."

For all his enthusiasm for Owen, some of Raw's best work is done with living writers, notably Duffy, who is also appearing at the Bloxham Festival in her own right. They met almost ten years ago, when he was participating in an exhibition in the Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall, "A Darkling Plain: Dissenting Language: Poets and War," and was keen to use one of Duffy's poems, "Far Be It". It is about Duffy's response to seeing television images of a child who has suffered horrific images as a consequence of war, and raging at the television set.

"I had heard she lived somewhere in Manchester; so I got in touch and asked her permission to use it, and she said yes. We corresponded by email for a bit, and after checking out my website she commissioned me to do a very large painting of W. B. Yeats's 'Song of Wandering Aengus' for her study."

This was the start of a series of collaborations. "She had a launch of her book Rapture, and she had an idea of me doing a whole load of artwork for it. I was given the manuscript before publication, and worked on it. She liked what I did, and I liked her poetry, and then, a few years later, she became Poet Laureate."

In 2012, they worked together on visualising a poem by Duffy in memory of eight Lancashire women and two men who were put to death 400 years earlier in Lancaster Castle. "There are now ten cast-iron parts of a poem along a 51-mile trail from Pendle all the way to Lancaster, which was the route the witches took to their eventual trial and hanging."

In August, they have another ambitious exhibition together in Edinburgh. "It's to do with the archive, kept by the monarch, of all the Poets Laureate over the years in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. This is an idea of [Duffy's] to show lots of the archive material: for example, the book Wordsworth gave Queen Victoria. This show has six new large pieces of my work in it, which will be part of the Royal Collection, and will be on display in Hollyrood House."

The Church Times Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature takes place at Bloxham School, Oxfordshire, from30 May to 1 June. To book, phone 0845 017 6965, or visit www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk.

"Poetry for the Palace: Poets Laureate from Dryden to Duffy" is on at the Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, from 7 August to 2 November. For more information, visit www.royalcollection.org.uk

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