Spotlight: Matthew Robins

Spotlight focusses on Creative Commission members with stories to tell. Next up, we hear from UK-based animator Matthew Robins, who has taken a major step forward in his work and confidence thanks to his latest project La Petite Boheme. Over to you, Matthew...

My name is Matthew Robins and I am a multi-disciplinary artist and musician from the West Country in the UK. My work encompasses puppetry, film, music, sculpture, drawing and performance. Most recently I have been focusing on animation, and my collaborators include Tori Amos, Phil Collins, Passenger and Cat Stevens.

I have played my own live music shows, touring with my band and collection of home-made folklore at venues including the Barbican, the National Theatre, Ulster Hall, the Howard Assembly Room, on the BBC, and at the London Film Festival, as well as making work for Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the V&A. A collection of my work is on permanent display in the Science Museum, London.

What I love so much about my job is that I get to work with amazing musicians and songwriters, I get to draw everyday, and I am still allowed at the age of 40 to makepapier-mâché dinosaurs and aliens - and get paid to do it.

A major step forward in my work and confidence in talking about this so openly in public

My most recent project is a major new animation commission from Opera North [a national opera company based in Leeds], adapting La Boheme into a stop-motion film. In the new animated version of La Boheme, I was asked if I wanted to change any of the characters to shine a light on a more diverse way of looking at relationships.

As a gay artist, I was brought up in a way where I was taught that this was, at best, something to hide and, at worse, actively fought to be taught anything about under section 28. So, for the first time in my work, I have represented a genuine gay couple. In the past, this has been something I've either done in an oblique way or been actively told by record labels that I wasn't allowed to do - so this represents a major step forward in my work and my confidence in talking about this aspect of my personality so openly in public.

It took most of 2020 to create La Petite Boheme and came just at a point where I was getting disillusioned making videos for the music industry, being told I can't represent my community, for example, not getting credit for the work, and reaching a stage where it felt like I was just making "content". To suddenly be invited to create a very intense personal project, involving a huge orchestra and a cast of singers all assembled especially for me - the first big orchestral recording after lockdown, the first time a man had sung the role of Musetta, it was hugely personally overwhelming and makes me very proud to show this to people.

Creative inspiration

The album campaign I have enjoyed the most in 2020 is Carina Drury's Irlandiani. Carina is one of my friends and (when I can afford string players) a member of my band. She recorded a new collection of compositions from a very specific time in Irish history, in the 1700s, exploring the interaction between Italian composers who visited Dublin and traditional Irish musicians of the day, and invited me to create the album artwork.

Fellow creatives that inspire me most are: Jonny Hannah, Tom Waits, Pee-Wee Herman, Jonathan Richman, Rickie Lee Jones, Harpo Marx, Blake Edwards and Ruth Gordon.