Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Askey, Matthew - Jonathan Evens

Stations of the Cross in Hornsea: Jonathan Evens Interviews Artist Matthew Askey
Matthew Askey came to faith as an adult, and after a time in the book trade and as an art teacher he trained for ordination at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. Now Chaplain at Worksop College and Ranby House, he says, “I haven’t always been a Christian. It wasn’t until later, when I was about 20, that I discovered God and religion, and just how wonderful it is! I am very happy that I eventually took the opportunity to trust and follow a path of faith; it is such an amazing thing!”
A professional artist and curator, he also has a life-long love of music, especially classical music and jazz, and plays the saxophone in a jazz group. Making and sharing art and music are, for him, an integral part of his prayer life and ministry. His work is “truthful in its self-examination,” exploring his current state, “visually, mentally, emotionally and spiritually”.
A key part of his work is the ‘Daily Selfie drawing’. These drawings “are made ‘live’ from looking into a circular bronze mirror and the resulting works are same size as the mirror”. In these works, he often wears costumes that represent a part of his spiritual journey, using contemporary language often drawn from popular culture. So, “in his ‘spider man’ series he appears as Thomas the Apostle, and in another as St Philip The Apostle as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle”. In these ways, his work “draws upon bigger themes, such as a shared/universal experience of life and the tragi-comic state of being human”.
His most recent project is a set of ‘Stations of the Cross’ for St Nicholas Church, Hornsea. This is a site-specific commission of paintings that link each Station to a part of the town. At each location in the town itself there is a QR Code to link to information about each Station. His ‘Stations’ are egg-tempera on gesso panels and are traditionally made, just like Orthodox icons. The theological theme of these Stations (in addition to The Cross of course) is ‘water and blood’. The sequence begins with Jesus depicted as a fountain - the water of life - with Pilate turning his back to wash his hands in the much smaller dish beside him.
The Revd Tina Minett Stevens, Vicar of the Benefice of Hornsea, Atwick & Skipsea, has explained that: “The PCC (parochial church council) received a modest bequest and we try to use such monies to further the mission of the church rather than simply pay the bills. After discussing this at PCC, we settled on commissioning a set of Stations. We initially spoke to a local artist, but they were unable to take up the work for us in the end. So, we were left with a hope, but not sure how to proceed. I then mentioned I knew Matthew, and with the agreement of the PCC contacted him to assist us in commissioning the stations. To our great joy, he offered to do them himself. Matthew sent us his bio and some of his work, and it was agreed to work with him on the project. Matthew suggested using the icon style of painting would make the Stations accessible, but other than including the backgrounds in the order we had envisioned, we left it to Matthew.”
The idea of linking the Stations to local locations came about because, “We wanted our Stations to be unique and reflect our town, otherwise we would have bought some generic Stations. We wanted to reflect that the church belongs to the town, and also the heritage of the buildings that make our town special. The PCC chose the locations, and then we realised it would be possible to arrange the Stations so that it would be walkable on the ground. And so, the route was set as a clockwise walk around the town of approximately 2 miles.”
Tina says: “They have changed the atmosphere of the church and brought life and colour into an otherwise fairly plain stone building. They are certainly not bland, and indeed are proving to be challenging viewing: one person was confused as to why the soldiers have guns – but he recognised that the guns helped others to recognise them as soldiers; another called them ‘unusual…in the best sense of the word…and not twee’. Matthew picked up on the colours of our organ pipes and shades of blue throughout the church, which gives them a real sense of belonging.
On walking them for the first time, we began to see how they work as an aid to prayer, with the imagery drawing us into the mystery of the Cross. We hope to produce a map of the physical trail, combining both the heritage of the town and the Christian elements together. Matthew is going to produce some outlines for use with children and in our schools ministry as we help teach the children about Easter. We hope visitors to the town will come to see the Stations as the beautiful pieces of art they are, and hopefully leave having encountered something of the mystery of God as well. We hope to produce a booklet to help interpret some of the less obvious elements, rightly called ‘Easter Eggs’ in this instance.”
JE: How did the ‘Stations of the Cross’ commission come about?
MA: I was asked by Tina if I could recommend an artist to make a new set of Stations (the funding came from a parishioner’s legacy for this purpose). I had never done a set of Stations and so offered to take up the commission myself. That was about twelve months ago.
JE: Given that painting the Stations is a new project for you, to what extent do you think you have ventured into new territory as an artist and to what extent is there continuity with what you have done before?
MA: All new. Totally new visual concept for me. 100% innovation! Only the medium (egg tempera) is the same. I was fortunate to set my own brief for these Stations. The parish agreed my proposal and then I painted them. My visual inspiration was the early Novgorod school of icons - very pared-down and dependent on flat shape and colour. You’ll notice that some of the figures are not outlined in paint - this is to increase their sense of vulnerability (that’s one of my innovations). Especially Mary.
JE: How did the idea of setting the Stations locally with use of QR codes come to you and how did you decide which locations to use?
MA: I proposed the idea to link each Station to locations around the town so that the Stations could be done ‘for real’ around the town in the future, ideally ecumenically. The QR codes idea was Tina’s. The locations were chosen by a parishioner. There are two locations per Station. They are very well chosen. Station Two has a ‘folly’ tower - I immediately thought of Paul’s Cross as the folly of God. The Pieta takes place outside the Catholic Church, the crucifixion outside the cemetery.
JE: What has the initial reaction to their design and installation been?
MA: Very positive I believe. I had thought that some might find them a bit challenging (which I think has been the case), but as I said to Tina, Christianity should be a bit challenging. The feedback online has been overwhelmingly positive.
JE: What else is going on in your artistic practice at present?
MA: I’m now working on a series of paintings and drawings for Newcastle cathedral. From November 2024 to February 2025, I’ll have a big solo show there of new work: ‘Santa’s helpers: Being Santa’. This is drawing upon material I gathered in December 2022 when I was artist-in-residence at SantaCon London. At Newcastle as part of the exhibition I’ll also be showing some of my Santa Selfies.
JE: How did you find the experience of being at SantaCon and what attracted the cathedral to the work you produced as a result?
MA: It was the ‘saint’ angle that attracted me to SantaCon, as an example of an enthusiastic contemporary popular-cultural expression of saintliness. Newcastle is the only Church of England cathedral dedicated to St Nicholas, so I approached them with an exhibition proposal, which they have really embraced. SantaCon was a very interesting experience, inspiring really. I joined in and took thousands of photographs.
JE: Were there any ways in which SantaCon engaged with Saint Nicholas in its mainstream programming?
MA: Yes, in the sense of a special happening - celebration - and joining with others it was quite close to worship. Santas were encouraged to give sweets to children as they swarmed through London. It was like a big flash-mob that processed all the way from Canary Warf to Trafalgar Square led by a Samba band. it was very joyful. A sense of togetherness. We even all went on the tube together at one point. It was very funny.
JE: How is the selfie series developing and how does it tie in your personal spirituality?
MA: Painting is intrinsically spiritual and prayerful. It is an act of spiritual hope. I’ve been dressing up as saints for selfies (linking Biblical saints to specific super-heroes – e.g. St Thomas being Spider Man), and when I was artist-in-residence at Lincoln cathedral during 2019 I invited staff and visitors to identify with a biblical character, dress up as them and then I drew or painted their portrait.
JE: Do you see any points of connection between your experience of playing music and your experience of making art?
MA: For me music, like painting, is intrinsically spiritual. Although practice of each is very different, they do have much in common. Mainly slowing time and extending and exploring the present. Also revealing on the outside the otherwise hidden inner life of the person doing it.
JE: Both are very contemplative then! How much overlap do you find between art, music and prayer?
MA: They are all prayer for me. I’m just listening to Miles Davis with Sonny Stitt, playing the Monk classic ‘Round Midnight’ and joining in a bit on soprano saxophone. It’s a totally spiritual exercise. I’m into ‘Spiritual Jazz’.
JE: I've tried to explore it at points in terms of art by thinking about the elements involved in attentive looking. However, it's difficult to articulate. I haven't really tried in terms of music although I think there's something important in that music begins in silence and ends in silence as well as the sense that it is best appreciated when the listener is caught up in the emotional journey undertaken by the music.
MA: The music is like the time we are spending immersed in looking at a painting. It is its own language and communion. Your attentive looking thing is important, I think. It’s like when people say someone is a ‘good reader’ of a book. Everything is encounter, everything is interpretation. It’s an active participation.
JE: Yes, but the quality of encounter and interpretation tend to depend on the quality of attention paid.
MA: The viewer or listener is being honoured by being put at the same level as the painter or composer or writer, if they can’t rise to that they will get much less out of it. It’s a sort of conversation. Like prayer.
JE: I've recently visited the Sainsbury Centre who now talk about the art as living entities with which one can interact in a way equivalent to what’s involved when meeting a person.
MA: That is probably true on a certain level, isn’t it? A cultural meeting anyway. A conversation. It’s the past talking in the present. I’m thinking how important what has gone before is. Where does music or art come from? It comes from the music and art that came before it. That too is a conversation.
JE: Certainly, a conversation. They also put artworks in dialogue one with the other to make that point.
MA: Praxis. Best to interact with things in person. That must be the spiritual part. It’s the spirit, the attitude, that is shared through participation.
JE: I guess communication is participation
MA: Yes, it implies involvement and engagement. Music and art are all about that entanglement.
St Nicholas Hornsea -