Artist Martin Richman: Illuminating the world with light 

Based in Hackney Wick, Martin has an impressive body of work, with several pieces permanently installed here in East London. I first came across his work at Hackney Wicked 11 years ago where an illuminated ladder captivated me. I loved the impossibleness of it – like Oppenheim’s ‘Fur Breakfast’ – as well as its beauty. The interview below is but a glimpse of his extraordinary career…

Ladder, Hackney Wicked and private collections

How did you get into using light as a medium?
I think I was always interested in light, reflection and colour. As a child I was always fooling around with stuff and once took the ink tube from a ballpoint pen and stuck it up the kitchen tap to see what would happen. Later that day, my mother was doing the wash and everything was turning blue. Assuming the plumbing was faulty she called the plumber and I remember her shouting down the phone, rather frantically! Around the age of 13, I started playing around with coloured lights in my bedroom, but I was also interested in music and by the age of 16 I’d saved up for a drum kit and joined a band, but soon discovered that I couldn’t actually play. At the time, lots of musicians were doing light shows as part of their gig, so I started doing lightshows for the band. 

Did you go to art school?
Yes – I went to Portsmouth College of Art but left before finishing, rather unceremoniously. An opportunity arose to create window displays for John Lewis and Liberty’s and from there I got into exhibition and theatre design, which I did for several years. Eventually, I ended up getting back into music lighting, initially as a technician and later as a lighting designer, and worked with Chris de Burgh, Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground and many others for a number of years. Eventually, the rock and roll lifestyle of touring and all that goes with it didn’t fit in with family life so I began painting, using lots of glazes, so light was always a part of anything I made, in one form or another. 

About that time, I applied to Central Saint Martins as a mature student and began to develop ‘light sculptures’ using light as a source rather than depicting it in a painting.

What is it about light that intrigues you?
I’m fascinated by light’s ability to change one’s perception of a space, and I’m also intrigued by spaces in and of themselves and how they affect people’s behaviour. For example, when you enter a grand space, you conduct yourself differently than, say, when you are in your home or walking down the street. When you enter a church, it’s almost a physical feeling of quiet, which affects your sense of yourself and how you respond and react. You find yourself speaking in hushed tones and perhaps move about more slowly. So using light and space are ways of creating a mood. Also, using light as a medium provides the impetus to turn an anonymous space into a place, which in itself is quite interesting.

Shimmer Field, permanent installation, San Antonio, Texas, USA

Tell us about your work with bridges.
I do love a bridge. Symbolically, it represents bringing two things together and the metaphor of unifying is quite attractive. Bridges are also what fills a gap in between two spaces and are a space in and of themselves, and often, in our urban environment, the underside of a bridge is quite a dull place. Using light to change the perception of that space is irresistible. 

Some years ago, I did a paint and light installation on the underside of Bethnal Green Bridge, commissioned by Bethnal Green City Challenge, which transformed the space from something quite ordinary to a space in itself. This project led to further bridge interventions, including a commission by Olympic Park, ‘One Whirl which has embedded pieces of recycled glass in the shape of a swirl on the bridge pavement, and ‘Underwhirl, which has glass beads embedded into coloured painted swirls on the walls and ceiling of an underpass. The glass reflects the light and is also quite tactile – you can feel the beads if you run your hand along the wall.

Bethnal Green Bridge, London

Underwhirl, permanent installation, Olympic Park, London

What has been one of your more challenging projects?
Hatch, an installation in the lobby of Grand Union Studios in West London is made of small rectangle ‘blades’ of acrylic suspended on nylon threads from a mirrored oval in the ceiling. It’s 12m high by 5m wide. When the sun enters the building it creates a strong reaction with the blades with oblongs of reflected and refracted light spinning around the lobby walls and out into the street in front. Each blade had to be hung individually, and as you can imagine, the thin nylon threads had a tendency to intermingle where they shouldn’t, and untangling them caused much frustration!

What are you up to now?
At the moment I’m mainly painting and drawing, and making things to commission. The medium of paint tells a different sort of story, yet light is always featured in my work in some form or another.

We Could Meet, permanent installation, Canary Wharf, London

Beacon, permanent installation, Bristol

Float, permanent installation, Canary Wharf, London

Any advice for young artists?
There is no straightforward path to ‘success’; life takes many turns, so be open to that. Don’t fret about exam results – no one cares! In the creative world it’s all about your ideas. Always carry a notebook, read widely, look carefully and be interested in the world around you. Build networks with fellow students and artists and collaborate with others, including those in other fields. It’s a rich vein to tap into and you’d be surprised at the opportunities it can present. 

To Find Out More
To commission Martin contact him via his website, martinrichman.com

Follow Martin on Instagram: @smartinthewick

Images courtesy of and © Martin Richman