Leaving the right kind of mark: A conversation with UK artist Matt Johnstone

Feature Story - 2010-09-10
Greenpeace China is proud to work with Matt for our visual concept for Car Free Day 2010. His whimsical yet thought-provoking illustrations always have much more than meets the eye. Here Matt shares with us his thoughts on art, the environment, and the coolest things he’s seen while cycling in the UK.

Matt Johnstone's illustration for Car Free Day 2010, using tire tracks to depict the marks we leave on the environment when we drive. This one shows polar bears and whales in between the tire tracks.

Greenpeace China is proud to work with UK artist Matt Johnstone for our visual concept for Car Free Day 2010.

Based in London, Matt is a visual storyteller whose thought-provoking images have been part of The Guardian since 2007. For Car Free Day, he created three sets of tire tracks to illustrate the indelible marks left on the environment by our decision to drive.

As with many of Matt's illustrations, there's much more to these tire tracks than meets the eye. A closer look reveals a complex, thought-provoking microcosm hidden in the details.

Want a closer look? Download the desktop wallpaper version

"In each drawing there is a cause and effect," explains Johnstone. The top tire mark shows the myriad car trips that people take in a day, such as driving to the supermarket or to school. The bottom tire track shows the environmental impact of these journeys, such as a polar bear's sad demise due to melting ice.

Very literally, these are marks we are leaving on the earth when we drive.

Here's Matt in his own words on his illustrations, biking in London, and the cool things he's seen while cycling:

On his images for Car Free Day 2010:

The tire marks are a particularly strong image as they illustrate leaving a mark on the environment. It was important to me to create a drawing that wasn't as it initially seemed on first glance and that had an engaging level of detail so that the viewer would be drawn in to look at it closely and reveal the story. The image first appears fun but has quite an unsettling message behind it.

On living car free:

I think car free is a great idea, I live in South East London and cycle to my studio in Hoxton every day. It's about 8 miles each way but I'm lucky enough to be able to cycle some of it along Regent's Canal, which is pretty relaxed. Generally I think it's probably a bit more stress-free than going by car.

Getting around by car is probably more of a hindrance in London. I prefer to walk, cycle or to use public transport to get places. In more rural areas people rely on a car in their daily lives but some people do get a bit lazy and stuck in the convenience of it, sometimes it would be better to use public transport or walk places.

On his best biking experiences:

I often see herons, and once I saw a cormorant emerge from a dive with a big fish in its beak. He then swallowed it whole! I have also seen some policemen run after a kid that had nicked a girl's mobile phone and catch him, but mainly the highlight is just being outside on those days when the sun is shining, and you can just cycle home at a leisurely pace.

On cycling in London:

One thing that I am always pleasantly surprised about is the amount of people that stop and offer you help when you have a puncture. I have to use the Greenwich foot tunnel that goes underneath the Thames linking Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs. It's being refurbished and was due to shut while work was taking place, but a community petition sent to the local council has meant that it stays open which was a great success.

About Matt Johnstone:

Matt grew up in the Sussex countryside, in a village called Steyning. Since graduating from Central St. Martin's College of Art & Design, Matt works as an illustrator based in London and has illustrated for clients such as Drink in Brighton, Nokia and Penguin Books. Matt has been illustrating for The Guardian newspaper since May 2007, producing monthly drawings for the sport section. He uses pencil, pen and ink to create his drawings that have a humorous, almost cartoon style but often have thought provoking surreal undertones. [Visit his website]

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