A portrait can take on so many forms—a painting, a photograph, even a mosaic. And British artist Matt Small finds inspiration for his work in almost anything but a blank canvas. Choosing instead to co-opt discarded items like rusty shelving units, dented oven doors, and even old car hoods found on the streets of London, the artist takes the forgotten objects back to his studio and gives them new life by transforming them into works of art.
Though Small is primarily a painter, he was struck by the idea of repurposing scrap metal, after amassing quite the collection during his scavenges. Rather than paint portraits onto the metal itself, he decided to use the cut-up pieces to create mosaic portraits in the same way one might use ceramic tiles. Each piece of scrap metal art is as unique as the subject it depicts, and it carries a heartfelt message that speaks to their worth as individuals.
“I’ve always felt the need to document the people that live in my area, the individuals that are rarely featured in portraiture, the unseen, undervalued in society,” Small tells My Modern Met. “My desire is to celebrate and shine a light on them in a positive way, to see them as beautiful and deserving to be featured. I began painting my subjects on discarded items I found on the street. For me it made sense to utilize a material that had been deemed useless and unable to contribute anymore and then marrying that object with someone who was possibly seen in the same way by society.”
Each portrait is a labor of love, with the entire process of completing one piece often taking several months. Starting from a sketch rendered on thin plywood, Small assesses the light, mid, and dark tones of the image. He then gathers pieces of metal from his collection to match those tonal values—ranging from dusty gray, to white, to pieces browned with a rusty patina. The metal scraps are then stuck to his plywood canvas with a silicone-based glue, fitting together in intricate patterns like an exquisite puzzle, far removed from their dismal forgotten origins.
“I feel like these mosaics make a statement on how we should see our young people,” Small explains, “that if we see their inherent value, if we harness their potential, if we invest in them, then they will have a greater desire to contribute to society in a meaningful way. We don’t want any of our young people ending up on the scrap heap of life. We can give them the belief that they are truly precious to the world.”