Colin Matthes

Colin Matthes was one of four residency artists during our 2012 autumn residency. His practice includes painting, drawing, installation, zine and graphic production, and public art projects. Matthes has exhibited internationally in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Antwerp, Dublin, Houston, Seville, Ljubljana, Melbourne, and Berlin.

In addition to his residency at Cow House, he has participated in numerous other residencies including Hotel Pupik (Austria) and Werkkamp (Belgium). He won the Mary L Nohl Fellowship for Individual Artists in 2102 (Established) and 2007 (Emerging). In addition, Matthes works collectively with Justseeds, a network of twenty-six artists living in the United States, Canada, and Mexico that runs a print collective, contributes graphics to social movements, and co-publishes books.

Colin has been extremely generous with is time, taking care in thoughtfully answering our questions. It has been our privilege to catch up and read about all that has happened since his time with us in Ireland four years ago.

CHS: During your residency at Cow House in 2012, you received word that you would be receiving the Mary L Nohl Fellowship. Can you tell us a bit about what came of that award? How did that opportunity help in the realization of new works?

CM: The Nohl Fellowship provided the support to realize Green Mini Demo Derby, a project partially conceptualized at Cow House Studios. This project brings the worlds of county fairs and alternative energy into collision. A solar power station fuels a demolition derby made up of remote control cars. Businesses sponsored cars to share in this experiment in sustainable destruction. The sponsors, largely companies creating ethical business models, make a game of (and possibly comply with) the capitalist tenets of self-interest and survival of the fittest. The pleasure and pathos of this project is amplified as the viewer watches a local corporate death match wrapped in a cloak of environmental sustainability. As well as solar power, Green Mini uses spectacle and public participation to create a space that is imaginative and accessible to a wide array of audiences.

Green Mini originally premiered at INOVA (Institute of Contemporary Art, Milwaukee) as part of the fellowship award. Since it has been a fixture at the Energy Fair in Custer WI.

CHS: You continue to work with Justseeds, a network of twenty-six artists living in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Considering recent political developments, how has your involvement with this organisation evolved in response to the rise of atypical political figures on both the left and right? Do you feel that your work within this group of artists has become more urgent?

CM: Justseeds is a small group of individuals (30 artists now) committed to social, environmental, and political engagement. We operate both as a unified collaboration of similarly minded printmakers and as a loose collection of creative individuals with unique viewpoints and working methods.

We work with ground up organizations and communities; organizing around radical politics and mutual aid, not elections. Speaking for myself (and I am hardly the most radical among our group), focusing on electoral politics is often a waste of time. Elections feel like this huge swell of activism and once it is over the air is let out. There was plenty of work to do with Obama in the White House and with Trump on deck everything is more urgent. In retrospect, we all should have resisted Trump harder when he was running. The level of power he will have is truly scary for humanity and the planet. The work we do in Justseeds continues no matter who is president and often capitalism is the larger problem, not a specific individual. We need to reimagine the world we live in as well as continue to support many urgent needs and causes.

Stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline and supporting Native Resistance is a current focus of our collective energy. Numerous Justseeds folks have spent time at the Standing Rock camps, often as volunteer printmaking labor. Personally the bulk of my efforts are going to raising a toddler, helping my pregnant (again) wife, and projects I can focus on from home in short bursts. One great aspect of Justseeds is it ebbs and flows, with different people stepping up at different times, so we can continue to be involved in multiple projects and movements even when a few people step back to take on other obligations.

Justseeds currently has a window display up at Printed Matter bookshop that does a lot to explain how we think about your question. One of the posters reads, “You’re in luck, politics neither begins or ends with elections.”

CHS: You’re the proud father of a beautiful daughter and have another baby on the way. What effect has parenthood had on your artistic practice? How do you create the necessary time to focus in order to make new work?

CM: I have restructured my life to spend a large amount of time with my daughter and alternate the primary care giver role with my wife. It would be incredibly difficult if I expected the same studio situation as I had pre kid, but I feel fortunate that I am able to keep an active studio practice while raising a toddler. I quit my adjunct teaching job because it took too much time and mental energy for too little compensation and replaced it with sporadic freelance work that affords more studio time, more income, and more anxiety about money coming in. I miss a consistent routine and am working to build an untouchable studio component to my weekly schedule.

Parenthood has made me more efficient. I no longer have twelve-hour days in the studio and my experimentation is more focused. With child I have been more organized and better at prioritizing the most necessary tasks. On a good day I think about what I want to do in the studio while parenting or doing freelance work and get to work late at night or very early the next morning. The expansiveness that used to be a part of my studio routine has been replaced by urgency and focus. I enter with a plan and am usually working in a very specific direction before I get my coat off. I also do a lot of studio work late night at home on the couch or floor. Some days it is really hard not being able to get much if anything done, and I worry that I am not making enough time for experimentation. Sometimes good ideas have nothing to do with efficiency or thought.

The biggest drawback is the pressure to have success (mainly financially) that I never felt before. Making sure this thing I have dedicated a large part of my life to can help to provide for a family. There is more pressure with everything once you have a family. This can also be positive and contributes to focus. Another drawback is the complication of logistics, for example I used to travel a lot more and make it out to more events, while these things still happen they are more difficult and rare.

The biggest change is allowing myself to think through things and expand on them. When I had more studio time it was work, work, work, and I would jump from project to project without much time for analysis or follow-up. Now (even though parenting comes with a special kind of exhaustion) I make time to think through what I am doing, from big picture goals to the minutia. I also have the opportunity (am forced) to edit my approach. I can’t work in as many directions at once and am thinking about projects as more long term, decades, not starting from scratch each exhibition. This is partially from becoming a father and partially the way my career and projects have been evolving the last few years. Also, the incubation period from idea to sketches, to making and finishing the work is much longer. The work evolves slowly these days, allowing thorough consideration each step of the way.

CHS: What are your most vivid memories from your time on residency at Cow House? Do you find that strands of thought that may have originated here continue to reveal themselves in your work?

CM: One of the most vivid is walking out from the studio and letting a gust of wind rip off the kitchen door as I opened it. Damn, embarrassment is the most vivid. The meals were spectacular and a great time to visit with everyone, the daily highlight. Frank making sausage, playing with Michael, chatting with Rosie, watching football and Lord of the Rings, older Michael eating Kit Kats and watching hurling with him, the Ploughing festival. Marc, Susie, and Lois. Hiking up the mountain, that was a great day. Getting to know folks at the Wexford Art center and Monster Truck. Drinking whiskey with Marc and Frank. Having the champion Robert Ellis come visit.

Cow House played a fundamental role in three projects that are still evolving today. I focused on making work for Getting by in the Foreverscape, a series of drawings influenced by the Burren skies, Hollywood movie posters, questionable science, paranoid ramblings, and genuine concern laced with humor. I was able to shape some loose ideas into what became Green Mini Demo Derby. Frank’s feedback and support was helpful in getting the project proposal off the ground. Also at Cow House I committed to expanding the Essential Knowledge project. I did not make any drawings for it, but having time to present my work and reflect led to reenergizing the project once I returned to the states. Initially sixteen drawings it has expanded to include over forty and is still gaining momentum.

CHS: You were visiting artist at Het Bos in Antwerp, Belgium for October and November 2015. Can you describe a bit about your experience and what it was like to spend those two months working towards a considerable exhibition?

CM: Intense. It was so intense.

I was invited to be an artist-in-residence at Het Bos, a culture center in Antwerp Belgium. Initially I thought there is no way I could accept with a six month old baby and a job, but they were so good to us. They provided us a stipend so I could quit my job, plane fare, an apartment in the city, a phone, supplies, physical labor, and hired a friend to help with printing a Risograph book. So we were off on a major family trip and my first trip to Belgium as a parent. It was my sixth time in Belgium. On past trips I partied hard with close friends and worked from the minute I woke up until the evening wore on. Parenting tempered the excesses I was used to and I still needed to make time to complete a ton of work.

My daily ritual was nuts. I would get up around four am, bike in the (usually cold and rainy) dark to Het Bos, the culture center where I was working. There were huge windows in my studio and I would slowly take in the sunrise while making drawings reflecting on the Midwestern US. Around ten other folks from Het Bos would arrive, shortly after I would take care of logistics and have a quick lunch, soup and a beer. I would work until one or two pm, come home, and we would do something as a family. The zoo is amazing. Then once our baby went down (around nine or ten) my wife and I would drink strong Belgian beers and watch ridiculous TV, usually MTV. I can’t remember the names but there was one where lights went into the sky and went off when someone was eliminated. On occasion we would see friends, but they usually had to come to us.

My goals for the residency were excessive. I immediately started making large-scale drawings for The Almost Now, a series of speculative vistas informed by the Midwestern United States’ rural community phenomena and absurdities. I spent the first five weeks of the residency drawing and painting and the last three weeks building out the exhibition and finishing paintings while working closely with Jan Matthe to produce Back in Five Minutes, a risograph book of my work and Handwerk, a print portfolio I curated with half Belgian and half American artists. I underestimated the amount of work that went into making the book and prints. Jan really hustled at the end to help make everything come together, without his ambition I would not of pulled it all off.

I also started a project now titled Total Essential Knowledge. I invited Het Bos visitors to share their unique knowledge, and I would make a drawing based on this experience. Discussions ranged from a doctor explaining how to use pressure points in healing a sprained ankle to a very hungover guy explaining how he makes a sandwich that is easy to pick up and set down. Next I visited a refugee center in Belgium. It was humbling to share stories with mainly Syrian and Iraqi refugees. A Syrian man’s essential knowledge was that everyone should know that “Nowhere in Syria is safe.”

There were a lot of hiccups. Our daughter got sick with a high fever leading to her first trip to the emergency room. The hospital was amazing, helpful and not worried about the fact that we forgot all forms of ID and could not speak Flemish. She was sick a few times and my wife sick as well; we spent a lot of time navigating transportation and learning about the medical system, which is wonderful but it is hard to figure what is open when and where. We went to Paris to visit friends a week before the terrorist attack there. It was heavy psychologically with the connection to Belgium, especially with a newborn, as an American, and not speaking the language. It was hardest on Makeal, the mother carries the most common sense and worry about protecting her kids. When you walk to the grocery store with your newborn, there are tanks and armed guards outside and you do not understand any of the languages being spoken, it is not as pleasant as you envisioned the Belgian family trip. We had friends from Ireland visit and my wife and daughter returned to Ireland with them for the last couple weeks of my residency. I came after and we spent a few more weeks decompressing.

In those three months we travelled from the USA, to Antwerp, Belgium, to West Clare, Ireland, spent a weekend in Paris, went to the hospital emergency room and numerous doctors, got to know a new area of Antwerp, saw way too much MTV, biked all over Antwerp, all with a new born. For my residency I made an exhibition including a series of thirty small drawings, two large scale paintings, a video, and four large scale drawings, a book, started a new project where I drew with folks at Het Bos and at a refugee center, did a workshop at Grafixx (a local print festival), and curated a portfolio of prints.

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