I met with Matt Chapman on an early weekday at his studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Matt is going into his second year of his Master of Fine Arts there, and will be exhibiting at the Annual Student Exhibition in May of 2015. He is also actively exhibiting while in school.
I was always fascinated with Matt’s work because of the obsessive technicality of it. He could spend whole days making marks on paper with his pencil, in a meditative state that made me want to know more. When you walk into Matt’s studio, it looks like the fastidious home of an eccentric botanist. There are curiosities, exoskeletons, and objects from nature carefully arranged on shelves, bottles with neat labels, and over the walls artwork that is visually organized, yet intense. It was here that I sat down with Matt to chat about his work.
J: Let’s begin talking about you and your work. Where are you originally from?
M: I’m from a small town close to Baltimore, MD, but after high school I moved to Lancaster to attend Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, which is where I still live today.
J: Wow, so you commute to Philadelphia every day for graduate school? That’s dedication!
M: I do, it’s about an hour and a half by train each way.
J: When did you know that you wanted to get into art?
M: The cliché answer would be that I always knew, but I suppose it’s always something that I kept coming back to—not that I necessarily thought I was good at it, but that I kept coming back to it. I had fun doing it as a child. Once I started to develop my own opinions on what I would like to be, or where I saw myself progressing through life, it was always around art. I was lucky enough to have a very supportive family who certainly helped.
J: A lot of your work seems to have a scientific bent. Could you talk about that?
M: I’m not a scientist by any means, and I was never particularly great at the sciences, but I love nature, period. I spend almost every free minute I can outside trying to flip over a rock or a log to see underneath, and I’ve always been very interested in natural history, fossils. That’s probably something that originated from early in my childhood too, my family has been visiting a certain park in Virginia where you find lots of fossils—fossilized clams, fish…and that’s just been engrained in me. So I think nature for me has been something that has continually fascinated me.
J: What mediums do you work in?
M: I prefer a dry medium. I like to call myself a draftsman—I make drawings with graphite and ink, and every once in a while will mess with charcoal, but I’d say graphite is my weapon of choice.
J: Your work is very detail oriented. Does that have a meditative effect for you?
M: It certainly does. Since I was four, I’ve been studying martial arts. That’s had a profound impact on the way that I see the world, and the way that I carry myself through it. And I think that meditation is more prevalent in other forms of martial arts than the one I’ve been studying (Taekwondo), but I think that the body works with the mind, and those two work with the rest of the world. I make these drawings, I get the same feeling that I get after hours and hours of training. I can step out of myself and forget that the rest of the world exist, and it’s just me and my pencil. And then when I come back out of it, it’s like ok, I accomplished something today.
J: Kind of like working “In flow”.
M: It’s kind of how I know I’ve done something great, when eight hours have gone by and I don’t even realize it.
J: Would you say that the subject of your artwork is nature, then?
M: Sure, I believe everything stems from nature, so that everything that I portray belongs to it. In some form or another you can break it down into nature.
J: What issues does your latest body of work deal with?
M: More impressions. I felt that I was kind of a “thingist.” I felt like I needed to go find something and bring it back to my studio and draw from it, and work from that, but now I’ve begun to realize that I can get the same feeling and arrive at a deeper sense of understanding about what I am working at what I am if I allow myself to be impressed by the world rather than if I collect it and uproot it. So with these three drawings on the bottom, they are from events that I have witnessed, but not taken a photo from, or taken anything away from. I’ve just allowed that event to sit in my mind, and then when I come back to the studio I allow myself to work from that core essence or core feeling. I feel like I arrive at it in a much deeper understanding than if I just drew from life.
J: It’s more psychological.
M: It’s conceptual. And a lot of it I think you know as I draw, I think to myself, this is this, but how is it like that, or could it be something else?
J: Would you feel comfortable sharing what those things are?
M: Sure! The one to the left here, a lot of these are actually from the train—I have a lot of time to think on the train, so this one here on the left, coming through Gap, it’s much open farmland, and right from the train I noticed coming up to my side here there was a large pile of white and black. And I mean a LARGE pile, like 13, 14 feet tall. And when the train got close to it I realized that they were a pile of deceased cows. Just piled on one another. It left this really huge impression on me because those animals were probably made to give everything their entire life away– it’s a livestock animal, so they’re not kept for fun or for pleasure, those animals gave everything they had. And then when they were expended, they were piled like trash next to the side of the train tracks—which was equally disturbing, because then everybody who passes by sees it. So that was really intense. I mean, they sat there for weeks. So every day when the train would go by I would just see this pile either get bigger, because they are decomposing, and then eventually get smaller, and then one day we go by the same spot and I see the farmer just kicking them into a giant mass grave—shoving them with his foot, and then there was just a mound of dirt where the pile was. It’s something really strange to me. So this drawing is about something that is under the ground—and that you never know what is under your feet. You see a mound and you wonder what’s under there, but that could also be something like jealousy or anger—you don’t see it but it sits under your skin, and it can grow, and fester and mutate.
The one in the center here, again from the train in Coatesville, my train happened to stop next to a burning house, while it was in full conflagration. A fire like I’ve never seen in my life. Even from just sitting inside the train I could hear the rush of the oxygen and the flames leaving the house. And the firefighters and everybody were just standing around watching at that point, because they couldn’t save the house—they were just making sure it didn’t catch anything else on fire. That idea that things will burn—again you can bring that back to a more personal note. Things will burn down, but then normally from where something is burned down, it gives something else a place to grow. It’s not so much about a feeling of anxiety, but renewal—I mean, it’s a very activated drawing.
J: It’s beautiful. They are very interesting drawings. And what is the last one?
M: The last one is something a little more lighthearted. I was sitting in our drawing class the other day, and I noticed the veins in someone’s foot. They had their shoes off, and I thought about that how we are all very much full of something, and there’s not very much light inside of us, if any. We’re pretty dark on the inside, which may be a negative thing to say, but perhaps it’s true. I don’t want my art to be purely for myself, because I don’t know if that’s enough of a reason for me to make art—you know normally you make something, people view it, you almost feel like you’re giving back. So this drawing reminds me of a transfusion bag. I put a lot of myself into each drawing, and I give it to other people to view and take away from, much like I feel like people do when they give blood.
J: That’s so true, you put so much of your life and your time into each piece.
Very cool. Thank you for sharing that, it’s very interesting. What are some things that inspire or influence you?
M: I mean really, the world around me, and it’s not always so much the people I talk to, and things like that, but it’s more my experiences out in the world, as I walk, as I move through a space, things will stick out to you, things will impress you. And then, of course, my martial arts training. How should I be handling myself in this situation? How do I need to be speaking in this moment? It always come back to just the respect that I put out. I am certainly influenced by that way of thinking.
J: How do you begin a piece, from the idea?
M: The idea will arrive to me. I spend a lot of time just thinking. Sometimes when I think over long periods of time, the idea will come to me, but other times it just hits me with “you need to do this now!”. And I normally don’t sketch. I still keep a sketchbook for myself, but not for preliminary drawings for the pieces I create. I come in, I have the size and the medium already decided for me before I begin, and I just set to it. I seem to work quickly, so if I’m not able to get it all done in one shot, it’s usually not more than three sittings.
J: How long is a sitting for you?
M: It depends on if I’m interrupted or not—it could go for hours, it could be an eight hour session.. I get here at 6:45 in the morning, and I don’t leave until 3:30. So on the days where I am completely uninterrupted, I won’t leave the studio, and I often times won’t take a break to do anything else, it will just be continuous.
J: What do you hope the viewer takes away when they see your work?
M: That’s some thing I contemplate often, and it’s too difficult for me to say “This is what I want the person to get” because what I want is irrelevant when I’m not there to talk about my work. People will look at my drawings and they will come away with something that either they will enjoy or they will not so much enjoy, but at least they are thinking about it. If I could have my way, I would want the people who look at my drawings to just understand the time or the attention given to each drawing. For some reason to me, technical ability has always been really important. And I like to see that recognized in people, and I like to show people that I recognize it in their work. So perhaps if someone could look at it and go, “That’s very well done,” maybe not that they agree or disagree with it but the acknowledgment that it is well done, I’d be happy with that too.
J: Where would you categorize your art to fit into the art world?
M: Oh my goodness.
J: I know, that’s a tough question!
M: I mean, I think that’s a tough question now, in the year 2014. If this was 20, 30 years ago, I could say, oh you know I fit within the modernists, or the postmodernists, but I think now, in the age that we live in, there’s so much media, there’s so much creative media outlets for that too, that I think the definition or finding where you fit always changes. I do like to consider myself a conceptual artist, so if there is room our there or a drawer where everybody within there would be labeled as conceptual, I’d like to fit there.
J: Describe some interesting technical details about the making of your work.
M: I count. I count all my marks.
J: In every drawing!?
M: In most drawings. In most drawings I am very aware of how many marks it has taken me to complete a drawing. And for a while I was doing a series of drawing where I would only count, as they covered the page, and it numbered into the thousands. And I can look at those drawings and know exactly how many marks there were. That’s not so much technical, but I feel like the mark making itself, that’s the technical part of it, and the fact that I count it, that’s just counting the technical aspect of it. I like to accumulate my marks. It’s not often you see one mark alone, it’s often accompanied by many many more, hundreds more. So I think the accumulation and the buildup is something that technically I find to be very interesting.
J:: Relate a transformative experience that tells us why you became an artist.
M: Growing up, I lived in a small town, where you were expected to play football or join the fire department. Being an artist was nothing. When people would ask you and you’d say “I want to be an artist!”, in this town people would look at you like you had two heads. And I had nobody encouraging to really connect myself to who was saying “You are good at this, you can make a living from this.” I had nobody like that, and to my very last semester in high school. We got a new art teacher, her name was Christine. She immediately said “Matt, you can do this, you SHOULD do this if you want to, and don’t let anyone else stop you.” And I think that was the moment where I began to take things a little more seriously, that it didn’t just have to be me and my sketchbook. I started showing this to people and feeling confident about it. And she really decided almost the entire course of my life–because I went to college because it was the college she came from—I didn’t look up any other places, and I said, if they’re making people like her, then I can be like that, too. From that moment on, that’s when art was going to be it for me. I can also relate it back to my instructors, my sensaes. They maybe not always understood what I was aiming for with art, but they were always the ones to say, if you really value something, then you need to pursue it. And it was wonderful with them too because no matter what the goal was to make sure you felt confident.
J: Interesting, now what are some of the basic tenets of martial arts?
M: There’s many different kinds of martial arts, but a lot of them follow the same paths. In Taekwondo, the tenets are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control, indomitable spirit, it’s never been about proving that you can dominate, it’s about being there to prove that you don’t have to dominate. I find that most martial artists who take it very seriously don’t need to flaunt what they know. I mean I’ve been studying it for almost 22 years, and oftentimes when people ask what I’m interested and I tell them Martial Arts, they say “I never would have guessed that.” It’s just about carrying your self in a way that is respectful of everyone, including yourself.
J: Well, thank you so much for this interview, and I look forward to seeing your work at the ASE next year!
M: I’m looking forward to that too! Thank you.
Matt Chapman has a solo exhibition, “It’s This, but Also That,” during the month of July at the Gallery at Dogstar Books at 401 West Lemon Street, Lancaster, PA . The opening and artist talk is on July 9th, from 5:30 to 8pm.
You can see Matt’s website at www.mattallynchapman.com
Interview by Jessica Libor, May 24, 2014.