Etsy Stalking: The Art of Matte Stephens

I first saw the art of Matte Stephens when I stumbled upon his Etsy Shop last year while attempting to find earrings for my wife's birthday. The color combinations, the humor and whimsy of the work, and the rate at which he produces new prints and paintings kept me coming back to the Etsy shop for over a year until, eventually, I shot him an email to ask him a few questions about his work. He was gracious enough to grant an interview and to let us post a few of his paintings below.

NB: Can you tell me a bit about yourself—specifically, how you came to painting and paper sculpture? Were you formally educated as an artist?

MS: I am from a small town in northern Alabama called Boaz and had lived in Birmingham, Alabama for the past five years (though we just recently relocated to Portland, OR). The only formal education I've had was high school. I painted as a kid and it seemed to be the only thing I was good at. I just kept on painting and studying after high school and decided early on that this would be what I would do forever. I was introduced to modern design by a librarian in my home town who saw my drawings and thought I would like a book called Pioneers of Modern Art, which was published around 1961. I instantly fell in love with the book and still have it. It has everything in it, architecture, painting, industrial design, and film. It is a really great book! So from that time on, I was obsessed with high design. The paper sculpture started with a book that Better Homes and Gardens put out in the 60's that showed kids how to make animals out of oatmeal cans. After I saw that, I became friends with designer Irving Harper and visited his home in New York, where he had hundreds of sculptures made of paper using his training as an architect as a way to make models for himself. So I started making them after that. They are nowhere near the caliber of Irving's but I do enjoy making them.

NB: I'm really drawn to your color palate—often a mix of muted grays, browns and greens and bright yellows and blues—and to your use of asymmetrical or ovoid patches of color. Has your aesthetic changed drastically over time and, if so, how has it developed?

MS: I have always leaned towards muted colors, there just seems like there are so many more possibilities in muted colors. I have always loved mixing color so I have always stayed clear of primary colors. I'm sure the paintings I made in the 90's are a lot different from the ones I make now, I guess it was a slow change. Over time you learn tons of different things. It's hard for me to pinpoint when my work really changed.

NB: Your use of shape and color reminds me somewhat of the 1950s domestic design of Charles and Ray Eames, but your subject matter (be it an owl, a hat-wearing giant Bear, or a row of apartment buildings) also communicates something more whimsical—something more like the illustrative work of Ludwig Bemelmans or even Maurice Sendak. Can you tell me a bit about what or who inspires your work? Is there a particular artistic mode, school or movement you find particularly appealing?

MS: The office of George Nelson and Associates from the 40's-60's has always inspired me. Charles and Ray Eames, Ben Shahn, Paul Klee, Cliff Roberts, Alexander Girard, Paul Rand, and Herbert Matter. I always loved how the Nelson Office always seemed to have a sense of humor with their designs. Alexander Girard really had a sense of innocence to his work. I love light-hearted subjects. I try to stay away from anything with angst in it. To me, life is tough enough, so adding to it with disturbing images just seems a little silly to me.

NB: While I'm somewhat loath to ask you about the business end of things, I'm curious to know what you think about selling your work through a site like Etsy. In some ways, it seems to me that working through Etsy (rather than through an exclusive deal with a gallery or an agent) gives the artist much more control over the sale and distribution of his or her work. Then again, the artist then become responsible for the business of mailing, pricing, payment, etc. Could you talk a bit about how you balance your creative energies and the business of getting your work out there?

MS: I have an agent and work with lots of galleries and shops. Etsy is something I really love to do. For many years I represented myself and I had to do every aspect of it. Now I can focus on Etsy and painting and don't have to worry about other stuff which is wonderful. My wife, Vivienne helps me run my Etsy shop, it would be hard to do it without her now.

NB: Are there any trends in contemporary art that you find particularly appealing or unappealing?

MS: I have loved the nature theme that has been in contemporary art for a while now and the move towards innocence. I was saddened to see the work of Guillermo Habacuc Vargas. I think cruelty in any form is a bad direction to go in no matter you feel the meaning is.

NB: Often, critical or academic conversations about art address individual works of art in broad terms that may, for instance, discuss a piece as a reaction to a particular aesthetic, or as a response to another artist. Do you ever feel that your work is a part of a broader conversation or a broader aesthetic, or is that kind of analysis best left to critics, collectors and academics?

MS: I do think that kind of analysis is best left to critics, collectors and academics.

NB: Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day studio work? Do you paint every day? When the mood strikes you?

MS: I do paint every day. My studio is set up almost like a separate home, I have a tv so I can watch old movies all day long while I work. If you wait until the mood strikes you, you'll never do it. Vivienne has to force me to take breaks to eat or get outside and go for a walk. Painting and making things is my entire life so it really doesn't feel like work. I'm very very lucky to be able to do this.


Nikki-Nicole said…
Matte Stephens is selling a couple designs on Urban Outfitter's mass-produced canvases. It's great that Matte is getting the exposure; at least they gave him credit for his designs.

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