TCD’s March Artist of the Month
The heavy industry in Edmund Mathews’ paintings — the massive crates set in motion by tugboats or an ant-like army of humans — has Milwaukee written all over it.
Mathews, ThirdCoast’s artist of the month for March, apprenticed as a tool-and-die maker. His father and grandfather and a good bit of his extended family came over from Germany and Poland and brought their industrial craft with them. His paintings, three of them on view through March 31 in our Grand Avenue window, address human migration in addition to industrial labor.
“My dad came over from Germany when he was 25,” said Mathews, 47. “He was a tool-and-die maker. The whole family has that work ethic.”
His father was against a fine art career, so the son tried the family trade straight out of high school. At 21, he quit and started college. Two years at UW-Parkside and two at UW-Milwaukee got him a degree in graphic design — i.e., on the practical side of art-making.
“I worked in the industry for 20 years,” he said. “A partner and I had our own business for five years.”
Throughout that time, he took occasional art classes and dabbled in painting. Finally, in 2008, he got serious.
“I had saved up some money and wanted a lifestyle change,” he said. “I went back to art school. In graphic design, I was producing a commercial product, which is not bad in itself. But I was more looking to do something for myself, or maybe leave a legacy. Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, I don’t know. Everybody told me I was crazy. But I knew that if I made that decision, it would be the rest of my life, and that I would make whatever sacrifices necessary for it to come to fruition.”
He went back to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as a painting major in 2009. Because of his related degree and classes he’d taken in the interim, Mathews completed his BFA in three semesters and graduated in December of 2010.
“I quit working completely in order to concentrate on school and painting,” he said. “I tightened my belt and lived on my savings. I was married a long time ago, and it only lasted two years, and we had no kids. Being unattached made it a lot easier.”
Mathews will start work on his MFA at UWM in the fall. In the interim, he is in the Milwaukee Artists Resouce Network‘s mentor program. He’s working Santiago Cucullu, an established artist who shows and sells internationally.
“It’s been very helpful,” Mathews said, “aesthetically and on the practical side.”
Mathews has entered many group shows — he has a piece Forward 2012, which opens today (March 2) at the Charles Allis Museum. But he’s waiting to approach a gallery until he finishes that MFA.
“I need a little more under my belt,” Mathews said.
The fascinating, meticulous imagery in his paintings, however surreal in scale, spring from the real world.
“When people migrate, they sometimes have to go with just one piece of luggage. So they fill it with all their most valuable possessions. I make the crates show that value by painting them in monumental scale.”
In these paintings, little people take big chances to go places, to work hard, to build something new. Edmund Mathews might be staying right here in Milwaukee, but he knows all about all of that.
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