The Wise Owl talks to Matt Atkinson, a Colorado-based artist whose work is found in collections all over North America and Europe. His traditional, realist paintings portray the American West from the days gone by to the present, and in particular the stories of men and women who preserve this heritage.
The Interview : Matt Atkinson
(Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl in conversation with Matt Atkinson)
The Wise Owl talks to Matt Atkinson, a Colorado-based artist whose work is found in collections all over North America and Europe. He has a degree in studio art from University of Tennessee, and has exhibited in numerous juried shows, where he has earned honours which include purchase and gold medal awards.
His traditional, realist paintings portray the American West from the days gone by to the present, and in particular the stories of men and women who preserve this heritage. From old-time saddle makers to violin carvers to Indian Elders and warriors, his works honour the preservation of culture, and men and women who steadfastly carry on these traditions. Matt’s art has found its way into private and corporate collections and galleries across America, Europe, Finland and Canada.
Hi Matt. Thanks for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.
RS: You are an artist with a diverse canvas of art forms – Cowboy and Indian art, Wildlife Art, Landscapes and pencil drawings. Tell us a little about how your journey as an artist and how you developed and evolved these different art forms.
MA: Before becoming an artist, I was a social worker who helped Native American communities develop cultural preservation and anti-violence programs, and that kept a lot of indigenous values prominent in my thinking. But I didn’t realize how advanced western art portrayals had become, until I saw a show in a museum. The oil paintings were astonishing, representing the diverse experiences of western people, including Indians of various tribes. It inspired me to make an effort to develop my own skill as a painter.
RS: On your website you say that your Art is your way of preserving culture, and men and women who steadfastly carry on these traditions. What inspired you to preserve native American culture and traditions as well as the Wild west cowboy ethos?
MA: One of the best things about being an artist is how many stories you encounter. When I’m painting scenes of the west, I’m also spending time with the people who know it the best, learning from them. In order to portray things accurately, I’ve spent time with traditional cowboys, saddle-makers, mountain men, Native American elders and youth, the grandchildren of historic chiefs, and holy people. Capturing their likeness on canvas isn’t the most important part of the process, it’s cultivating those connections and learning their stories. Many of their skills and histories are becoming rarer, and could be lost to time if we’re not all more careful about what parts of our shared cultural memories we protect, and 'earning' the chance to hear their stories is one of the most fulfilling parts of the process.
RS: Your Pencil drawings are truly beautiful. I especially loved ‘Found My Way’,’ Grizzly Bear’ ‘Wolf Couple’, among others. Our readers would be curious to know how you make your subjects so realistic and life-like.
MA: I photograph most of my own reference imagery, for starters. The grizzly bear and wolves in those pieces are animals I personally encountered. Led by knowledgeable guides and handlers, I was able to observe each animal closely but safely. After capturing thousands of photographs, I pore through them to find the images that best represent the personality, drama, and story of each animal. I keep my reference image on my laptop screen while working at an adjacent easel or drawing table. That also helps me represent their movement and anatomy accurately. In some cases, such as with horses, I’ve even collected and studied equine veterinarian textbooks to get the anatomical details correct, because experts who know those animals can spot any imperfections in how bone structure or musculature is drawn.
RS: Some of your works like ‘Merciful Release’, ‘Love Letters’, ‘What she has inside her’ seem to suggest a philosophy and attitude towards life. Could you elaborate on the philosophy of life reflected in some of your works.
MA: It goes back again to my concept of art as a form of storytelling. Sometimes, a story can be told simply, like when a wolf is drinking from a stream, or a Plains Indian warrior is preparing his horse with paint before a battle. Other times, the story is more intuitive, rather than being directly narrated by the paint or pencil itself. In those pieces, the story is about a subject’s personal experience. I believe that every life has a story to tell, and often it’s when someone protests, “Who, me? No, I’m boring, I don’t really have a story”, that there’s something remarkable to discover that they themselves might not realize is precious. So I want to look further than the surface until I find the story that each life has to share, and then show respect for it.
RS: You are not only an artist but also an academic, having written award-winning books on behavioural sciences. What inspired you to write these books?
MA: My years as a social worker are what led me to write those books, because I wanted a way to use the accumulated experiences of the many amazing people I’d encountered as a resource to promote healing and empowerment for others. I’ve worked with a lot of trauma survivors, and always been impressed by how much internal strength and insight they have, even when they might not recognize it themselves at first. As I’ve learned from those connections with others, I’ve also wanted to respect those experiences. In my own way, writing books about recovery from trauma is my response to those connections. Whether as a social worker or as an artist, I feel like the one job I’ve always had for my whole life is to be a storyteller and story collector.
RS: Your work on the theme of anti-violence intrigues me. What made you take on this difficult path?
MA: I was fortunate to come from a healthy and happy family; I was raised by good people. I’m very aware of the privilege this provided to me as a child, not having to survive trauma or violence. But it’s also caused me to feel a responsibility to the lives around me, and that means more than not simply being violent myself. It means that I feel a responsibility to be anti-violent, in all its forms: racism, sexism, or any other form of marginalization. In my art, I represent those values by showing relationships that are generally peaceful and equal, rather than moments of conflict or strife. I seldom paint battle scenes, for example, even though they are a real part of our history. I’m unlikely to paint moments of competition between predators and prey. When I represent multiple lives in a single scene, they are almost always at peace. This isn’t because of a naïve, superficial, or wish-fulfilment indulgence, but because I’ve directly faced a lot of the world’s real-life cruelty, and this is my pushback. This is how I psychologically balance myself between difficult realities and hopeful ideals, between turmoil and beauty. There’s nothing naïve or delusional about recognizing the real impact of strife on my own health, and consciously choosing to use art as a resource to resist becoming disillusioned or calloused about the world.
RS: many of our readers are budding artists. What advice would you give them to help them hone their craft and passion for Art?
MA: The things that helped me most were to buy a membership to a nearby art museum and go there frequently and study the artists you admire, and to connect with living master artists. Look at how they solve problems in their art, and how they physically apply paint, and what decisions they make on their canvases. This isn’t the same as copying them; begin to notice how they accomplish things with their materials. One museum guide told me once that they could tell the difference between an artist and a museum visitor, because visitors stand back from paintings to see them all, but artists get mere inches away because they’re analysing individual brush strokes! I’ve also found my own artistic role models are usually quite friendly and eager to offer their time and suggestions to sincere students; there have been times when I’ve written to an artist who leaves me in awe, and been amazed that they will actually reply with their ideas for how I can improve a painting or drawing. They feel respected when someone actually listens, and they can see how you’ve incorporated their advice into your work in response. So go ahead and ask the artists you look up to, be open to real critique, and show them the “after” stages of your work when you’ve taken their suggestions.
Thanks Matt, for talking to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your creative and academic pursuits and hope your anti-violence program/work can make the world a better and more peaceful place.