Painter Matt Sesow’s art is raw, exciting and for the most part emotionally charged. Selected by the UN for their postal stamp, self taught Matt works prolifically. He has been artist in residence in Costa Rica and worked for the US Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands. Based in America his work is exhibited internationally, most recently and upcoming in Washington, Barcelona and France.
Hi Matt, thanks so much for joining us at Om Pom Happy. I think you were the very first person I followed on Instagram! I just love your work. Tell us how you became an artist…
Thank you for inviting me. I have been ‘at it’ as a painter for over 21 years now. I was born in Nebraska in 1966 and moved to Washington, DC after college (BS computer software engineering) in 1989. I started painting in ’94 and haven’t stopped. I happily live and paint in the heart of our capital city.
I try not to refer to myself as an ‘artist’ yet. I like to call myself a painter, a ‘self-teaching painter’, still learning. I began as a desire to be accepted within a group of people I considered cool and mysterious. I’d spent most of my adolescent and early adult years exposed to art by listening obsessively to the punk and alternative music of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Since I felt and realized that I lacked musical talent, I saw painting as a way to ‘play along’ with the music that I love, a way to express myself, a way to shine and become more of an outlier.
You lost your left and dominant arm as a child…
Yes, in the summer of 1974 I was struck by the propeller of a landing airplane while outside playing in my Nebraska neighborhood. We lived near a small grassy runway with planes taking off and landing with irregular regularity. A landing plane hit me one early evening while a bunch of us neighborhood kids, (I was 8), were playing a ‘toss the ball in the air’ game called ‘spud’ very close to the grassy runway. I ran out onto the runway. I woke up in the hospital the next day with my left arm severed and re-attached by a returned Vietnam veteran doctor in a Lincoln, Nebraska hospital bed. They let me have a black-and-white TV in intensive care, it just had one channel. I only remember watching Superman. Anyways, they had to cut off my left (dominant) hand because of gangrene. I think that experience influences a lot of my paintings. It sure did when I started out… now the paintings are able to push the pain to the background.
Below: Matt age 8 in 1974
Below: THE IDEAL BOY
You have an amazing grasp of colour. Is this something that comes naturally to you or something that you’ve grown better at over the years?
I always joke with my wife, (also a painter), that the reason I paint so brightly is I think I can only see 6 to 10 colours and I am basically blind at night! I sleep in my studio half of the week away from my wife and have such a hard time seeing in the dark that I have installed an armada of motion-activated lights to protect the drying paintings scattered on my studio floor from being stepped on when I get up in the middle of the night to pee!
As I create each painting, I scan and plan to include the ‘best of’ my known colours and materials. Red is key, a bright red. A pure white and deepest black. I have 21+ years of tried and true materials that I can grab and go with at any time on my wall, on my easel, on my floor, and on a table.
I try ‘not to care’ as much as possible about my paintings and not to get upset when a painting takes a wrong direction. My paintings are a series of mistakes. The end result is the last layer. A series of mistakes become a great painting. My biggest failures are my ‘expected paintings’ (birds, fish, bull, chicken guy)… my success paintings are the unexpected works that surprise me. The problem is, to make money, the success paintings eventually become expected paintings = failure painting.
And huge congratulations! Your work was selected by the UN for its postal stamps. Such an amazing honour…!
Being selected for the UN stamp is one of the highlights and greatest honours in my artistic career. They used the image from my painting ‘dive-bomb’ that I created in 2012 for an exhibition in Washington, DC at the Fridge gallery. As with most interaction with strangers these days, the UN attempted to contact me via email and facebook, but initially I discarded them thinking it was a joke or scam. However, after a few convincing emails, I replied!
The painting was my reaction to the constant bombing of countries that we (the USA) were doing via drone attacks. The idea that President Obama had come into office with the promise of transparency and a more peaceful less war-like footing… and he was now responsible for the killing and bombing of civilians via the drone attacks, many more than President Bush. Somehow drones are a way of participating in war without declaring war. The way our media and public opinion has been so saturated with ‘group-think’ and us vs. them mentality, Republican vs. Democrat. While both Democrat and Republican are the same, they both are in it for the profit of the big guys, the big corporations. Somehow the little bunny (innocent) on the ground is doomed as it is being divebombed (by my ‘divebombing phoenix’ on a UN stamp).
Above: Matt at the UN with his wife the painter Dana Ellyn
You worked for the US Peace Corps on the Solomon Islands…
I decided to join the Peace Corps when I was working as software engineer at Netscape in Silicon Valley. It was 1997 and I had just re-entered the computer field after taking a year off to paint in California. I was making good money in computers, but I was bored and felt unchallenged at Netscape. I had always wanted to ‘push’ myself and I felt great after a hard days work of ‘pushing’. My ‘work’ in silicon valley wasn’t hard, nor was it satisfying.
I was accepted as a single volunteer after submitting my 6-month review application. When accepted, my then girlfriend suddenly decided she wanted to do it too. So I delayed my application and waited for hers to clear so we could volunteer as a ‘married volunteer couple’ (big mistake). It was a very hard position we were assigned. I don’t blame her for wanting to and leaving early. We didn’t have electricity, water (other than rain catchment), or ‘anybody’ other than a wonderful family of missionaries on our tiny island of 200+ people. I left the Solomon Islands in an attempt to save my marriage. I didn’t try hard enough, or perhaps it was a lost cause…
I don’t regret any aspect of my Peace Corps experience. It was all well worth it and I hope somehow worth it for the people I was sent there to serve. I was a surprise/oddity to many of the Solomon Islanders – a one-handed person aggressively attacking with enthusiasm the challenges. One of my vividest memories was when I was challenged to husk a coconut on a pointy stick in front of a village during training. A woman from the village left screaming in tears and berated my wife for not helping me! I was successful in husking the coconut one-handed.
My job was to teach science and math and ‘business’ to a small village on the island of Santa Ana. I had to develop the curriculum and semester on the fly using found textbooks in a makeshift library of donated books. It was a huge challenge.
My place to live was at the school which was separated from the village by a 40 minute walk along a two-tyred dirt tractor track through the brush. When school was out, I went two to four days without seeing a human. I drank water if it rained, and it always did (I had a water catchment tank). Papaya, ground greens, and roots were my main food. I shat in a hole. I didn’t have a fan, at night the bats would raid my papaya trees and skreech wildly during their love-making. My lone solar panel supplied a truck battery with enough juice for me to get a shortwave broadcast of cricket matches on VOA. I lost 30 pounds.
I painted wildly while there and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything on earth. It helped make me the man I am today and the artist I hope to become some day.
Above: SOME OF MATT’S PAINTINGS DURING HIS TIME ON THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
After the Solomon Islands you went to Bulgaria…
I travelled to Bulgaria as a volunteer for ‘GeeKCorps’, a volunteer service of computer professionals. I spent several years at IBM after graduating college as a software engineer/software tester. I went to Bulgaria after returning from the Solomon Islands because I wanted to use some of my technical skills to ‘really help’ a developing system. My Bulgaria trip was in 2002. I gave presentations on how to do software testing and conform with ‘ISO9000” standards. It was a bit geeky.
They gave me an apartment in Sofia Bulgaria and a maid would come every few days to clean. I had bought some Lenin busts at a local market (they sit in my studio now), and the maid would turn their heads away from the room , toward the wall, after she would come in and clean. I respect her so much for that.
I painted in my free time and completed around 60 paintings and even secured an art show there at a local gallery. The Bulgarian people were extremely friendly and incredibly welcoming. I made some great contacts and my experience taught me that people have more to contribute to artistic inspiration than buildings and architecture do.
Below: SOME OF MATT’S FRIENDS AND PAINTINGS FROM BULGARIA
Above: CRUCIFIXION painted in Bulgaria
Above: SPACE PROGRAMME painted in Bulgaria
Above: painted in Bulgaria
You were selected for the first artist in residence in Costa Rica…
Costa Rica happened for me in 2003 while I was just starting to get comfortable in my dating of my now painter-wife Dana Ellyn. I had submitted an application via a contest to go paint at a ‘compound’ outside of San Jose, Costa Rica for one month. There were 3 ‘artists’ selected and each of us had our own studio and sleeping place to work and paint. It was an amazing experience for me and the first time as a painter to be alone all day and night to create anything I wanted. It was in Costa Rica that I created my work ethic as a painter and invented my personal prolific style. My days were spent by me getting up at 6am, walking to the village about 10 minutes away and buying booze at ‘liquor villa’, some fresh food (esp hearts of palm raw), and taking in the sights and sounds for painting ideas…. then I’d paint for 12 hours or so and sleep. Back to ‘liquor villa’ at 6am the next day! The last few days of the residency we were given the opportunity to display what we painted to the other ‘visiting artists’ and the hosts.
Below: Matt and some of his paintings from Costa Rica. My favourite of these (and one of my favourite of all his peieces) is at the top and titled TOMORROW…
Matt, you are extremely prolific, almost obsessively producing more and more pieces.
I have never had a ‘creative block’, ever and I can pretty much paint or draw, anytime, anywhere. When asked to paint huge backdrops for plays/performances with just 2 or 3 days to create everything from scratch I will sleep in the theatre and paint all night if I have to. I watch the play once or read one line and from that I have 10 painting ideas. I am just an overly emotional person that has a ton of ideas… most of them bad, a few are good and stick, and hopefully live on after I am gone!
When I do solo shows I fly to the city one week before and create 100+ paintings for the show. For my first solo show in Barcelona Spain in 2008 I never left the small room they supplied for me, only to go out in the mornings for alcohol and jarred food. I painted the people and feelings that I saw and felt on those shopping trips and it worked… the exhibition was a sell-out!
Matt, it has been so inspiring talking to you! And hopefully you’ll have encouraged a few of us to volunteer our skills. I am going to do a seperate feature on your studio and sketchbooks because lots of my readers love seeing what goes on behind the art!
The UN printed 129,500 of the stamps in 2013 and they are now sold-out, but I bought a number of them and sell them off my website at stamps.sesow.com They come in a frame with a little drawing and signed by me.
’31 DAYS IN JULY’ is a series of 310 paintings by myself and my wife about the news over 10 years beginning with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. You can see Year 10’s paintings (2013) on my website here and watch this short film below showing work from the entire ten years…
And I’ll leave you all with a great little exert from a film called JOIN HANDS with Matt chatting about his life and work…
WORDS: Matt Sesow and Caroline Juskus
IMAGES: Matt Sesow