Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US
We had the opportunity to talk to the absolute art powerhouse Matthew Shlian whose portfolio is so vast and varied it would make for a whole book. A true chameleon, Matthew has done it all - sculpture, graphic design, painting, performance, and so much more
A: Please, tell us a bit more about yourself. What brought you into art?
M: I began as an undergrad: I originally went to school for ceramics, but realized early on that I was interested in all kinds of art. I studied glass, painting, performance, and sound, and by the end, I had a dual major in ceramics and print media. I wasn't making traditional print or ceramic work at that point. Instead, I would create large digital prints using a series of cut scores and creases to create large-scale pop-up spreads. I was making these 4-foot v-folds or strut fold pieces. I really had no idea what I was doing. I wanted the work to be interactive and for the image to relate to the folds. I loved the immediacy of paper as a medium. I also loved the geometry. Figuring out the pieces was like solving a puzzle. I understand things spatially; I have to see something to make sense of it. One of my faculty advisers, Anne Currier, started buying me pop-up books and I started dissecting them and figuring out how they worked. It took off from there.
A: What inspires you the most?
M: I find inspiration in just about everything; Solar cell design, protein misfolding, Islamic tile patterning, systematic drawing, architecture, biomimetics, music, etc. I have a unique way of misunderstanding the world that helps me see things often overlooked.
People-wise, I look to musicians, performers, writers, visual artists, producers, makers, and thinkers… Brian Eno, Matthew Goulish and Lin Hixon, Simon McBurney, Christian Bök, Mikhail Bongard, Jonathan Blow, Chris Gethard, Annie Dillard, Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, Martin Puryear, Annie Albers, El-P, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Daniel Libeskind, DondiWhite, Christina Cordova, Christian Marclay, Marian Bantjes, Tauba Auerbach, Ren Weschler, Buckminster Fuller, AnneCurrier, George Hrycun, Nervous-System, Hanif Abdurraqib, Charles and Ray Eames, etc.
A: Do you have any specific rituals while working(creating)?
M: I try to keep regular hours in the studio. I show up as a job 9-5. It helps maintain my ability to have a work/family life. In the studio, I am either listening to music, podcasts, or books when I work.
A: What would you recommend to someone who's new to art (rather artist or just an admirer), what to begin with?
M: I recently received this letter and would like to share it & my response with you:
Subject: Young art
Message: Hi Matt, I am 11 and am into drawing and using markers to make my own characters how do you suggest I do this I have been drawing for 2 years but my art isn't very good (although my family say it is) I don't think it is, so how can I make it better? Thank you, H
Thanks for the email. I don't do much drawing now but when I was your age that was ALL I DID. I loved drawing cartoons and comic books. I had no idea that I could be an artist (or what an artist really did) but I loved to draw. Drawing helps you become better at paying attention, which is what being an artist is all about. Seeing things that no one else sees and drawing them, photographing them, making a video about them, or folding some paper, and then sharing the things you see with others.
My family also was encouraging of my work when I was young. My mom is still my biggest fan. I think encouragement is good when artists are starting out. Anything to help keep moving forward and learning is helpful. If you've been drawing for two years that might seem like a long time. I've been making artwork since I was 10 or so and I turn 42 this year. I am old! I still think I have so much to learn though, and I try to stay in that mindset of a beginner. When nothing is known anything is possible.
So how can you get better at art? There are a few ways and you already are doing two of them. First, draw all the time. Keep a sketchbook on you, and when you see something interesting, put it in the book. Over time you will fill sketchbooks and have shelves filled with them.
Most of my sketches happen on the computer but I still like to hand draw things. It slows me down and calms me down as well.
The second thing is to take in good information: Read about artists you like, watch documentaries, soak in all sorts of things. A plant needs nutrients to grow, and you need to be sure you are putting in good things to expand your brain.
Writing to artists is good, and I bet you've written to not only me but a few of your favorites. I know they will have different answers, too. Everyone's path is different but I think most will say the best way to get better is to keep doing it and that's the real answer. Keep reading, looking, and making.
Lastly, don't focus on the idea of talent or not being good enough. Some people are naturally gifted starting off. Talentburns out over time but dedication and persistence wins.
A: Your top 3 favorite adjectives related to art?
M: Wonder, surprise & moving.
A: The best angle to look at art is from ..?
M: I don't know, sitting down maybe? I like that art can be something that removes you from yourself. I recently placed a few pieces in hospitals and I honestly think it's the best place my work can and should live. I have Crohn's disease and see a lot of hospitals. They can be so depressing in terms of design and art... always an afterthought. I've gotten a few emails from people that have seen my work in a hospital setting and it moved them to write. The letters are frankly disarming. One father talked about how when his daughter gets treatment at the children's hospital they walk around and look at the art and my piece was her favorite. I love that my work can take someone out of that space even for a few minutes.
Oftentimes my larger pieces are snatched up by collectors and never really seen by anyone. I'm not mad (it keeps me in business and making work) but I'm thinking long-term about how I want my work to exist in the Covid/Post-Covid world. Galleries are great but also limit who sees the work... I would love to walk into a hospital and see more of a transformative gallery space.
A: The perfect phrase to start any conversation about art is:..?
M: What do you see?
A: Must-read books to talk about art (or do we even need them)?
M: 39 Microlectures: In Proximity of Performance by Matthew Goulish.
A: If you could change one thing in the art world - what would it be?
M: Less ego would be nice. More representation for women and BIPOC.
A: Please, share your favorite quote (not necessarily related to art):
M: My daughter told me this a few weeks ago (she just turned 9): "The thing that you're looking for, that you don't know that you're looking for, will be in a place where you don't expect it."