Sculptor, interrupted 

Out of the cold, an artist re-examines the meaning of success

More than 20 years ago—on New Year's Day 1991—my life as an artist apparently ended. Around three o'clock that afternoon I returned to Missoula from visiting my parents in Florida. The plane ticket had been a Christmas gift—otherwise I never would have been able to afford to go because, at the time, I was homeless.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Mark Matthews resurrected his art career after a 20-year hiatus, and now makes sculptures at his Arlee home.

The reunion had been pleasant despite the usual rebukes about my wasting my life—or, to be more precise, not making money, living without health insurance and not saving for retirement. I neglected to inform my parents that I had been living out of my Ford Ranger pickup truck for the past year and that exactly $16 remained in my savings account. They thought I was attending the university in Missoula. Technically, I was. I had enrolled in a one-credit independent study in ceramic sculpture so that I could have unlimited access to the clay studio. The professors there appreciated the fact that I was a "professional" artist and invited me to sit in on their classes.

Throughout that fall I slung mud at the studio for much of the day and evening, cooked simple meals on a camp stove in the kiln room, and showered at the gym. Around midnight I walked to a dead-end street where it was legal to park a car without a residential parking sticker and climbed under the camper top of my truck to snuggle into a sleeping bag. On the weekends I often drove up Pattee Canyon to camp on Plum Creek land off Deer Creek. I made friends with many of the graduate students, my work progressed, the weather remained mild and life was good.

I had been sculpting full time since 1981 after I had retired at the age of 30 from a position with the federal government in Boston. I then moved to South Freeport in Maine and, throughout the '80s, showed my work in various galleries across the state, making enough money to cover the basic necessities. Then I got a hankering for the mountains and moved to Montana in 1989. I continued to successfully line up exhibitions in various Western towns including Seattle and Spokane, Las Cruces, N.M. and Palm Desert, Calif. But then sales dwindled and living expenses increased, and I transitioned into voluntary homelessness.

Blue skies and temps in the mid-50s greeted me that New Year's Day at Missoula. While waiting for my luggage I contemplated what to do on my first afternoon back in town. I felt like unwinding a bit before falling back into the routine, so I decided to attend a movie. The old truck kicked to life on the second turn of the key. At the Village 6 on Brooks I purchased a ticket for Dances with Wolves.

I appreciated the film's depiction of Native Americans as genuine human beings, and then tensed when a soldier aimed his rifle at the wolf about a quarter way through the movie. But then the screen went blank, the house lights flashed on, and an excited usher hustled down the aisle. I half expected him to yell, "Fire." Instead, he informed us that "a big storm is blowing up the Blackfoot, temperatures are expected to drop to 20 below, with three feet of snow. If you want to head home now you can pick up a rain check for the movie on the way out."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • “Sad Eyed Lady” was one of the first sculptures Matthews did when he started making art again.

Out in the lobby a stiff wind held the door open for the fleeing patrons. Biting icy pellets blew in a vertical line across the parking lot. The imminent darkness made the air seem even colder. Out of the back of my truck I grabbed an insulated flak jacket, wool hat and mittens before climbing into the cab. The frigid vinyl seat bit through the cotton of the Dockers I had slipped on in Florida. This time, the truck started with the third turn of the key.

I instinctively sought refuge at the clay studio. It was Christmas break and few students were around. Nobody would have minded, anyway. The Quonset hut, a quarter mile from Hellgate Canyon, housed the clay studio, sculpture studio and Grizzly Pool. The Hellgate winds rocked the Ranger when I parked by the main entrance. A foot of snow already covered the ground and campus was a ghost town. I breathed a sigh of relief and popped out of the Ranger. The corridor beyond the glass doors was dark but I reached for the handle with a confident heart. It had never locked before—but, this time, it was. Pushed along by the wind, I rushed the length of the building to a back fire door that directly accessed the clay studio. I drummed upon it long and hard hoping some grad students might have returned early from break, but to no avail. I fought the wind back to the Ranger. This time the engine started with the fourth turn of the key and the heater struggled to keep a face-sized patch of windshield free of frost.

I sat there for a few minutes trying to figure out where to turn. Being homeless I had lost touch with the few friends I had made in Montana since my arrival the year before. And most of the grad students were home for the holiday. I had heard of a homeless shelter called the Poverello Center, but didn't know its location. I might not have gone there even if I had. Pride made me hesitate to seek aid from either friends, charitable organizations or government. By accepting help I would have admitted that my parents had been right all along, that I truly was a failure. Many times over the previous decade I had solemnly vowed never to give up the fight. But what exactly was I fighting against? Evil? Ignorance? The capitalist system? And what did I have to show for my dedication to art? I possessed nothing that could physically protect me in this time of desperation. Even more snow now covered the parking lot and my tires spun as I put the truck in reverse.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Matthews’ “Our Lady of the Rockies” is based on the statue that overlooks the town of Butte. The painting on the front of the piece depicts the western Rockies.

Two blocks away, where the Madison Street Bridge spanned the Clark Fork, I came upon a car idling in the middle of the intersection with its windshield wipers flapping like a bird's wings. I got out. An hysterical woman rolled down her window and cried, "I can't see a thing." As I chipped the inch-thick layer of ice from her windshield I thought how best to ask this stranger to take me home with her. In the end I couldn't think of anything appropriate. The woman thanked me profusely and I watched her drive off, her car occasionally fishtailing on an icy patch.

Now uncontrollably shivering, I returned to my idling truck. Any thought of braving out the storm in the back of the truck now seemed utterly ridiculous. And it was at this time that I actually heard a voice in my head. It wasn't a thought, idea or a memory, but the echo of an actual voice of a certain individual, as if she were sitting right next to me.

Jeannette Rakowski was another professional artist taking advantage of a one-credit, independent study to access the clay studio, but she also owned her own place on the Northside—an old silver trailer cocooned in a wooden addition. This is what I heard her say to me on that frigid evening—just as she had spoken to me at the studio a month before: "If you ever get in trouble, you can always crash at my place." Hers sounded like the voice of an angel whispering in my ear.

By the time I drove across town the temps had dipped below zero. I grabbed my sleeping bag before plowing up the front stairs and sheepishly knocking on the door. Jeannette appeared in the window panel holding the lapels of a thick terry cloth bathrobe tightly to her neck. Warmth from a woodstove seeped past her when she opened the door.

"What in god's name are you doing out there? Come on in here."

After a friendly chat and a bowl of soup, Jeannette went to bed and I lay down on a lumpy couch. A log in the woodstove popped. I unzipped my sleeping bag and stuck out a leg. I counted 15 years since I had carved my first sculpture and I suddenly felt shortchanged. The inspiration, the joy and the satisfaction that the creative process had stimulated all those years could not penetrate the blizzard that raged outside. I was exactly one month shy of my 40th birthday. And in the next instant—although the world hadn't changed—I did. I was no longer a sculptor. My parents had been right all along: I was a failure. I vowed never again to pick up a wood chisel or pinch together a handful of clay. The change occurred that abruptly—like a teenager walking away from the toys and fantasies of childhood.

For the next 20 years I earned a couple of advanced degrees, worked as a freelance journalist, published a few books and taught composition. I kept a roof over my head and was generally content with life—and I earned some grudging respect from my parents before they died. But something was missing. Then, in January 2010, while browsing through used video tapes at Goodwill I noticed a copy of Dances with Wolves. Having never seen the ending I purchased it and watched it that evening. After a while I stopped the film to get a snack. Then the strangest thing happened. While standing at the top of the landing I started to cry.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • “Blowing in the Wind” was decorated with mosaics and paint by Missoula artist Niki Robinson, who collaborated with Matthews on his sculptures.

I stumbled down the stairs in a confused state, still deeply sobbing, and by the time I hit the bottom landing it had all come back—the drama and trauma of New Year's Day, 1990. I took a deep breath and inhaled this epiphany: 20 years ago I had given up the thing that I had loved most because I had considered myself a failure. The verdict was not based on the quality of my art, but on the fact that I wasn't making money from my art. And almost as quickly as I had decided to give up that aspect of my life 20 years before, I decided to resurrect it. The part of my life story that I had always considered complete suddenly opened upon a new chapter.

And so, I find myself once again devoting most of my time to creating art. I have returned to my original medium of wood. I also wanted to explore the ancient tradition of brightly painting sculpture. Not possessing that skill myself, I collaborated with Missoula artist Niki Robinson, who decorated my carvings of birds and humans with paint and mosaics. Eventually I tried my own hand at decorating.

My first attempt was on my rendition of "Our Lady of the Rockies"—the statue that overlooks Butte. I had engineered my lyrical version so that the separate pieces (head, arms, torso, etc.) sit atop one another. She stands about six-foot-six with a six-foot wingspan. I envisioned the Rocky Mountains spanning across her outstretched arms, a waterfall cascading down her torso into a lake at her skirt. Somehow the vision materialized to my satisfaction.

Last spring I focused on constructing outdoor abstract pieces that involve very little carving and, so far, little painting.

Wary of getting involved in the traditional art scene again, I transformed my small home outside Arlee into a gallery. And even though my parents may now be rolling over in their graves—for me, everything points to success.

Mark Matthews is the author of Droppers: America's First Hippie Commune and A Great Day to Fight Fire. To make an appointment to visit his gallery email him at peacejumper@yahoo.com.

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