There is an automatic comfort that comes from talking to someone with whom you have a shared experience. I found this to be particularly true when I recently spoke with alumni Matt Shelton, a Guilford College alumni. We had an instant short-hand as we compared our freshman dorm experiences, listed our favorite professors, and traded stories. Before I knew it, we had talked for over an hour and a half and what was planned to be interview felt more like old friends catching up. As hard as it is to narrow down such a wide ranging conversation, I will have to try, if only to share with all of you his ideas, insights, and advice.
Matt, a 2004 alumnus, is not shy when it comes to talking about his challenges as an art student at Guilford. After attending intensive art programs in high school, like Governor’s school one summer, followed by senior year at The North Carolina School of the Arts, he felt confident and advanced in his work. It wasn’t long before he faced different points of view and road blocks with some of his own ideology on art. His story is not unlike many here at Guilford in that so much personal growth and learning came outside the classroom. The radicalism he saw in other departments, in discussions with his friends, and community work in Greensboro inspired his work to address issues of inequality and privilege, privacy, overconsumption and other contemporary issues. Not only did Matt begin to see a shift in his mentality about his work, but his more classic and painterly style began to change. Over time and continuing after school, he felt himself letting go of the idea that art for art’s sake is indulgent, when in fact art is never just for art’s sake, but in fact serves a purpose upon it’s creation.
The lessons he learned from Guilford followed as he moved to New Orleans. This began his more recent bodies of work, much of which can be found on his website. I found myself looking through his work online before our interview and while perusing, I found a series of various shapes and objects made from neon pink fabric, with the simple title All Souls. When this project came up in our discussion and I asked what it meant to him, I see a familiar look in his eyes, even through the pixilated Skype video feed; that look of, I knew this would come up and there is a story here. The pieces of pink canvas were first used as part of an installation marking the beginning of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right campaign, instated to help rebuild parts of the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans after vast devastation by Hurricane Katrina. The bright pink structures marked where new homes would be built and that the people who lived there would not go unnoticed. By chance three years later, Matt is filling in as a substitute art teacher at a summer program at All Souls Church nearby the build site. Though the canvas was old, covered in paint and footprints, he could tell that the fabric had immense meaning locked away. He spent over a year trying to unlock and display the fabric in a way that did it justice before making the fabric into cots. Matt has found this neon pink canvas to represent the concept of a stand-in, a page marker. This simple thing represents a whole, an idea he has continued to toy with throughout his career.
Poignant messages seem to be a common thread for Matt. Just like the pieces that he is currently working on, my discussion with Matt is, on its surface, casual and familiar, but the messages behind what he is saying is deep and valuable. I find it almost humorous when I ask if he has any advice for senior art students who want to become professionals and he modestly jokes that I am asking the wrong person. Though it has been 10 years since he graduated, Matt still isn’t convinced that he is the best person to give advice. After some thought, what he has to say is simple but so important; “whatever jobs you have, art needs to be one of them.” Always take time in the studio, which can be anything and anywhere. Art is not just canvas and paint, but is anything that can make an argument for itself, so take time to create that argument. He would also say to that struggling senior to make what you like, hunker down, and work really hard on what you love. Think about where your work lives in the world and where you are going to show your art. If that place doesn’t exist, create it. Take value in getting lost and feeling confused, and most importantly, do not be scared to fail. “Artists think with their hands, and it is hard to think with your hands when you are afraid of failure.”
As a senior, this all seems easier said than done, but this hard working and friendly gentleman seems to know where it’s at. Feel free to check out his website, http://www.matthewpshelton.com, to view his work and full artist statement. Also, be sure to check out the very cool 1708 Gallery in Richmond, VA at http://www.1708gallery.org