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In the Backyard with Matt Kaplinsky
A Profile of the Artist
by Jim Dolan
Photographs by JRCompton
Matt Kaplinsky’s immaculate Lakewood cottage has a backyard deck running down one side of the fence out to a gazebo overlooking space underneath the shade of a large, mature pecan tree. “Ah, sanctuary!” I think. Designed and built by Matt, the deck is littered with bonsai trees of various species and varying stages of maturity.
“I gotta pretty much let ‘em turn to weeds for a coupla years before they’re really ready to be worked with,” said Matt, pointing with a work-worn, paint stained finger. Matt is a big, strong guy, with a shaved head and a trim beard. He wears what you would expect for a guy who spends all day, every day, makin’ stuff. T-shirts, cargo shorts, work shoes.
I am impressed with Matt’s bonsai collection, amazed as always by the ability of the tiny trees to conjure up images of weather worn specimens clinging to bare rock half way up Mt. Fuji. Matt’s workspace is in a new, two car garage that holds no cars, only the detritus of a feverishly active artist. The old, thirties style lean-to was torn down to make way for this attractive, modern structure that seems to hold just about every item one would need to … make stuff.
We go up a drop down staircase to a sky-lighted loft above the garage. Canvases in different stages of completion lean against the walls all around. There are tools and paints and raw canvas everywhere, along with more plants.
Matt grabs my attention. “Gung-Ho, Hell Yeah, and Let’s Do It!’ ” come to mind. He seems to never have been infected by the negativity to which many artists fall prey. His unabashed mission and motive is to sell art. It is as if no one ever told him that to be an artist is to suffer and be poor, although, I find out, he’s done plenty of that too.
Married just a few months, Matt tells me about the grand wedding party held in the Adolphus Hotel, the night spent in its finest suite, the fabulous trip to Italy and Europe, not too long behind him. His eyes glisten with the still fresh memory. There is something about all this that seems to say, “I can’t believe all the good stuff that has happened to me.”
Clearly, there is the sense of a man enjoying a life he must have at one time felt would never be for him. A sense of redemption, a man given a second chance.
A mid-80s graduate of R.L. Turner High School (“Sometime in the early or mid 80s, I don’t remember exactly”) in Carrollton, he was one of those kids who just didn’t fit. One of those kids. I remember them well, the black clad misfits of those days. There was even a band they all worshipped, The Misfits, led by dark lord Glenn Danzig. They were kids that scared the living hell out of parents, teachers, cops, counselors, because they were bored mindless with the safety and cut and dried predictability of the ‘burbs. The all white ghettoes breeding the same problems ghettoes everywhere spawn: drug abuse, despair, violence, self destruction. Matt was caught up in that black wave, one of those kids too smart, too creative, too individual to fit into any of the neat, round holes pre-cut for his square peg.
“I don’t know why, but I really hated my parents back then, and now we’re like this…” and he holds up the index and middle finger of his right hand, crossed to show how connected they are. “I just left home when I was about fifteen, went down and lived on the streets down in Deep Ellum”
“Wow! How long were you gone?”
“Unh, mmm, ‘bout a year and a half…”
“Why was that?”
“Oh, I got caught up in a lot of drugs and alcohol.”
My mind goes to the chaos that must have ensued in his household. The search for answers, interventions, the self blame, the bewilderment and helplessness. How many households of the time went through the same agonizing crises as suburban teens rejected what they’d been given in order to find what they wanted? Left home in a search for a place called home?
“Yeah, I lived down there and went to school every day anyway.”
“Did your parents know where you were?”
“Yeah, they knew, but I just wasn’t ready to go home.”
Matt saw a therapist and willingly went into Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital — “A terrible, awful place. I needed help man, I couldn’t even speak straight, I didn’t even know what I was saying — but I called that therapist and told him I needed to get out of there and go some place else.”
He wound up in Willowbrook Psychiatric Hospital down Waxahachie way, back in the late 80s hey-day of psychiatric hospitalization. “54 days later, I came out all squeaky clean and shiny. It may sound weird, but now, I’m even kinda phobic about something like a Tylenol.”
He went on to study his first love, biology, in college, and then worked some in ‘desk jobs’ as he called them, but frequently ran into trouble and termination from those jobs for ‘insubordination.’ Also known as the creative individual’s inability to do things just because that is the way it is done.
Matt speaks more now, in his own words, in an email received shortly after we completed our interview:
“I love the way my life is now, and where it appears to be going. My time is spent working very hard to produce as much as possible, and to sell sell sell as often as possible to help maintain our standard of living. In my opinion, I have lived some very hard and trying times. I enjoy my life now because living in opposition of those times brings my relief from those times.
“My motivation to be productive is the house, wife, kids, picket fence, etc., because I would rather not have to live a dirty, stinking life in a warehouse surrounded by crime, where my dreams remain dreams just for the sake of "being cool." I would rather be not cool and have a life that is clean, secure, well balanced and allows for some gardening. It was an intentional choice for me to find a wife who would "crack the whip" (albeit not too often) so that all our financial needs are surely met by two incomes, and sometimes selling art is more work than one would expect. We both work hard, and enjoy what life has to offer. There were times in my past where relationships removed my motivation and I would get lazy, but now I’ve found a relationship that does just the opposite.
“I am VERY grateful to everyone who buys my art, because in doing so they are actually contributing to my life (they have no idea what) in the process and the positive effects overall. I enjoy doing things for other people, giving as much as I can to charities, and being a part of a community, which would not be possible without those people who buy my art. Better to live a life of Thanks, than a life of Regret (something that rattles around in my head every other day).”
Matt Kaplinsky’s Art
Matt was understandably reticent about the story of his troubled youth being published. And I am sure he didn’t want it to be the main feature of this story. To that I will only add, who didn’t have a troubled youth? If you were possessed of intelligence and a need to not simply accept what was handed to you without first questioning it, then you had a troubled youth.
Matt’s art speaks of a brain always in the process of creation. He is clearly not someone waiting to be struck by the muse. He gets out in the driveway every morning to begin the day’s work. He says that his work is ‘modern,’ and that he is influenced by most of the “big names since the 30s and 40s.” He is a workman, and by this work he earns his daily bread.
He goes on to “fess up to Jackson Pollack” as a major stylistic influence, because he “understands his work the best,” and also to Willem de Kooning. He also gives Calder a nod for his “luscious curves” and sheer engineering prowess.
Kaplinsky goes to considerable length to state the impact that Arshile Gorky had on him. Gorky was an artist who worked in nearly every medium in his short life (b. 1904 — d.1948) Kaplinsky sees him as an artist who worked in the artistic lingua franca of his day, but who always succeeded at making pieces uniquely his own, no matter how much they spoke to current convention.
He also gives nods to Johns, DuBuffet, Motherwell, Twomby as artists who’ve impacted him.
In the brief survey I was given of Matt Kaplinsky’s work, there were encaustics of travels to Italy, door panels painted in acrylics and oil, canvas done in splashes of tempera (I assisted in the creation of one by emptying a bottle of black tempera over the artist as he reclined on the canvas to produce a negative of him). There was also a panel piece with raised leaves of flat painted wood that seemed to give way to something emerging from behind. He stated that he felt this piece also needed to be taken to a shooting range and shot through the back to add the proper texture, and also to imply the panel’s orientation along three planes, not two.
There is often this sense of three-dimensionality in Kaplinsky’s work, even in the panel pieces. There is also a great deal of kinesis, things going here, there, from right to left, left to right, and through the plane of the piece. Some are placid and ‘still.’ Others writhe with movement and color. Like his influential forebear, Gorky, his style is developed in each piece under construction. Seeing enough of his work together in one place, you can easily spot Pollock (when we first met, he was working on a canvas on the ground in the driveway) in his splatters and bars of paint; Calder in the interlocking curves and repeating kinetic designs; de Kooning in the violent slashes of orange and red, broken by gashes of black.
Visiting his website at www.modernmatt.com, you can see enough of his work side by side to definitely spot a ‘Kaplinsky’ style: kinetic, colorful, joyful, playful, in love with surroundings, and the act of making. He clearly seems to understand that it is his job to make the work, and not think too much about it. There is a strong sense of someone who is deeply involved in the act of mining out a vein of images that he first began to discover back in the 80s when he was a black clad, sullen ‘scary kid’ who just wouldn’t accept the status quo.
Not too heavily saddled with reasons why he can’t succeed, Matt Kaplinsky will be a young artist to watch. Already capable of strongly original images in a unique style, one gets the sense that he is just beginning, and the arc of his career will be well worth watching.
Jim Dolan 5/5/2006
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All Contents Copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.