Red Roadmaster 5, acrylic, 48 x 48, by Wendeline Matson
By Devon Jackson
For many artists, it’s a struggle trying to figure out just what it is they want to paint and why. For Wendeline Matson, that’s not at all the issue. “People always ask me how I decide what to paint, and it’s just the opposite: How do I figure out what not to paint?” laughs Matson from the front porch of her Tulsa, OK, bungalow. “It’s almost more of a problem to decide all the things I need to get rid of. It’s like a process of elimination.”
She often has a very good idea of what she wants to paint, usually a bicycle or a still life. “It’s when I decide what I don’t want on there, that’s the fun part; that’s when I hone in on one thing and then I eliminate,” she says, laughing again. “That’s when I start making equations about where things should go and what color and the shapes. There are so many layers or other things that did exist on there. Because even when they’re scratched out of the painting, they still exist. There’s still the memory of an apple there.”
An apple, a tree. A bygone era. Like the ancient Greeks’ palimpsests—the old parchments used over and over again by successive scribes, who’d write over the erased marks of previous writers—Matson’s canvases, naïve and unassuming as they seem to be, both in color and in composition, are far more complex and layered than one might at first assume. Not bad, as Matson herself might say, for a little ol’ girl from Texarkana, TX.
Born in 1976, Matson was only 5 when her father, who owned the Hush Puppy restaurant chain, was killed in an automobile accident. While her two brothers and her boy cousins would go off shooting their guns and popping wheelies on their bicycles, Matson and her caretaker, Pearline, would stay inside and make things. At her grandmother’s farm, it was more of the same: The boys went off and raised cane while Matson learned how to knit and crochet from her grandmama, Floy.
Always told she had the craziest imagination of anyone in the family, Matson recalls being given a papier-mâché project in fourth grade. Her creation? A hot-air balloon. “That’s when I first realized I was artistic,” she says. A couple years later, her mom barely batted an eye when her daughter painted all the wicker furniture in the house black. “I had so much artistic freedom growing up,” says Matson. “It gives you confidence at an early age. You learn that you can mess up and do things.”
When she left her hometown at 18 for the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, she chose not art but geology as her major. “I loved rocks and learning how things were formed from the beginning,” explains Matson, who met her husband-to-be in Fayetteville, himself a geology major. “But I changed to art in my sophomore year.” At the time, the art program was treated as the stepchild of all the school’s departments: The art building had no air conditioning and very few majors. “It was really hot and sort of dysfunctional,” recalls Matson. But she had good professors and benefited from a semester abroad in Rome, Italy, the first Arkansas art class to do so. “We were total guinea pigs,” she says, “but it was great. It was a real eye-opening experience for a little girl from Texarkana.”
After receiving her degree in 1998, however, Matson soon found out how unprepared she was for actually becoming and being an artist, as opposed to just studying it. She did know one thing, though: how to paint. So she waited tables and painted on the side. And when a friend suggested that she call her boyfriend’s mom, who owned a gallery in Tulsa, Matson did. The woman asked to see some of Matson’s work, so Matson brought her some of her paintings, and two weeks later, all five had sold and the woman wanted more. Then a gallery in Little Rock took her on, too, and she was on her way…
Featured in September 2007
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