Falco Mexicanus , bronze, 16 x 10 x 9.
By Norman Kolpas
In just 13 years Ross Matteson has built a career that seems befitting of an artist who’s been at it far longer. This summer’s Prix de West Invitational marked the fifth year in a row that Matteson’s wildlife sculptures have been included in the presitigious show at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. He’s participated in more than six dozen other shows since 1990, including the annual Artists of America exhibition in Denver. His bronzes were exhibited at Great Britain’s Natural History Museum, three were sold by Christie’s in London, and a number of them have been snapped up by collectors as diverse as the Boeing Company and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
In the face of such recognition, the lifelong Washington resident seems truly humble. “I don’t see a difference between fine art and the art of hanging sheet-rock,” he says. “Whenever intelligence and creativity are being expressed, it’s special. I can’t overvalue fine art in comparison to, say, the kind of creativity a mother expresses when dealing with her children.”
Aaron’s Swan , bronze, 9 x 13 x 10.
Quite likely this levelheaded viewpoint is derived from memories of his childhood as the next-to-youngest of six children. “My father and mother really were, by far, the strongest influences on my art,” says Matteson. “They were both very strong, confident, almost fearless people. Being a farmer’s daughter, my mom was very pragmatic. She went to college, was well educated and socially aware. She appreciated culture. She’s the one who exposed me to museums.”
His father, Matteson says, was very romantic and well-traveled. “Because my grandfather was a captain in the Marines, they lived all over the world.” Matteson’s father worked for Boeing for years, but his work never came before family. “He would design his schedule so he could spend time with us,” Matteson says. “We had so many outdoor activities. His interests included falconry, remote-controlled model airplanes, sailing, skin-diving, archery, hiking, and exploring.” Matteson says that playing with his father, whose creativity was endless, often gave him the sense of being inside a storybook.
Ross Matteson with trained gyrfalcon.
It’s easy to identify, then, that Matteson’s father was the source of his own artistic inspiration. “For my birthday, when I was 4 or 5, he carved me a tugboat out of a log using a hatchet; it was just beautiful. The special part of that day was watching him carve this thing just for me.” His father also instilled a high level of idealism in young Ross. “He always had this desire to find perfection in matter,” Matteson says. “He might spend 15 minutes, using all kinds of hand gestures, to explain what the perfect watermelon looks like and smells like and tastes like.”
Orchid VII , bronze and blown glass, 10 x 12 x 7.
In high school Matteson began creating artwork of his own. “I’d take a magazine photograph of five hundred birds in flight and look at it for the one bird that had the most graceful and identifiable image,” he says. “I’d inlay that image in mother-of-pearl or silver on polished hardwood, making pendants and small wood sculptures.”
Despite such creative tendencies, he didn’t instantly pursue a fine-art career. His mother encouraged him to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia, where in 1980 he earned a degree in mass media. It was a time when respect for natural resources was becoming a mainstream concept, and Matteson, with his outdoor passions, wanted to communicate the importance of environmental issues. But finding a job proved difficult. He and one of his brothers opened a recording studio, but it eventually failed. He tried teaching, but it didn’t meet his desires. Matteson’s creative inclinations eventually returned; he decided to try sculpting professionally, something he had dabbled in occasionally over the years.
Matteson had reservations about a career as a sculptor, though. “I was concerned that I would lose my ability to reach large numbers of people with good ideas if I went into fine art,” he says. “Then this old-timer I really respected said to me, ‘Never underestimate what you can accomplish by truly communicating with even one person.’”
Falcons on Quail , bronze, 14 x 24 x 13.
That statement fired him with focus and dedication. He decided to specialize in wildlife, concentrating primarily on birds of prey, a passion handed down from his father that Matteson still pursues with his own gyrfalcon, a large falcon found in the arctic regions.
“It’s a lot easier for me to compose, design, and bring meaning to the falcon form because it’s a language that I understand,” says Matteson. “A falcon has a richness that’s rarely tapped. A lot of artists depict it in a very predatory pose, but if you’ve been around falcons, you know they’re only in that state for about 10 minutes a day. The rest of the time they’re preening their feathers or turning their heads upside down, taking a bath or stretching a wing. There’s an endless supply of different poses and meanings.”
Stretching Cat , bronze, 9 x 10 x 22.
Conveying meaning is, ultimately, Matteson’s goal. “I see birds as metaphors, very capable of communicating ideas that meet human needs,” he says. To explain, he describes the inspiration behind a favorite work, Aaron’s Swan. “I was visiting a local bookstore, and this girl there was telling me how her boyfriend, Aaron, had suffered an injury in a diving accident. At the time, they didn’t know if he would be paralyzed. And here I was, looking at this very calm, lovely person sharing her story. I loved her feeling of grace and calmness in the face of such danger. It made me think of a swan in rough waters, peaceful despite all the unpredictability of where the waves might take her. A lot of people, I thought, would find peace in that sculpture.”
Indeed, Matteson’s sculptures, whether swans or falcons, quail, doves, or dolphins, consistently convey the hushed awe you might feel when seeing wildlife in nature. He continually strives to find new ways to achieve a sense of communion between man and beast. For instance, some of his recent works, such as the Orchid series, combine small bronzes and art glass. “Whenever I have a little free time, I like to do pieces that aren’t necessarily part of the expected style of my work. The deep blues or roses or greens of the glass grab immediate attention. My other pieces are more subtle.”
Matteson’s free time is becoming increasingly scarce these days. A lot of his working hours are spent meticulously hand-finishing newly cast bronzes, as well as avidly corresponding with collectors. He particularly relishes those moments of absolute stillness when he can sit in his studio and sculpt a new piece. Away from work, he dedicates as much time as possible to his wife Genny and their 6-year-old daughter Alanna. “I feel good,” he says, “about the way I’ve been able to balance the accomplishments I’ve made in sculpting with my responsibilities to my family and to my community and church.”
He and Genny are contemplating a move to a ranch in eastern Washington, away from Olympia’s growing urban sprawl. “If we move, I’ll be flying my gyrfalcon right out the back door,” Matteson says. No doubt he’ll also be finding fresh inspiration in the wilderness. “When people ask me what inspires my work, I always emphasize spending a lot of time thinking and observing, allowing yourself to be distracted, letting your thoughts just wander.”
Photos courtesy the artist and ARTEN, Paris, France; Sunburst Gallery, Chelan, WA; and Childhood’s End Gallery, Olympia, WA. His work can also be seen at his online gallery, mattesonsculpture.com.
Featured in July 1999