- Carola Kolbeck
Bold Lines and Bright Colors: Matt Sesow Paints With Heart & Soul
© Photography by Matt Sesow
From a childhood accident and disability to a world-renown artist, Matt Sesow has never allowed adversity and challenges to affect his goals and dreams.
When we speak to Matt Sesow, he sits in his studio in Washington, DC. Behind him is a huge wall full of flecks of paint, a colourful and bright reminder of his stunning and unique paintings that come to life in his place of work. Matt is wearing a woolly hat and sports a bright smile, joking that he loves to talk about himself and his art.
As a self-taught artist, Matt didn’t attend art school but worked as a computer professional for IBM into his late twenties. After being discovered by an agent at an art festival in Georgetown, Matt received exposure to art galleries across the US and signed his first contract as an artist.
Since then, Matt has sold between 15,000 and 17,000 paintings and admits that painting is his obsession. His work was featured on an official UN stamp in 2013, and his life and art have been part of several documentaries. Yet, Matt is unfazed by his momentous achievements and believes that his best work is yet to come.
He lives with his wife Dana Ellyn, also an artist and who he credits with being his salvation, in their 800 square feet studio. They got married at the opening of one of their shows, as art is at the centre of their lives, and they collaborate on occasion on certain works.
However, Matt Sesow is not only a remarkable artist who uses colour in wild, unconventional, and joyous ways, but he is also a survivor of a horrendous childhood accident that saw him lose part of his left arm after being struck by a plane.
In this exclusive interview, INJECTION Magazine spoke to Matt Sesow about his journey as an artist, how he dealt with childhood trauma and loss, and the proudest moments of his life so far.
What has your journey as an artist been like, and what are the reasons that kept you on the artist’s path?
In 1994, I was invited over to the house of some friends of the girl I was dating at the time, and a lot of them had gone to art school or were in a band. They had set up a group house which was really cool, and they asked me if I knew how to paint. I lied but what I found over the course of the next few weeks when I was hanging out with them was that I really liked the intersection between music and painting - the colours, the lines, and the aggressiveness of a lot of it.
My paintings looked different than everybody else's because I was trying to deal with some of my emotional responses to painting. I also noticed that when I looked at my paintings, they revealed something about myself that I hadn't really ever talked about with other people, let alone mental health professionals, and that is my disability from being hit by an aeroplane in 1975 when I was eight years old.
I think the art brought a lot of that emotional baggage that was tied inside me onto the paper or the canvas, and I started creating some kind of iconography.
Can you describe the process of how art helped you to deal with the traumatic loss of a limb?
I used to have those terrible nightmares all through childhood and adulthood. They clearly must have been related to the accident because you could say it was pretty traumatic. I used to dream terrible things, waking up in terrible, terrible sweats, scared and frightened, but those dreams went away after about five years of painting. So, I think the therapeutic element of the art did its job, and it clearly worked for me.
© "Electrostatic Attraction" by Matt Sesow
In an interview from 2007, you say you don’t see yourself as an artist, even though you’ve been painting full-time at that stage for six years. Has this view of yourself changed? Maybe I now see myself as an artist with a little "a," but I don't think I've done enough good work yet. I want to do my next 15,000 paintings and see what those look like! So, maybe I'm almost close to considering myself an artist, but I don't want to be compared to any other artist. I want to be like this new unique 2023 version of what an artist is like.
Are there any artists, contemporary or from the past, that you would say have influenced you on your journey as an artist?
Definitely! There are many, such as Cy Twombly, Willem De Kooning, Francis Bacon, and Picasso. The most obvious connection everyone makes is with Jean-Michel Basquiat from New York. He took a lot of iconographies and repeated that like a lot of other artists have done.
When the Basquiat movie came out, I had been painting for around four years, and I watched the movie all by myself in the theatre. I remember the scene where the gallery curator comes in, and there's a stack of paper with the paintings on it, and she's flipping through it and says: 'Oh, I like this one and this one…!' and I just started crying because I realised that I could totally do this.
You mentioned that some people said your art was sad and scary. Why do you think that is?
I’d like to compare it to music. I love punk rock music; it gives me goosebumps moments. But for other people, it just sounds really aggressive and angry, but when you actually listen to the lyrics, they’re much more mellow. I think the mentality of the punk stuff really connected with my disability because people look at me and see that I only have one hand, but I never think of myself that way.
I think that’s kind of what I'm trying to do with my work: You leave it on the stage, you leave it on the field, you leave it on the canvas, you leave all that energy there, and then the rest of you life is peaceful, and you don't have to run around doing crazy things.
To what extent do you face prejudice for having one arm? Do you or others consider it a disability? Do you feel represented and supported within the arts and society? I really never think about my arm anymore. Growing up, I just did normal guy stuff. I was in a fraternity, and people would make fun, but I was just laughing it off. Of course, it must have somehow affected me, but I wouldn't let anyone know that because they would have won. I got a lot of support from my family throughout life. When I told my mom and dad that I wasn’t going to be a computer guy anymore, they just said: ‘Yeah, you’re weird Matt. We love you, and just do what you want to because we want you to be happy.’
When people talk about Matt Sesow, I want them to say: ‘Ah, that’s the painter, and I had no idea he only had one arm!’ Hopefully, we can learn that about many people: that we aren't just what we look like, and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I’m so much more than a one-armed guy; there are so many more layers to me.
© "Locus of Control (6)" by Matt Sesow
Are there any paintings you have had to keep for yourself, and you’ll never sell? Everything I do here leaves, like, this is just a faucet of work meant to go into the world. We go to the post office once a week, and we mail all over the world, and that's where it ends up. I love to see people hanging my art in their homes, and I'm happy to share that on my social media, but I want to avoid having paintings in here. That would mean that I'm not successful; I want to sell everything. Also, we live in a tiny space, and if I started holding on to paintings, we’d run out of space very quickly!
What are your proudest achievements in your career and life?
I've never said this one before in an interview, but I think my proudest moment is marrying Dana. Everything just came together with her, and I have accomplished so much since I met her, and she's given me the confidence to do what I do. I was like an outdoor cat when she met me; I was a stray cat; I was feral; I did not want to be married, but she’s been a really positive constant for me.
[At this point, we met Dana, who briefly joined the call to say hi to us]
Then there was my solo show at the American Visionary Art Museum. It was a year-long solo exhibition, the first one the museum has ever had, and they gave it to me! Rebecca Hoffberger was the curator, she's amazing, and she just recently retired, but she was a huge influence.
The UN stamp was huge, of course, too, and the documentary they made about me.
I also just had a really big show in Norfolk, VA, at Old Dominion University with the Baron and Ellin Gordon Gallery, and they included some original Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings with mine, and it was a nice way to say: Now I’ve been shown with Basquiat! I think there were about 40 of his works, and I had about 150 of mine.
Have you got any upcoming exhibitions, and what can we expect from Matt Sesow in 2023?
I get asked to do exhibitions and shows, and I now say ‘No.’ I got offered something today, and I respectfully declined. I like to accept university shows or museum shows; I'm happy to do that when I can talk to students. I have done the gallery scene for so long, and it's been great; it's been very advantageous for me, but it's also been very challenging, and exhibitions just took my focus away.
I'm really looking for something other than money or exposure. I think what I want to do is to go back to that idea that I'm working in this isolation, in this ‘nobody knows about me, nobody has heard of me’ and just kind of start creating some new things.
But the main thing I want to do is to take all of these hundreds of shows and these thousands of paintings, and I need to create a one-stop destination on the Internet where people can go and see everything about me. That would probably be the best plan for me for 2023 but then again, who knows what's going to happen!
© Photography by Matt Sesow
There is an unwavering positivity and passion that Matt Sesow harbours for his art and life. Not only is he seemingly unimpressed by his monumental achievements, but always strives to do better. His disability is not at the forefront of his life, although it has inspired him, and, in return, art helped him to deal with his childhood trauma. Matt Sesow is all about bright colours, bold lines, and painting with his heart and soul. He's a revolutionary artist in his own way, inspiring others to break the rules and follow their passion.
Follow Matt: Matt Sesow @sesow - Instagram photos and videos