"Unfinished Bridge" Monotype and drawing 2015 This body of work was created in collaboration with Bud Shark, of SharksInk, in Lyons, Colorado.
Editor's note: This interview with John Matlack was first posted in July of 2014. His current exhibition at Spark Gallery is called "Unfinished Bridges".
May I ask you your age? I'm 69.
How long have you lived in Denver? I have never lived in Denver, only in Boulder. I was born in Santa Monica, and was living in San Francisco when I first came to Boulder in 1967.
What brought you to Boulder? That time in my life was very turbulent, very fluid. There was a lot of movement to be with friends who were here, and then there.
Was there any constant? Ever since I was a boy I was in love with the exploration of the rugged mountain West, the Mountain Man era. As I grew older my dream was to be a ranger. When I was in my late teens that dream came true. I worked for four summers as a fire ranger in a Ranger Station, in a remote corner of YellowstoneNational Park that we referred to as "Siberia".
Siberia...? I wanted to be a ranger very much. My job application was highly embellished (and enthusiastic!). On my first day at work they could see I was very green and they pegged me for a loudmouth. Because they couldn't get rid of me they posted me in 'Siberia'", in the BechlerCanyon. They wouldn't have to see me or hear me. There were no paved roads in - we used horses. It was paradise... There were verdant meadows and dozens of hot springs, lots of big trout.
What is the legacy of your time in Yellowstone? Being a ranger in the wilderness was profound. When my vision as an artist began to coalesce in my 20s, it was my sense of the land that I absorbed from this time in my life that informed the work. As rangers perched high in a fire tower, we had the opportunity to see the land from an aerial perspective. Often we would be in helicopters on patrol, looking directly down. A great deal of my art is akin to mapping, and it was formed by the images and memories that I had gathered here, as well as exposure to early 20th century abstract painting which seemed to me to be influenced by aerial landscape.
And so, "Siberia" to Boulder? Yes, eventually. Through friends, and because of my affinity for this landscape, Boulder became my home. Early on I had bought a cabin near Nederland, where I would stay in the summers. Soon I had a studio on Pearl Street where I lived and also worked on my art. My work began to sell and the community was supportive. There was a rich art scene in Boulder then. I exhibited my work at the Stagehouse gallery, run by Richard Schwartz. He was very intelligent and sophisticated - a great ally for a young artist. Also, I showed in Denver at the Center for Contemporary Art. That was an important gallery for other reasons.
Such as... Through a friend in that gallery I learned that the artists Christo and Jean-Claude were looking for "students" to help them with the "Valley Curtain" project planned for Rifle, Colorado. I signed up, and this was the beginning of a very important relationship in my life. I worked with Christo and Jean-Claude on four projects, from the "Valley Curtain" to "Running Fence" in California, where I was a Project Manager. Christo and Jean-Claude are visionary and transformative artists. I was loyal to them and they were very generous to me. They introduced me to people and to a way of being an artist and relating to the world. I observed their discipline and persistence and the shear scope of their ambition. What it took to bring a project to fruition was breathtaking.
What skills did you utilize in your work with Christo and Jean-Claude? It is kind of funny. When I was young I wanted to be an actor. That's what I was studying at San FranciscoState when I lived in that city. When the Maysles brothers made the documentary for "Running Fence" my skills as an actor came in handy. Still, I knew I was not a good actor; at least, not good enough. So I left San Francisco to study art at the University of Santa Barbara and got a degree in "Tutorial Studies", an innovative program where the student could create their own curriculum in the arts, philosophy, and literature. We created many novel experiments, such as writing poetry and placing the poems on organic materials, leaves and ceramic plaques. My dissertation focused on the cultural relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and Gaelic Mythology. Oddly enough, It was well received. This process of innovation and experimentation became the foundation for my art. In Santa Barbara I worked like crazy. I would see a pool of water in a parking lot mixing with gasoline, and the shimmering iridescent colors that formed on the surface as a result. I created a whole series of artwork by placing metallic painted paper on this water and then pressing it into prints. It was great fun, and the work sold. This gave me great confidence to continue, to trust in my artistic impulses and to see that I could earn a little money.
Do you have any expectations of the viewer? My work is very simple. This is not to be confused with simple-minded. A child can understand the work. I want to please the viewer, to make beautiful art that does not pander. My work is concerned with landscape and memory, about how the land looked and how it looks now. There is no nostalgia, and the art is not romantic or judgmental. Sometimes people find my materials disquieting, such as my use of electronic components of the use of artificial, “false” color. This is simply how I see the world. My palettes are derived from our landscape - all aspects of our landscapes.
Any final thoughts? As I get older I may struggle more with the distractions that take me away from my work as an artist. This is disturbing, yet I am currently focusing on a new body of work that I am introducing in this exhibition. My career has been satisfying and I am expecting to find more vigor. I want to re-explore the art world in Denver and beyond . I want to shake up my life in some way and make space for new and positive possibilities.