Art with a mid-century modern feel is alive and well in the paintings of artist Matte Stephens. A humble and engaging young guy, Matte has found a way to take his lifelong love of art and connect with his many fans through a variety of channels. His work is featured not only on his website and his Flickr portfolio, but is available to purchase on his Etsy shop and through galleries and retail shops, including Jonathan Adler stores. His childlike good nature and love of the absurd are prominently represented in his paintings, as are his wife Vivienne (also an artist) and their six cats and other household critters.
Beehive by Matte Stephens
Birdie with Baby 2 by Matte Stephens
You have a very distinct style that is clearly influenced by mid-century modern design and the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, Irving Harper and many others. How did you come to discover these design greats, and what is it about this style that speaks to you?
I’ve always liked modern design going back as far as I can remember. Even as a kid drawing, it seemed like it leaned more to that line drawing look. I’ve never drawn any other way. It’s been kind of a curse and a good thing at the same time — I don’t know how to do any other drawing style. I was always drawn more to 40’s-, 50’s- and 60’s-looking illustrations, but I never really intended for my work to fall into that category. I wanted it to look more contemporary.
Self Portrait Driving in Oregon by Matte Stephens
Are you formally trained, and how do you keep challenging yourself to learn and stretch artistically?
I’m not formally trained, and I never went to college. I just studied on my own. I would go to the library and check out books — and still do — and buy books, just to learn. Any art book I could get a hold of. All of my extra money when I was young went to art books.
There is such verve and personality to your illustrations, it makes me wonder if you work to music.
Lush Life by Matte Stephens
Vivienne On Her Bike by Matte Stephens
Tell me a bit about the range of media and materials you work with, and what drives those choices from one piece to another.
When I first started painting, I worked used acrylic, and it just never worked that well for the style that I was trying to do. Over time, I found gouache. It’s like the perfect medium for me. But I use ink and all kinds of stuff. When I paint big, I use gouache and a special kind of acrylic that is more like gouache. On my plywood, I use gouache and different types of gouache depending on what I’m painting on. The way I paint, I layer stuff — gouache is very opaque and perfect for that.
Maybe it’s the childlike quality of your images, but some of your work reminds me a bit of Rocky and Bullwinkle or The Pink Panther cartoons. Have children’s books or cartoons from your days as a kid had any influence on your design sensibility?
Mostly I think it’s the fact that I can’t draw very well! Actually, if I sat down and tried to draw something, I can’t draw. It’s like that kind of sideways way of drawing that ends up looking like that. And my ideas are very simple — I’m not a very deep person! My ideas don’t come off as very sophisticated.
School Bus by Matte Stephens
I see you do a lot of images of animals — really great owls, birds, cats (sometimes with birds on their heads!), foxes, and more — all with as much personality as the human characters. What inspires these animal characters?
Animals to me — this may sound mean — seem a lot more caring than humans do. They seem to have more love in them or are just more interesting. They add a lot more to life. So animals have always been a huge part of my life, and I don’t know what I’d do without them.
Bird With Woman by Matte Stephens
Funny Owl by Matte Stephens
I wanted to ask you about the trajectory of your career. Did it take a while for your style to evolve or for you to gain confidence in what you do? Did you ever feel pressure to alter your path according to opinions of others or according to design trends?
No, not really. I did a lot of birds in 2004/2005, and it was just something I wanted to do at the time. I didn’t realize that birds were going to be ‘the thing’ for a few years. I have a lot more in me than just birds. I think that was one thing that got me on some blogs, and then Velocity Art and Design saw my bird paintings and bought one and invited me to show there. And from those birds, they helped my career a lot! Now I do other stuff, whatever I want. In some sense you need to follow what’s going on out there, but try to make it your own. You know, people see a trend and they jump on it — and I don’t know if that’s necessarily the way to go. I don’t think I would jump on a trend if I saw one. I try to come up with subjects and things that nobody would think to do. Absurd paintings — the more absurd, the happier I am!
Lemon and the Lion by Matte Stephens
How do you come up with your ideas?
I just kind of sketch some. The ideas, coming up with the concepts, is the hardest part. I try not to look at other artists because that will inspire me to do something like what they’re doing. I usually shut myself off from them.
Where there any particular moments in your childhood or early career that you think of as turning points that lead you where you are today?
There are hundreds! I never thought I would ever do anything else. This is the only thing I’ve ever been good at. It’s the only job I’ve ever had — I’ve never had a day job to go to. After high school, I said I would either do this or die trying. It’s the only thing I was ever actually decent at. I never gave myself a choice or actually had another choice. I’m from a tiny town in Alabama, as far away from art as you can get.
Large NYC by Matte Stephens
Did you receive encouragement from your parents?
No, none at all! My dad thought it was probably the dumbest thing I could ever do. But now he understands. They’re from a different kind of place. They think people should go and do a job and come home and have the weekends off.
Funnel by Matte Stephens
Well, good for you for sticking with it! I know you’ve been successful doing commercial illustration for publications, plus selling your own work in galleries, the Jonathan Adler shops, and online on sites like Etsy. Where do you see your work going from here?
I have no idea! Everything I’ve been doing thus far has been totally a dream to me. It’s like anything else that happens is just gravy. Ten years ago I was asked to do a painting for the Jazz Hall of Fame in Birmingham, Alabama … which is not a big deal it seems like, but I thought that was about as high as I could possibly go! So anything that happens, I’m amazed by. And very thankful for anything I get, anything that happens, or anybody that likes my work.
Matte in his studio
What are some of your favorite things, whether they directly impact your work or just make you happy?
I like to go to places like Nordstrom and department stores and walk around! It’s inspiring to me. It’s kind of where the design and art world are headed at the time, with fabrics and colors and all that. I used to live in Boston for a little while, and I used to sit outside of Barney’s NY and would go there maybe 2 or 3 times a week and look at their window displays and look at the art work they had inside and used to collect their catalogs! They would use color swatches inside their catalogs, and it was like training because they were on the forefront of what design and art is. Because when it comes right down to it, design and art is fashion.