Healing Machines: The Back Alley Art of Matt Hawthorne

by | Jun 4, 2009 | ART

We here at RVA have a tradition.  Every Friday afternoon around 4pm we get some PBR, bring the computers out to the backyard, and juggle paragraphs, tweets, and nice long sips of Richmond’s favorite hoppy beverage.  Faced with having accidentally scheduled an interview conflicting with this time-honored practice, I did the responsible thing and invited artist Matt Hawthorne to join me at the picnic table. 

I first came across Matt’s work a few years ago, when I had just started painting and incorporating stencil work.  My initial impression was one of badly concealed jealousy.  His stencils were intensely layered, and since he used acrylic instead of spray paint, he was able to utilize a much broader and more subtle range of color than I.  I immediately denounced this as cheating. 

The next time I saw a painting of his it was in Rumors Boutique, right next to some dresses screen printed with typewriters, a signature image of his previous shows. But Matt’s paintings, while still retaining some indefinable characteristic making them distinctly his, were completely different.

Matt’s work is hip, the type of thing you’d see in the background of a film with indie-rock protagonists and fire-dancers at party scenes.  It’s hip, but not shallow.  If his art seems to be representative of popular aesthetic in some way, it’s because he draws on experience for inspiration, and it has always been the collective perspective of a generation that distinguishes movements, and defines taste. 

So we sat down, batting mosquitoes and swilling Pabst, and talked about what makes things work (other than beer).

S. Preston Duncan: Any particular artists that inspire you?

Mathew Hawthorne: Recently I like Jeff Soto, but it’s not so much artists, it’s just my surroundings. Like when I used to do stencils, that was when I first started hanging out in Richmond, when I was first exploring and doing all the fun shit that everyone likes to do, and I would just take pictures, and that’s where I had all of my artwork.  Next I just got into organic shapes, and the process of splatter paint…

SPD: Motion?

MH: Yeah, and just having a feel of something, and that was based off of all the stencils at the same time, because of the drips and I really feel like it still coincides with everything that I’ve been doing. 

matt hawthorne 2009

SPD: You can still definitely pick out your aesthetic as different as your current shit is from the stencils.  Speaking of stencils, I was talking to your friend James, he was drunk I think, but told me once that he taught you how to stencil and two days later you were better than he was.  Any truth to that?

MH: I have to say, not to beat his dick or anything, but he was one of the first people that really inspired me. He was coming from a different perspective that I’d never seen, and I loved his artwork and the whole idea behind it. He had an art show at Artworks and just gave all of his shit away, and I’m like, that was awesome, I could never do that. His stuff was really good, and I hate him because he doesn’t make art anymore. He’s fucking fat and lazy…always whiskey drunk.

SPD: Why do you focus on alternative medium? I don’t think I’ve ever seen your work on a canvas. I’ve seen wood and pieces of paper, they’re always popping up on my friend’s walls, people have said that they found them in alleyways and shit like that.

MH: My stuff, really? I like wood because it’s accessible. If I have to do an art project in 4 hours, I can walk down an alleyway in 15 minutes and find three panels worth of shit, and not have to go buy these stupid canvases. I don’t like traditional art methods because I don’t feel like it fits the lifestyle everybody’s living here. If you wanna paint oil paints on a huge canvas, go ahead, but…

SPD: Not too Richmond?

MH: It’s not that it’s not Richmond, but why spend all your money making these ridiculous canvas pieces that you’re gonna try to sell for a thousand dollars and not get it? It doesn’t really matter the medium so much as it does the actual piece.

SPD: How do you think that the aesthetic of the found wood interacts with what you paint on it?

MH: Oh dude, it has the history to it. The history is the best part, because you can have a giant hole in it, and that makes it ten times better, it just makes it.  To me it makes it more aesthetically pleasing because it’s not some store-bought, sanded down, perfectly made painting, it’s dirty and gritty and it’s got characteristics to it, it’s got personality.

SPD:  Are there any central elements that tie together the pieces in the upcoming show outside of your own kind of unique style, or is it just recent work that is related inherently? Are there any images or certain elements you’ve been focusing on lately?

MH: It’s a lot more mechanical, more clean lines. I’ve been getting into building mopeds and I got a motorcycle, and I’m trying to get past the image that people have of motorcycles.

SPD: Hell’s Angels?

matt hawthorne 2009

MH: Yeah, when I look at a motorcycle, I’m just so interested in how everything works, how every little piece comes together and makes one thing, and the feeling of rebuilding something that stopped working and getting it working again.  I feel that way with a lot of things. If someone can build a rocket, I can fuckin’ do it. I have the same brain in my head. So that’s what a lot of my stuff is about. And it’s not so much motor or engine based, it’s just how much it interests me. When I learn so much about something, I feel like I know the object. There are so many things in this world and people don’t know how the fuck they work, they just work. Like that AC unit, it just works. Nobody knows how it works, or why it works, you just plug it in the wall and press a button.

SPD: And cold stuff comes out.

MH: Yeah, cold shit. And it makes you feel good. But once it breaks, that shit’s going in the alleyway.

SPD: So you can find it and paint on it?

MH: Exactly. I had a project for my sculpture class, and I actually found a window unit that didn’t work in the alleyway. I took everything apart, and there was one wire unattached. These things are like 90 bucks!  It had two radiators, a fan, and a Freon tube.  I just nailed it to the wall. I plugged it in, the fan was spinning, the Freon tube was underneath it, and you could slowly see the pipes freezing.  I left it on overnight and the radiator had completely frosted over. People throw this shit away because they don’t want to do the work to fix it, but they’ll do the work to pay all that money for it.

But that’s the hardest part [about making art], finding time to express your ideas. I want so badly to tie in all of what I’m doing, like what I’m doing with this motorcycle.  I totally tore it apart, fixing carburetors and shit, stuff that I’ve been slowly learning how to do, and now that I have a hold on it, I’m like this is awesome, I can get this thing working and I want that to translate into my artwork.  I feel like people should be interested in all this stuff.  People should want to know how every goddamn thing in the world works.

SPD: So it’s kinda like the feeling when you finish a painting, the feeling when you get a bike running?

MH: Yeah. People have spent their lives creating these things that we take for granted everyday. Like, their whole lives. And we just take it for granted, like that computer, it works because it’s supposed to.

SPD:  So do you try to combat that kind of consumerist apathy with the subject matter of your work, or is it just a matter of process?

MH: It’s mostly a matter of process. I think about apathy and ignorance a lot, and a lot of my stuff is kinda frank, and borderline depressing. I don’t like happy, I don’t really see happy that much. I see depressing. I feel like the world’s going to shit.

SPD: So making depressing paintings makes you happy?

MH:  It makes me happy when it turns out the way I wanted it to. For a time I really got into just wrapping things in bandages.  I had this one piece I gave to Marshe and Casey (owners of Rumors Boutique), it was a train car that had been wrapped in bandages. And I just really like that idea, when man-made things break, what if we treated them like we treat ourselves?

SPD: Expect it to heal itself?

MH: yeah, like put an IV up to it.  It always starts by getting ideas from my friends, my friends are the biggest influence in a lot of things. My friend blah blah blah is going through a bunch of shit, so I took a picture of him and I just started wrapping him in bandages, because I feel like he’s broken in a way, and I think he feels like he’s just decrepit and limbless. So then I tried to tie in my interest in motor parts.  I took off his head and put a carburetor in it’s place because carborators suck in air and gasoline at the same time.  For a head, it’s kind of the same thing. I’m gonna try to screen print that for the show.


This reexamination of the concepts of brokenness and healing carries it’s own weighty social implications. As our increasingly focused vocational and educational institutions funnel us into specialized occupations, and eradicate nearly all indication that philosophy is a major part of the acronym PhD, our boundless curiosity withers like dilapidated gears inside a bandage-wound machine.  We become hyper-focused on our primary terms of self-definition, and because of this, construct artificial boundaries to potential. Matt Hawthorne’s work won’t teach you how to repair that, though it might make you reconsider what is broken and why, so maybe you can start pulling away the gauze. In any case, he doesn’t seem to have fallen victim to a narrow scope of vision. The PBR is empty and he’s running off to fix something. 

Matt Hawthorne’s opening will be at The Camel, 1621 W. Broad St. on Friday, June 5th from 5-9pm, followed by a free dance party. For more information visit www.thecamel.org

S. Preston Duncan

S. Preston Duncan

S. Preston Duncan is a poet, death doula, BBQist, and leatherworker in Richmond's East End. He is the sole proprietor of Dreamwell Studio, a small leathercraft business specializing in hand-carved and pyrographed journals and grow journals. Author of the short poetry collection, The Sound in This Time of Being (BIG WRK, 2020), his writing has appeared in [PANK], Wrongdoing, Witches Magazine, and other fine publications. He has been contributing to RVA Magazine with remarkable inconsistency since 2009.

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