Matjames Metson And The Art Of Reinvention

Ahead of it's opening this weekend, our US correspondent Sanjiv Bhattacharya talks to assemblage artist Matjames Metson

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There’s an art show next week in Chinatown where everything’s made of matches – literally matchsticks and glue. The artist even sounds like matches – Matjames Metson.

He deliberately fashioned the double-first-name thing, and it seems to go with his beard, tattoos and hat, and his workshop in Silverlake, which is LA’s Williamsburg (which is Brooklyn’s Shoreditch). You could easily mistake him for a hipster. But he isn’t.

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Matjames is one of those stories that builds the myth of LA as a place of reinvention and possibility. Not a fairytale about a busboy who gets discovered at a Pizza place (though that happens too, #ChrisZylka), but a proper story of tragedy and hope and humanity. The kind of thing that comes on the radio around rushhour and straight away you stop bitching about the traffic.

“I had to use matches,” he says. “They were the only materials I could afford.”

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It was 2006, and Katrina had destroyed his life. He’d been a successful artist in New Orleans, but the floods killed his friends, drowned his work, and washed away every possession he had except for the clothes on his back and his two pitbulls, Pikachu and Pearl.

When a friend in LA sent him the money to go live with her and get back on his feet, he said yes, and spent a couple of months there recuperating. And then she found him an apartment in Koreatown, where he tried to rebuild his life.

But it wasn’t working.

“In Los Angeles, everyone’s here to win, but I was struggling to survive. I had a futon and a TV and that was it. My building was a rat’s nest. And I had a budget of $2 a day to live on.”

Every morning, he’d eat a handful of dog kibble, and then go out and beg for the bus fare to get to work – a $7/hr gig in the stock room at an art store.

“I had flood victim written all over me. I was failing. I needed help.” 

All his life, Matjames had moved from city to city. And it’s never easy. The dislocation, the strangers, the starting over – it’s exhausting. But his parents were also artists and travelled from one teaching job to the next while he was growing up. And they in turn had come from England, full of bold ideas.

“You couldn’t bring cash, there was a limit,” he says, “so they put their savings into buying a Rolls Royce and shipping it over, thinking they could sell it when they got to New York. They forgot that they drove on the wrong side of the street.”

Metson’s own travels began at 16. He was living in a grim small town in Ohio at the time, and his girlfriend had just had a baby girl called Tyler. And Matjames freaked out.

“I didn’t know what to do so I just took off. I was way too immature to have a kid. I still am! So I left my parents, my brother, and all my friends. It was scary. I put all my stuff in an army duffel bag and just left.”

He ended up in New Orleans, working in bars, by night, and making art by day. It was a thriving art scene, and life was good – he had shows, he was written about, he was on his way. But then came Katrina, and his escape to LA, where he was living hand to mouth. It felt like he was drowning all over again.

And that’s when the phone rang one night. It was Tyler – his daughter that he’d never met or spoken with for all those years. She was a teenager now, and wanted to get to know her biological father, maybe visit him eventually.

“I thought, ’this person wants to know me, so I have to do better for myself.’ So he started making art again - buying matches and glue at the Dollar Store, and sitting in his roach-infested Koreatown studio, making things. It was a way of shutting out his problems.

“In New Orleans, I was kind of blasé as an artist. I wasn’t serious enough. But coming to LA, art became my one focussed thing. There was no more time in bars. And I was immobilized - I don’t drive, don’t have a car, I don’t have any money to go on the buses.”

And slowly but surely, his life began to change. He met a girl at his job, who saw past his wretchedness and listened. “Everyone I met, I wanted to just say, ‘I need help, I need help,’ and she was the first person who said, ‘OK, tell me how.’ I was like ‘really?’” City of angels indeed.

He spoke every so often to Tyler, and galvanized his determination to make her proud. And three years later – not a blink by any stretch - he had his first LA art show. He was back. “My daughter calling literally saved my life.”

Today Matjames is 42 and still going strong with that girl he met – they live together in her grandmother’s old house in Silverlake. He’s close to his daughter Tyler – “how many people who can say they’re good friends with their teenage daughter?” And he has a book in the works for Penguin, a graphic novel called “Surivivors Guild” about his life after Katrina.

Ask Matjames what he thinks about LA and he’s unequivocal. “It’s a cartoon strip for sure, but it’s not the narrative people think. You can reinvent yourself here. Start again. All you need to do is work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. I love this place.”

Matjames Metson’s show, A Better Home For A Quiet Wolf opens March 15th at the Coagula Curatorial, LA:


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