Artist and Educator, Matthew Ballou
I would like to introduce an amazing artist and educator, Matt Ballou who teaches painting and drawing as a Full Teaching Professor at the University of Missouri where I received a BFA in 2016. I have known Matt Ballou for about 6 years. He is a very generous person and active in the art world for whom I have great respect. He recognizes his privilege as a white, male individual and often puts limelight to those who are underrecognized. He has curated multiple shows since I’ve known him. In my final year at Mizzou, he organized and gave a show to two other students and myself he personally taught. He asked me if I would like to be in a traveling show he invited during my first year of grad school at SAIC. He is also a great admirer of Miyoko Ito’s work who was a geometric abstraction painter who sadly passed away in 1983. Realizing that there are not enough retrospectives of her work done, Matt has been working on trying to exhibit her work for years. Her sense of color, which he is drawn to, is phenomenal, serene and otherworldly. He also made a body of work inspired by her work. Outside of teaching and creating art, he is a husband and a father to four young children. Two of whom are adopted from China and one has special needs due to osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition producing brittle bones.
How do you balance your time between teaching, taking care of kids, and art? I admire your energy.
I’m not sure how well I actually balance it. Right now I’m letting my kids watch The Princess Bride so I have time to do grading and respond to emails and such. I think the main thing for me is that I had to get over feeling “right” in order to work; I just had to start working. For many years before my first child was born I would spend hours getting in the zone before the magic would start. I went from having many hours to having just snippets of 15 minutes here or 45 minutes there. I gained an ability to see and acknowledge that it wasn’t ideal for creativity, but that I had to get working for anything to happen. I’ve stuck with that.
You described your heart attack as “a watershed event that produced radical changes in my art and life.” Could you explain this in short sentences?
When I had my heart attack, I discovered that my emotional and spiritual depth had kind of disappeared. I felt that I no longer had access to the reasons I was making depictions of the body, etc. So I moved back into abstraction seriously, not as a study, but as a main aim. It helped me in those first months of recovery. It took me nearly 2 years to feel like myself again.
Looking at your work history, you started with still lifes and abstraction then moved onto intense figuration at the beginning of your grad school. The Mandala series took off, and came back to abstraction. What constituted these radical shifts?
In my work I tend to be focused primarily on one of two arenas; representational depictions of the body in tension or distress, or on the exploration of geometry and shape in abstract, archetypal form. In many ways the more abstract work is the underpinning of the figurative work. The abstractions help me understand form and composition while the evocative representational work helps me make moral and spiritual statements about the human condition. In some ways the abstractions are celebrations, works that take joy in the bedrock forms that coalesce, eventually, into representational meaning. I’m trying to find ways to combine these two arenas more and more.
Your new abstract works are chaotic and full of energy. I’m curious to know what is going on in your mind while you are painting them. Are you visualising something specific? Or are you in the moment and focusing on formal elements?
I’m not usually visualizing anything very specific, but I often have a relationship of angles or masses that I’m keyed into. For example, I may be thinking about how a diagonal touches or puts pressure on an edge, and I use that as a starting point. If you think about the shapes of letters and numbers - these are entirely abstract marks that have taken on and are used in very specific ways. I’m intrigued by that. Many of our language forms began as pictographic icons, and our use of these systems influences what forms feel true to us. I think a lot of my abstraction, at least over the last few years, is really about a kind of alphabet of forms.
Tell me more about your recent collaboration with Simon Tatum.
Simon and I have been working on a collaboration for nearly 4 years. We work in parallel, each on our own things, but we come together to chat about where we are and where we are going. We made a proposal to the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands a couple years ago and are working to build out a body of work that fulfills that proposal. Right now my focus is on the traditional house graves used by the people of Cayman; their shape and the contrast and shadows they create as very unique. I’ve taken photos of these graves that Simon collected himself and created a series of pretty abstract works. Now, to the casual observer the works are abstract, but they derive directly from the shape and shadows of the house graves. Inside the shadow spaces of the forms I have depicted the sails of British colonial ships - Cayman is still a British Territory - to show a connection between the history of the islands and the way colonization and exploitation continue. This entire project deals with fragmentation, as it started with the wreck of the Teignmouth Electron, a British trimaran boat that now disintegrates on the island of Cayman Brac. The boat is a fragment of the failed British Empire whose final resting place in the Cayman Islands is an ironic inversion of the colonial boats that first arrived there in 1670.
Do you have something exciting coming up that you would like to share?
Well, in spite of the pandemic pushing back many shows, I have artwork up in Michigan (Glen Arbor Art Association) and Nebraska (Nebraska Wesleyan University) as well as a few other places. I have a show coming up this winter at the Kansas City Public Library that I’m very excited about as well. And next spring a show I’ve curated will go up at the Riverside Art Center near Chicago. This is the last iteration of the Restraint and Limitation show, which has been on display in several states in a few different configurations.