Briefly describe the work you do.
Currently I am developing an archive for photographic and written documentation of EPA Superfund Sites both past and present in Wisconsin. From this archive images are used in photographic and print based artworks along with encaustic paintings both processes employ digital and analogue means of art making. The work examines the affect of images through the feeling of occurrence and memory within the production and manipulation of surface, pattern, and layers
Many of these sites are located within inner city neighborhoods labeled as Environmental Justice areas and defined as communities with high populations of low-income, minority or tribal residents who may endure a lop-sided share of the nation’s environmental waste and pollution problems. Milwaukee’s Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods where I live and keep a studio is defined as an Environmental Justice area and home to two Superfund Sites along with numerous Brownfields (lesser contaminated and/or post industrial land sites). The Environmental Protection Agency defines a Superfund site as an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located and possibly affecting the local ecosystem or people.
There is an underlying relationship between my practice as an artist, continual environmental themes in my work and my daily struggle living with Crohn’s Disease. A condition in which the body attacks itself creating a splitter effect of disorder, illness, and pain throughout the body, Crohn’s along with the many fragments of the disease affect my daily decisions as a person and as an artist. There is no know reason why someone develops and is affected by Crohn’s Disease, but one of several speculations is an environmental factor. A vague suggestion that something in the soil, water, air, or food may be suspect in the development of the disease. This idea permeates through near all of my projects including my most resent research for Superfund Wisconsin.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I finished high school in Fairfax Virginia outside of Washington D.C. The political climate of Northern Virginia in the late Reagan years made a huge impact on my social and economic understanding of the world. I worked for Greenpeace and Sane/Freeze (Peace Action) in D.C. as an activist. Those years forged my passion for civic engagement and demonstration. I was also drawn to wilderness and travel and continued involvement with Earth First! in the Mid-West and West Coast. I was always making art so eventually all of these influences merged into my work as an artist in different ways over the years.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
At this point I am a “seeker” of images. I continue to do a good bit of travelling to photograph Superfund Sites for the archive. So each of these sites become my studio. I spend time there, often visiting several times, and with some sites a strange relationship occurs. I know the boundaries of each location and what to expect as far as people, attitudes, or hazards. The studio I rent is a space to make objects as a result of my research and fieldwork. It is like a lab or kitchen where I am bring back the forage of foodstuffs for the day to prepare to eat.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
My work has often taken a larger view of politics and pollution, but now I have begun to narrow my scope to a much more localized area. The possibilities of this project (Superfund Wisconsin) are evolving as I envision trying to build community through art. It forces me out of the comfort of the studio, and into new experiences along with the possibility of failures. As much as I have been an activist, building an educational based project around my own artistic practice has been a new experience and not something I was prepared for. But the challenge of the project and its purpose push aside any fears, or failings to make it successful.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
It really depends on my schedule or if I have any deadlines, but in general I prefer early evenings. I enjoy the late afternoon sunlight and having the sun go down in the studio.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
The integration of different mediums has remained consistent and the use painting, photography, and printmaking continue. I have added video work to my practice as an artist over the past five years. Themes of ecology have always been present in my work, but now I begin to work with the notion that my disease is a direct link to the ecological themes of the work along with the ideas temporality and tactility.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
The writing by Edward Abbey and Slavoj Žižek who never crossed paths, but oddly look similar. My mother who is an artist and painter, and the love and support of my wife Robin.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
Chef. I worked for a time as a chef, but at the time the stress and atmosphere of a kitchen combined with Crohn’s Disease was difficult to manage. I have a strong passion for cooking, food education, and sustainable food practices.
C. Matthew Luther is a Milwaukee-based painter, printmaker and video artist whose work explores the human relationship to nature along with the connection of visual imagery to memory, the unconscious and its affect. He is currently working
on a project known as Superfund Wisconsin, an archive of environmental calamity. Luther received a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in printmaking and photography at Southern Oregon University and a Master of Fine Art in painting at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has exhibited internationally, and a recent visiting artist-in-residence in Iceland, Sweden, and Norway.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.