Susan Matthews Goes Large for More Impact
The Oakland artist uses acrylic on canvas to share reflection on human existence in specific cultural contexts.
Photo by Paul Haggard; paintings courtesy of Sue Matthews
The larger-than-life figure paintings of Oakland artist Susan Matthews reflect human existence in specific cultural contexts. Drawing on 20 years of study of Afro-Cuban music, dance, and mythology and travels to Africa, Cuba, and Latin America, her subject matter reflects these influences. In her 20s, she traveled to Mexico on the bus every summer to learn Spanish, hanging out in churches and observing 18th-century colonial paintings. After travels to Niger to visit her brother, Matthews did a series of large-scale portraits of Wodaabi herdsmen and Hausa farmers, capturing their dignity, pride, and self-respect, despite deprivation. Matthews sends a portion of proceeds from sales back to the villages and the local hospital there. In 1995, she went to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban percussion and a year later joined a collaborative artists’ research project called Secrets Under the Skin, based at the University of Alaska Anchorage, deeply exploring the history of Cuban ritual in rural Matanzas Province and its preservation of African spiritual beliefs.
Matthews works in acrylic on canvas, and her paintings are filled with exuberant color and pattern, often featuring dancers or drummers possessive of a supernatural quality. Working large is more impactful, the figures more confrontational, Matthews said. “A life-size figure enters the physical realm while a small one stays in the psychological realm,” she said. Exhibiting her work widely but most often in Africa, Alaska, and Cuba, Matthews devised a tapestry-like format for hanging paintings from grommets. Rolling them up in giant tubes, she transports them easily as luggage.
Matthews sees a continuity between life in Oakland and the places she has visited. Bringing her subjects close to home, her 99 Portraits Project is a response to conversations about the 99 vs. the 1 percent population and represents Oakland residents in a series of colorful portraits with bio notes. Matthews said she believes that every brush stroke an artist puts down contains a bit of his own personal history, too, and she is sure that everything she has experienced in life is contained in her images. “One person can paint a glass of water and it will look cute, while another person can paint the same glass of water and make a political statement,” she said.
Matthews’ family moved to East Oakland from Arizona when she was 5 years old and her dad was offered a job in the produce market loading trucks on the night shift. Her parents were not actively involved in the arts but did not discourage her, even when she decided to be an art major at UC Berkeley where she earned her BFA. She found her familial link to the arts when she learned that her great grandfather was a stained glass window maker in France and her grandmother was a movie actress when the industry was based in New York. Her mother’s love of opera and classical music left an impression, too. Serendipitously, in 1995, long after her dad passed away, her sister found a live/work space in the same market where her dad worked and Matthews moved in.
Recently, however, her landlord evicted her stating that the city of Oakland was cracking down since the Ghost Ship fire, though Matthews disputes the veracity of this claim. Neither the building nor fire inspector she met with reported problems with the space, other than some minor work on the floors. There was no official statement from the city requiring her to vacate. Matthews has moved all of her work into storage and is renting a room from a friend.
Matthews described her work as an intersection of traditional art and music with a contemporary, multicultural vernacular. The stylization of medieval and early renaissance painting is evident as well.
Matthews hopes her work has a positive effect. “I used to think it was unrealistic to say that art could change the world, but now I believe that art in all of its forms is the most potent force available to the human race,” Matthews said. “It is through music and art that people understand and appreciate each other across political and cultural boundaries and through time.”
Matthews has an MFA from San Francisco State and teaches drawing and painting at the College of San Mateo. She is associated with Joyce Gordon Gallery and Gray Loft Gallery in Oakland, the SFMOMA Artist’s Gallery in San Francisco, and Galerie Yassine in Dakar, Senegal. In 2018, Matthews presented at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is also a percussionist and back-up vocalist for Nuevo Mundo. For more information, visit her website at SusanMatthewsGallery.com and Women Drummers International.