Local artist adds colorful emotion to the
Almost every chair in the musky upstairs room of the art therapy building at George Washington University is occupied with women of all ages who have come to see local Washingtonian painter, Matt Sesow, 39, speak about his work. With their dangly, beaded earrings, square framed glasses and eclectic hair accessories, the women casually chatter about their upcoming class schedules and gallery exposures. They fall silent as a tall male figure with bright blue eyes and short blonde hair dressed in dark clothing makes his way to the front of the room.
The women stare at him with curious and surprising expressions as they take notice of his left arm. Returning their inquisitive gazes, Sesow holds up his arms as if surrendering to a crowd of question demanding interrogators. Aside from bluntly exposing his amputated lower left arm, he also brings attention to splotches of dark blue, green, and a hint of red speckled paint erratically splattered on his inner forearms.
"These aren't tattoos," he says with a smile referring to the designs of assorted color on his skin. "This is from last night." He is referring to a late night painting session where he was obviously so involved with his work that he failed to remove the evidence from his skin.
With his work recently displayed in Studio One Eight's "The Art of War," an exhibition that marks the three year anniversary of war in Iraq, Sesow has been busy exuding his talent all over the city. Venturing far from the rural farmlands of Omaha, Nebraska, Sesow has made a name for himself in the very urban area of Washington. Married, divorced and currently in a relationship, Sesow has no regrets in love and in life. He has traveled to overseas countries and cities, such as Bulgaria, Morocco and the Solomon Islands to capture the essence of these exotic settings in art form. Although his art has brought him much attention and recognition, Sesow refuses to be sucked into the glamorous world of notoriety and fame. Despite a childhood accident that changed his life, Sesow strives to individually ‘break the back of the art world' by bringing absolute emotion and expression to the canvas.
A typical day for Sesow involves delving into the art of painting. In his compact, yet cozy studio apartment, Sesow spends 12 to 13 hours a day painting, for at least five days a week. As a true artist, he is unable to get enough of the creating process.
"I have painted 200 paintings in a week before," says Sesow, looking serene with a small black beanie and equally dark faded navy blue shirt. "I'll paint all day until I can't paint anymore. I may be tired after that but the next day I am ready to do it again."
In his studio, Sesow is adaptable in his surroundings. Located in the artsy neighborhood of Adam's Morgan, his sixth floor studio apartment is filled with clutter, color and character.
"When I first started painting I decided that I would have to create a lot of work to become famous," says Sesow as he casually leans back in a black desk chair, a bookshelf filled with video games, movies, books and other little knick-knacks towers above him. "I wanted not so much the fame, but to be well known as a painter," he continues.
Mixtures of blue, green, red, orange, purple and perhaps every combination of colored paint imaginable can be found in his studio, whether it be splattered on the hard wood floor, the walls, tables, shelves, stools, caked to used paint brushes or still shining wet on freshly finished pieces.
"Sometimes I'll just start throwing paint on a canvas and as I'm painting I'll see it and I'll start to mold that," says Sesow as he drinks coffee with ice out of an old cylindrical glass fruit jar. "It must be some sort of personality trait that I have. The happiness of wall painting, it's the idea of creating something new."
When he is not painting, Sesow prepares for gallery showings, ships his paintings to buyers, spends time with his girlfriend and catches up with his family through e-mails and phone calls. Like many American males, he also enjoys playing X-BOX games and watching movies.
"I'm very simple," says Sesow, his long sleeved faded dark blue shirt rolled up on both arms. "I'm actually very laid back."
Simplicity, however, is one word that will not be used to describe his work. Sesow believes that he must stay on his toes in order to keep his vibrant, erratic paintings current. He explains the importance of keeping up with society while still keeping his artwork unique.
"I have to create work that reflects the time that we live in," says Sesow taking another sip of his ice coffee, ice cubes clang together against the cool glass of the jar. "And I have to do it outside of the capitalist. I have to do it on my own."
Sesow's paintings have portrayed the war, current political events and other trials that impact society such as the bird flu, mad cow disease and terrorism scares. From his sixth story window he was actually able to see smoke rising above the Pentagon from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"Some of it is political," says Sesow. "I do a lot of stuff with the war. A lot of what I do is to document, like the day or the time that we're in. For instance, like before the war there were a lot of catch phrases like shock and awe," continues Sesow, his light blue eyes become bright with anticipation as he brings up the war. "There was a thing called Operation Liberty Shield. I did one about that, which was to protect DC from terrorists. I do a lot of documenting."
With painting as a major part of his life, Sesow has also learned the tricks of the trade. Working with gallery directors is part of his main agenda. His reliability as a working artist has built him a credible reputation in the art world.
"Working with him is a joy since he is so on top of things," says Trey Sutten, gallery director for Studio One Eight. "If there is a deadline or any info and we need back from him, he is very proactive about getting it done."
Back in the art therapy room women perk up their ears as Sesow tells his disturbing, yet extraordinarily beautiful story of how a childhood experience led him to discover art expressionism, now the guiding force in his life.
At the age of eight, Sesow was involved in a traumatic accident that would impact his life and shape his destiny. Growing up in Nebraska, Sesow lived near an airplane landing field. One summer day, while playing outside with friends, he had an accidental run-in with a viciously swirling airplane propeller. The propeller cut off his left arm, but doctors were able to reattach it. Eventually, they were forced to amputate his left hand. This accident left Sesow with a life long disability that never again allowed him to use his dominant hand. Once a lefty, Sesow now had to readjust and relive his life in a way that was very different from his previous childhood years.
"As a child I never really dealt with the trauma," says Sesow, his blue eyes gleaming. "There never was a healing or dealing process."
It wasn't until after college that Sesow received the psycho therapy needed to deal with the shocking disturbance he experienced as a boy. While working as a computer programmer at IBM, a co-worker invited him to paint with her and some friends. Wanting to impress his female friend, Sesow admitted that he knew how to paint, although in reality he had no prior knowledge or experience with the art.
"As I started painting, I became obsessed with it," says Sesow. "I began focusing my paintings on amputations."
One painting, titled ‘Date With a Disabled,' is based on a woman who is set up on a blind date with a man, who unbeknownst to her, is missing a limb. The painting portrays the shock, embarrassment and pain felt in this seemingly hopeless situation.
The paintings hanging in Sesow's studio are wild with a flair of unique style. Sesow found painting to be the outlet that allowed him to express his feelings and emotions that had been trapped inside him for years.
"I did a lot of emotional art, there were things that I had never dealt with and they were all coming through the paintings," says Sesow. "I would think ‘I have to paint this, these emotions may not come back'."
Some describe Sesow's work as disturbing, angry, painful or intense. For those who do now know him, they may picture him as the stereotypical disturbed, starving, work obsessed artist solely dedicated to his work. Only the latter of this assumption is true.
"I can tell that he is very passionate about his work," says Dimitri Garcia, 22, a graphic designer. "It looks very frenzied and really instinctual. You can definitely see the Basquiat influence in his work."
Although Sesow's paintings are very intense and emotional, his good natured, free spirited personality and soft-spoken voice do not always show through in his paintings.
"I don't think I am the same person that the paintings reflect sometimes," says Sesow. "Some people think they are angry or suffering but I'm actually a pretty happy person all the time."
By sharing his art and experiences with others, Sesow believes that he is making a positive statement in society. He strives to be an inspiration to other artists. This former IBM programmer works out of his own studio, painting and then selling his work through his website, www.Sesow.com. He does all of this agent-free and thoroughly enjoys it.
"I want to show people that you can be instantaneous and you can do it yourself. Talks like at George Washington University and other interviews keep me fresh," says Sesow, his next open studio scheduled for April 22. "It keeps me, you know, it's kind of like what I'm doing is ok. I mean not so much the paintings themselves are great, but to me its almost like I'm doing something different. I don't know if this is a movement but I want to show artists they can do it too."
Sesow is well respected for his unique renditions of painful emotion and vivid interpretations of life. According to Sutten, art lovers are not the only ones that enjoy his work. Other artists in the Washington area truly appreciate his art. His distinct, self-taught style sets him apart from other artists.
"I know people call me outsider art, but to me that's more of like a catch all for this whole self-taught thing that's going on right now in the world," says Sesow. "Self-taughts are emotional in their work." Sesow pauses and contemplates for a moment. He is the epitome of comfort as he causally leans his left arm on the arm of the desk chair and crosses his bare feet at his ankles. "I don't know, I like to think that I'm hopefully gonna be some kind of new thing that comes."
Not only has painting served as a sort of therapy for Sesow in overcoming his childhood emotions, but it has helped him to figure out his own inner personality. At age, 39 he is still discovering who he is and what makes him unique.
"The range and energy in my work is something internal that I've finally been able to control," says Sesow motioning to the vivid wet paintings drying on the other side of his studio. "And when I paint, it's that wild side."
It is also the media attention he receives that allows him to learn even more about himself. Through interview questions he is able to look back and reflect on what his art means to him and his life. He attributes some of his success to the way that he is constantly staying current and reinventing himself.
"Outside of his artwork, he really is a very genuine artist," says Sutten. "He wants everybody to enjoy his work. He keeps his work affordable for everyone. I read a quote somewhere where he said that there is no reason why college students shouldn't have art work in their dorms. That speaks volumes about how much it means to him."
With so much importance behind his art, Sesow is critical when it comes to other artists unlike himself. His art means something to him, personally and emotionally and he feels other artists may not have the same connection with their work.
"To be a good painter you don't have to go out and do the drugs and do the scene," says Sesow with a sly smile that may have confirmed his walk on the wild side. "You don't have to act a certain way or dress a certain way, you can just be this painter who does it. I don't think of myself as a coffee shop artist, I don't really even talk to other artists," he says with a shrug, still dressed in the typical artist's wardrobe of dark clothing. "I don't like other peoples' art usually." He looks around his artistically furnished studio apartment. Blazes of color and image meet his gaze. "I am very opinionated, I defend what I'm doing because I think I work very hard at it."
One example of his tedious, hard work was introduced in 2003 when he created a project called 31 days in July. For everyday in the month of July, he takes a headline or article from The Washington Post and paints a 30 inch by 40 inch painting to go along with that headline. Sesow sets self-imposed deadlines for himself that keep him working almost all night and continually the next day.
"His 31 days in July series convey the chaos of the world in angular lines," writes Molly Knight in an article titled Drawing Lines from the Jan/Feb 2006 issue of Washington, D.C. Style. "The compositions- brimming with distorted shapes and primary colors-grapple with everything from unrest in Iraq to the Supreme Court."
Sesow has completed this project each year and plans to continue creating many more paintings that reflect the time. Other artists have also been known to emulate this project.
"I like to discover my own style," says Sesow. "Not so much copying someone else's paintings. I mean, I've seen people copy my style too."
Sesow captures the attention of aspiring artists in the Washington area as well as around the country. His distinct talents are recognizable to anyone who is familiar with his work.
"I think that his artwork is amazing," says Sutten. "I don't know any other artists doing what he's doing. He has a very particular style that's very appealing. It's just amazing to me how much work he puts into his art. It's just amazing."
Sesow hopes that in the future, his 31 days in July project will help to make his art well-known. He wants his work to be remembered and admired long after he is gone. It appears that he is not the only one predicting more success in the future.
"The enthusiasm he has for his work was contagious to me," says Knight, contributing writer to DC Style Magazine who interviewed Sesow for the Jan/Feb 2006 issue. "I felt inspired, I felt I had just interviewed someone who will be very big in the art scene in the future."
Whether or not Sesow does attain that type of success or not, one thing he is sure of is that he will not stop painting.
"I want to do this for another 50 years," says Sesow, excitedly motioning to the art supplies and tools surrounding him in the single room. "This is probably what I would consider an ultimate life. If I was to imagine the perfect life, this would probably be it."
Back in the art therapy room, Sesow reflects on his work and his life as a painter. Despite losing his left arm and discovering his passion late in life, Sesow embraces his situation, his gift and his life.
"As for my journey as a painter, I'm still on it and it's going well," says Sesow. To me, its not so much about the painting as it is for the full story. I realize that I have a unique story and I make sure that that story is in the painting."