Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, NYC
Artsicle Artist Matt Held rose to internet notoriety in the past few years as “that Facebook artist”. He took dozens of profile pictures and painted them into compelling portraits. After taking on some heavy hitting clients on commission, Matt has put those days behind him. Now he’s focused on two projects as complimentary as milk and cookies... jetpacks and the hobo code.
If you missed our post on Matt's jetpack show (and photos of Matt in a jetpack), check it out here!
Are you from New York originally?
No- I grew up in Denver, then moved to Seattle, and spent about 7 years there. I met my wife, got married, and bought a house. Neither of us were terribly happy in Seattle, so we decided to move here, give it a shot, and see if we could make it. That was about seven years ago.
When did you start making art?
As a kid. I went to art school back in Denver and dropped out because I decided to move to Seattle, and then didn’t pursue school after that. I was almost a Senior when I dropped out-you don’t really need a degree to be a painter- unless you want to teach. The degree is always good to have though, so I actually just finished up I’m paying that student loan, so I figure I might as well have the piece of paper to show for it. I finished it up at SUNY College in Brooklyn in Studio Art. Now at least if I wanted to get a Masters degree I could...but I don’t want to.
What were you doing when you moved out to Seattle?
Real figurative work. I started working at a hospital on the loading dock, and I did a series of paintings of things I saw at the hospital. Everything came into the loading dock, and then we had to deliver all this stuff, so we had access to some really quite horrific things, from the ER to the morgue. So, I did a bunch of paintings on those subjects just to get them out of my head. They were really dark, but it was more to get it out of my head than for anyone else. I’ve always been interested more in the “slice of life” type stuff, no real hard meaning behind the paintings- that might be why they tanked.
The Facebook portraits are mostly what you have on Artsicle- how did those come about?
My wife and I had just had our daughter, so that was probably about three years ago- around November of 2008. I was working at Christie’s as the post-war art handler, and my wife was making considerably more than me. We decided that it would be better that I stay home and raise my daughter, paint, and see what I could do. I was having a pretty bad painter’s-block, and I just wanted to paint something without any narrative or anything, so I just sort of picked a picture my wife had on her Facebook. It turned out pretty well, so I got the idea that here’s all these people’s pictures, why not take that- then I never have to worry about having an idea...it just kind of snowballed from there. I posted a few of them, and it blew up.
Did you end up doing comissions?
Yeah- I had a guy from the Brooklyn Art Museum, a Supreme Court Justice out of Connecticut wanted me to paint her husband...it was pretty cool.
Are still doing that kind of work?
No...I’m pretty much over that. I painted 75 portraits, and if I never paint another portrait again in my life...I’ll be just fine. I mean I will...but after that many paintings in about a year and a half...I burned out pretty fast. I
So you work pretty fast?
I was doing about one a week. I get up at 4:00 AM every day, paint for about an hour and a half, then get my kids up, get them to school, get my wife out the door, then paint probably about 5-6 hours a day after that. After like 2:30 I have to clean everything up, get my kids, fix dinner, and all that good stuff.
What came after the portraits?
I sort of tinkered around with a few things. I made some comics based off my status updates, just to draw, they were fun. Did a couple other paintings- thought it would be cool to do Old Masters paintings but make them contemporary, and use my Facebook friends as models- I had built a lot of friends through the Facebook portraits. So I put out a model call and I’d have people from all over the world, and I’d ask them to pose like figures in the original painting. It was a lot of work...by the time I did like two of them I realized that it was just too much work and I was spending too much time on it.
So then I started working on the jetpack stuff that I’m working on now, and as I was working on that when I came across the Hobo Code. I was researching some delta blues musicians and somehow came across the Hobo Code. I thought it was amazing to see this language that they came up with- then I found out that it’s even older than the American hobos, it comes from the German crooks code.
It was this code that they used so that when you had just come into town, and you’re new to town. Other hobos would etch markings on things like sign posts or door jambs, places you wouldn’t see it unless you’re looking for it. They would tell you things like “vicious dog here,” or “talk religion, get food,” or “get out of town fast,” “town doesn’t allow alcohol”. So they were able, through this code, to communicate with other hobos, which I thought was just fascinating. I still find it absolutely amazing- first of all that it came all the way from Europe, and second that it spread and became a viable language that remained secret.
I was studying the hobo code, and I started thinking about an Artists Hobo Code, and I came up with a code of my own, because making it in the art world....well, it sucks. As an artist you can’t go into a gallery and fill out an application... its all networking, and who you know, and it’s really tough. So i figured, if there were little codes that artists could leave each other around galleries, it might improve the experience. I developed code for things like “OK place to send slides”, “you’ll get ignored here”, “don’t approach this gallery unless you have a silver spoon sticking out of your ass”...I kind of came up with my own little language. I’ve even been going out to openings and leaving the stickers around, I’ll take the code and leave them around the gallery- it’s been fun. As soon as I’ve finished the jetpack show I’ve been working on, I’m going to start shopping the hobo code around. It’s been a lot of fun- I’ve enjoyed the creativity in simply putting paint on canvas that didn’t really exist in all the portraits. It’s important to find the balance between work that is creative and commercially viable- I’m not saying that I want to sell out...but I’d like to sell some.
So where did the Jetpack series come from?
As a kid I grew up with this idea that by the year 2000 we’d have flying cars, and jetpacks, and all this really awesome stuff....and we don’t. So, while what we do have is really cool, going to the movie theatre and watching Star Wars as a little kid, I always had this kind of lingering thought of “where’s my jetpack?”. So the show is all based on jetpacks, and the broken promise...technology is pretty amazing, but we still don’t have jetpacks. The show is multimedia, all based around the jet packs, so I’m working with a group of collaborators who I hope are as into jet packs as I was...or at least they like that I’m so excited about it. So anyways, we have a photographer, a guy making a commercial for my fictitious Held Jetpack Company, I built a sculpture, I have another friend doing an installation of jetpack parks, an architect doing an architectural drawing, we made jet pack fuel beer. It got a lot bigger than I thought it ever would, and it was a lot of fun.
It seems like technology has played a big role in your recent work...
Yeah, you know it just sort of happened like that. No matter how much I bitch and moan about how much I hate Facebook and technology, and wish that we still had rotary phones...I just bought an iPad....I mean I think it’s kind of ingrained in me.
What inspires you to pick up a paintbrush in the first place?
I can’t do anything else. The only other thing that I’m skilled at is driving a forklift, and I hate it. I’m not as smart as I’d like to be on the computer, so it’s pretty much the only thing that I’m fair at...I don’t even want to say good...I’ll say fair. I mean, I’ve always had a penchant for drawing. Even sitting around as a little kid drawing Iron Maiden record covers, something about seeing that cover and trying to copy it really inspired me to be an artist...then I started copying this, and that, and after a while it became that all I wanted to do was to sit in my room and draw.
Can you tell me a little bit about your tattoos?
Yeah... I’ve got a voodoo doll getting drunk, Tank Girl on a scooter, a tube of paint with angel wings, robots, palettes, naked chick on an anchor my son, my sons name, still need to get my daughters name but tattoos are expensive...
You strike me as somebody who belongs in a muscle car...
I used to have a 71’ dodge dart swinger...I miss that car. It was awesome.
Not as awesome as a jetpack.
Text and photography by Dan Teran for Artsicle.