“You’ve kind of got to ride the edge of crazy and not fall over.”

Article written by Chris Davis
from the "The Fifteen Before Fifteen"

I walked into the interview thinking I knew something about him.  Matt, being both a fastidious documenter and an extremely competent web user (he was an unhappy programmer for a bit), gives viewers of www.Sesow.com quite a show.  Patrons have the opportunity to see almost every piece he’s ever done and purchase directly from the website.  I ask what actually doesn’t make the cut.  “Maybe a drunken scribble on a bar napkin,” is all he can think of.   

Intermixed with the artwork on Sesow.com are videos of the creative process, interviews galore, and personal testimonies about his work.  His website is as prolific as his portfolio.  “It’s a beast,” he says talking about it.  I can’t help but agree.

But really, there’s nothing so personal that it can’t be shown?  “Nope, it’s pretty much all there,” he says.

By the end of the interview I’m convinced that he’s telling the truth.  It helps that within one hour’s time he references channeling his inner Bukowski, mimicking the D.I.Y. efforts of one of his heroes Ian MacKaye, and talks about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (though neither of us could remember much beyond the title at the time).  A lot of articles start at the beginning when discussing an artist’s career.  With Matt we’re going to start in the present.

He wants to say that he went to the hardware store and these were the materials they had.  He’s referencing the color of paint used in the background of his most recent works.  I have just asked him why in 2009 the world saw a slight change in Sesow art, specifically the use of lighter blues and chartreuse as opposed to bright reds.  He knows he can’t say it was simply what he had to work with.  I’m sitting in his studio and there’s both paint and paintings all around.  He admits it, “I guess I’m happier now.”

After 14 years of painting religiously (almost daily), Matt Sesow has worked through the trauma of losing an arm, a divorce, and a soul-sucking day job.  That’s not to say that the subject matter has undergone a drastic change or that the aforementioned emotional dramas don’t still factor into his work.  “But now,” he says, “I can turn it on.”

A self-described recluse, he seems nothing but personable to me.  He was Homecoming King back at the University of Tulsa for crying out loud!  What makes Matt most happy though is painting, not being a painter.  He paints all time and prefers to be alone when he does.  He has turned down a few requests from people who want to paint along side him, which I think is probably a good idea.  He says to me on more than one occasion that he goes into a state of frenzy when he paints.  It’s fun for him.  The wall behind him certainly shows the signs of a man who is passionate about his work.  So I unfortunately do not get to experience Matt Sesow in a frenzy, but alas very few do.

During a 2008 trip to China he did paint alongside another prominent DC artist, Dana Ellyn.  Dana and he painted in their hotel room in guerilla fashion.  They would cover everything in plastic at night, paint to their hearts content, and then remove all signs of the work the night before. 

In 2003 he was one of the few juried artists in residency in a Ciudad Colon, a suburb of San Juan, Costa Rica.  The other artists would travel to see the volcanoes while Matt would briefly walk the small town before getting back to his craft.  He paints, period.  “I’m not even close to burning out on painting,” he says.  This from a man who has a portfolio of over 8,000 works (he estimated somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000).  There might be as many as 1,000 paintings surrounding him and me in his studio/apartment as we speak.  I’m sorry, 999, he literally sells one while I’m sitting there.

He has an interesting list of influences:  de, Kooning, Bukowski, MacKaye.  He is self teaching, a phrase he prefers over self-taught.  When Matt began painting he would tour the free galleries of DC looking at other artists.  DeKooning spoke to him, so Matt took on painting in a similar style.  He has never looked to switch.  This is how he paints, hence why the term “It’s a Sesow1” means something.

Charles Bukowski comes into play as a mentor for a few reasons.  Most important is the fact that Sesow is a fan and has drawn inspiration directly from his work.  Those familiar with both man’s art can see the connection between the two in terms of subject matter.  I think it’s fair to say that neither man turns their head from the ugly.  To go further, Bukowski is said to have written partially in response to feelings of alienation due to physical differences.  Matt’s most recent painting, as of yet unnamed, deals with people’s inability to focus on anything but the loss of his arm.  Perhaps then they drew from a similar well for inspiration.  I believe Matt sees this to be the case, as at one point during the interview he amends his previous statement saying, “I can turn the Bukowski on.”   

Readers should also know that Bukowski has been stated as being more pleasant in real life than his auto-biographical characters imply.  Matt seems very pleasant to me, though certainly first time viewers of his work might wonder.  Both men were also greatly influenced by women in their lives and the drudgery of their day jobs.  Sesow “began painting to impress a girl” – he definitely hated his day job. 

Another connection between the two men is perhaps more definitive.  Matt recently illustrated a book written by an ex-lover of Bukowski, Linda King.  The book, entitled Bukowski Undigested, was released in 2007.  Matt flew to San Francisco for its unveiling.  At the end of March he flies out to Los Angeles for a Bukowski exhibit in which he tops the bill.

So Bukowski is clear, but why MacKaye?  Well the Nebraska boy fell in love with punk and eventually moved to the city where some of his major influences happened to live.  It was for work, mind you – dull, soul-sucking, money = happiness work.  Regardless, he gets here in the late 80’s.  Painting doesn’t begin until 1994.  Once it does though, representation quickly follows.  Matt gets flashes of happiness, no longer working at a job where he doesn’t want to be, but he’s still not completely happy.  Having representation “just about ruined me,” he says.  He couldn’t see where his artwork was going.  He couldn’t adjust price to make sure that his fans were leaving with a great experience.  He later found out that the pieces were being described incorrectly.  Basically, he isn’t creating and distributing his art on his own terms, and that is a problem for Matt.  After approximately five years he makes the change and represents himself.  Aficionados of the DC scene can see where this is going.

Matt goes full D.I.Y.  No longer will he sacrifice integrity.  At this point in the interview he begins to paraphrase one of his heroes, Ian MacKaye, “some artists are really good at making money and some artists are really good at making art.  And if you’re good at making money, good for you, but that’s not why I’m not doing this.2”  Matt is really good at making art.  He doesn’t care about the money – he’s not creating for that end.  Like MacKaye, he starts up his own system of distribution that neither relies on major representation, nor adheres to the belief systems of the powers that be.3He relies on galleries less and less, and refuses to play by their rules.  It’s not that he thinks galleries inherently are bad, but Matt Sesow is prepared to sell his artwork as he wants, at the price he wants, and to live the life that comes with it. 

To this day he lives it.  He is in no way a poor businessman.  He has sold as many as 100 paintings in one day – he sells an average of 5 a week.  There have been times where he has posted a work on his website, stepped into the shower, and returned to find that the piece sold.  He knows how wonderfully this business model works for him.  More importantly he knows how happy he is doing it this way.  There is no pretending here to be focused solely on the artwork publicly and then salivate behind closed doors over how rich he is becoming.  Let’s just say there will never be a Matt Sesow inspired bag sold in Saks Fifth Avenue.  There are, however, tons of Matt Sesow paintings available on Sesow.com

Sesow’s style is as much his own as is his methodology of painting.  I contacted Paul Roe of British Ink Tattoos to ask about a collaborative effort between Matt and him.  The result of the co-creation was a Sesow tattoo on Exit Clov drummer John Thayer.  Paul had nothing but positive things to say about Matt, admitting that he too was one of the many that owned a Sesow original (painting – not a tattoo).  Even though it was Paul that did the tattooing he won’t claim the work.  “It’s a Sesow,” he says to me.  Paul not only had to replicate the painting, but the style in which it was created.  “I had to break tattooing habits,” he says matter-of-factly.  He explains to me that the way Matt creates lines don’t coincide with they way in which a tattoo artist creates lines.  Difficult, Paul?  “[exhale] Yeah.”  Good experience?  “The funnest thing I’ve done definitely.”  I smile when Paul says this because he’s smiling.  Matt was smiling too when he talked about it.  I contacted John Thayer to get his opinion, and he said, “Our little collaboration is something I’ve enjoyed immensely.”  All men walked away with a great experience.  None of them had to ask permission to get it.  This, therefore, brings me to Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs4".  The highest level on Maslow’s scale, for those of you who don’t know, is self-affirmation.  Where does Matt fall on this scale?  Take a wild guess. 

I came into this article hoping to talk about periods in an artist’s life.  I researched the biography Matt posts online and compared the artwork from one year to the next.  Truthfully, Matt did most of the work for me – he delineates his work into periods ranging from 4 years to a single moment in time. 

Absolutely the work he did in Bulgaria stood out to me, and still does.  The dark black backgrounds are unique to this period and subjects are done a bit more franticly.  What’s more is that he admits to me that he was unhappy during the time.  I guess then that my original premise holds true:  Matt Sesow has periods in his work based on what was going on at the time in his life.  He concedes that point to me as well.  The problem is that this doesn’t matter much anymore. 

Certainly Matt has gone through many stages and varying degrees of difficulty in his life to reach where he is today.  Who hasn’t?  What makes him unique is not that he could endure pain, but that he fixed what wasn’t working and now loves where he is.  Talking about his past doesn’t seem as important as talking about what he’s doing in the present, because that’s where his focus is.  Besides, ultimately his artwork speaks for itself. 

If there is a movement then attached to Matt Sesow it might not be found in his product, but in his methods.  This stands out as prominently as any of his paintings do, and that’s saying something. 

Throughout his life he was willing to work towards his own happiness and eventually made it happen.  Hemade it happen.  He’s using the internet to sustain his lifestyle of painting and not relying on outside help.  He doesn’t need representation because his focus is not on making money but on making art.  He had the courage to break from a system that just wasn’t for him and reduced his needs until he could be self-satisfied.  Like Matt said referencing an artist who painted in a similar style, but who he felt sold out, “Sure he might have more money, but I bet I’m a lot happier.” 

That is what Matt Sesow’s life is all about – happiness.  He says it, he means it.  That is why he paints.  Moreover he is willing to make sacrifices to reach that goal. 

Only when you talk to him, you realize that he hasn’t sacrificed a thing at all. 

Any and all things Matt Sesow can be found at http://www.Sesow.com.

To see the work done by Dana Ellyn, one of the few people who have been lucky enough to watch Matt paint, go to www.danaellyn.com

For more on Paul Roe please visit www.britishinkdc.com.  Rest assured Paul will be a Featured Artist here on TheFifteenBeforeFifteen.com very shortly.  He’s far too interesting a man for us to miss out on his story.

You can see the artwork Matt created for the band Exit Clov at their website www.exitclov.com.   

If you’re interested in learning more about Linda King, or would like to purchase any of her art, including the book Bukowski Undigested illustrated by Matt Sesow, please go to her website:  www.lindakingarts.com

All Photographs © Chris Flynn

1 Paul Roe offered that quote during our interview about Matt Sesow.

2 Matt did not specifically quote Ian MacKaye, though he gave him full credit for the idea.   Presumably had he known the exact quote he would have used it.  The sentiments expressed by Matt and attributed to Ian MacKaye are most likely taken from a 1994 interview with Ian MacKaye on www.downhillbattle.org.  The website has since gone defunct.


3 Ian MacKaye 1994, www.downhillbattle.org interview

4 Abraham Maslow 1943, A Theory of Human Motivation