Art and the Home: A Conversation with Artist Mat Helm

By Linda Guido


Welcome to my second installment of the “Art and the Home” series, which features interviews with artists and interior designers as well as resources for your own art collection.

As I mentioned in my last interview, I began rekindling my love for art a few years ago and was delighted to discover that as a real estate professional, connecting with the art world is a natural and important progression! I have since met, learned from, and supported the work of artists throughout the city.

Recently, I spoke to Mat Helm, who happens to be a neighbor of mine. He hadn’t mentioned his artwork for a long time, but when he finally directed me to his website, I was amazed. The unassuming Mat creates magnificent work that crosses mediums and styles. His approach to art is fascinating and I’m excited to share the conversation we had as well as some examples of his outstanding work.

Tell me about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in art?

I was born in New York City in the summer of 1967 and my parents moved us to Emerson, N.J. in 1969 where I had a wonderful childhood near a woodland forest. Nature became a vast and magical experience through my new eyes and many years later, in my pursuit of being a painter, reflections of those memories inspired the imagery I would create. The image of watching tadpoles turn into frogs was one instance that perhaps only a child can fully appreciate and an adult interpret. Influential experiences like this guided my subconscious toward conceptual ideas instead of painting for the sake of painting.

Eden

Reptile, mammal, crustacean, large and small creatures inhabit the world in meditation and in sacrifice. In the center are the Woman and Man, hand in hand, passing through the synergy of creation.

Did you later study art formally?

I did attend the School of Visual Arts in the ‘90s. One of the instructors who influenced me was Marshall Arisman, the famed illustrator and Chair of the Master of Illustration program at SVA. He granted me a one-man show of very small drawings in the main lobby. That was my first exhibition. He also allowed me to visit his work studio, where I learned so much about negative and positive space.

He would take an oil-stained rag and drench the canvas with it, then cover it with a dark paint only to immediately wipe away the highlights until a portrait or figure appeared: crude, primitive by choice, but very effective and full of mysterious life.

Conversation

This piece was my first figural sculpture since university. The gesture and expression depict a man bent on one knee vigorously questioning the heavens, perhaps God, after some traumatic event.

What type of artist do you consider yourself?

A Self Expressionist. I have written about what I call Self Expressionism in further detail on my website. However, the term is my own qualification of what I feel as an artist, because the title “artist” is used rather loosely these days.

Your work ranges from paintings and sculptures to decorative art. Tell me what each means to you.

Each medium has taught me everything about the other medium. Sculpture is what painting is trying to be: to act three-dimensional, to portray the illusion of what is behind a flat surface. No one can actually see this because it’s not there—yet your imagination can create worlds upon worlds of information with just a simple image.

Sculpture is trying to create the illusion of a set and setting, a history if you will, with only the negative space presented.

Martyr

A life-size bust whose features portray a groan, maybe the last gasp of this man of formidable strength now facing finality.

I find decorative art a hybrid of the two forms, sort of an abstract imagery—in sculptural wall or dome painting using metallics, sponges, rags, spatulas, brushes on long sticks; or in hand, with plaster (sculptural) or glazes (painterly)—to create a harmonic enhancement with the structural surroundings.

Many of your pieces, both paintings and sculptures, resemble other famous pieces of work—very old pieces. Where do you draw your inspiration and who are the characters?

I had, and still have a voracious appetite for all forms of high art from many epochs—especially Ancient Chinese landscape painting, Van Gogh’s sculptural color bursts, the drawings of Michelangelo and Leonardo, and the Grecian sculptures. Yet, there was a time when I ceased my hero worship and began to create my individual mythology. I suppose if you put all the German Expressionistic films, science fiction novels, ‘60s radical philosophies, Jungian psychologies, and the aforementioned influences all in one head you might graze the surface of where my mythologies were born. In addition, my parents were devout Catholics and so the Bible figures made an impression on me.

Lazarus

I call this figure Lazarus as it emerged from the destruction of unsatisfying works, destroyed to be reborn. I draped a gauze around the wet clay to suit the mysterious expression.

What is the motivation behind what you create overall? Has it changed over time? Has your style changed?

As much as I might like to change my style it always finds itself in the depths of something I cannot readily control. My motivation is always to obey the visions the dripping paint makes or the form a mass of wet clay reveals to my mind. The framework is there for continuous, unpredictable revelation leading me where to go next.

Like a tadpole that suddenly has legs, it all starts from nothing. And I find the best way to know your dreams and visions is to release them to better interpret. Otherwise you’re just copying an image that already exists to make “art,” and you’ll learn nothing new.

Advisor

A distance away is the city shelter. In the foreground two elders share a wisdom. What they have in common, is Understanding.

Is there something you are trying to convey through your art?

If there is one message which flows through the history of my work it is that we are all inter-related: an endless sea of many colors and forms, yet we inhabit the same world, so we are one world. Fascinating, really.

Climb

Why do we climb a mountain? Because it is there.

Tell me about your international shows and exhibitions.

The show at OXO Tower, across from London Bridge, was an exhibition of five terracotta heads set on wooden plates on bronze stands. In Paris, the gallery that represented me at the time had exhibitions at Art Basel in Switzerland, Pavillon Des Arts et du Design, and Grand Palais. They exhibited my sculptural installation “The Other” at Pavillon.

Reflection

Towards the completion of my residence in Paris I decided to make a Diptych in a Bas Relief. In clay, I would reassemble my quarters in Saint Germain. An idealized portrait of myself as an old man sits at his desk, still writing his memoirs. He is lost in a hallucination of the past.

Have you done any other shows?

Not recently. I was glad to discover what the art world was all about. If you truly love art, that industry may break your heart. It’s best not to focus on pleasing them. Life is too short to follow their goals of success.

Where do you sell your work?

My work can be purchased through my website. I also do commissioned work. However, on a day-to-day basis I sustain myself as a skilled craftsman in New York City, working for the largest building firms in the world: Tishman, Toll Brothers, Hartz Mountain, Katerra. I’ve designed lobbies at the Hotel Des Artistes, JZ’s 40/40 Club, and worked for many super famous icons.

Memory

In this private scene, the old man from Reflection is a younger man now. He reclines in bed and is in the act of reading from a book to a young woman. Perhaps these are the first passages of the old man’s memoir.

You are also a musician. You compose, sing, and play guitar, correct? Tell me more about your musical style—does it correspond with your artwork?

Music has been a deep and meaningful pleasure in my life. I approach a new record as an art form. Just as thoughts ferment and seasons influence, the Muse always returns. Even if I don’t want to work on music I have little choice. I have 15 records now: 12 as Mat Helm Utopiatemple, two as Soundpower, and one as Perfect Wu and the Mutation. I just completed a conceptual recording about the quarantine experience, an alternative punk/bossa nova album called Supermundane.

I have around 200 total musical compositions, all recorded and available on iTunes and Amazon exclusively. The styles range from alternative, rock, and folk to ambient classical, and jazzy (not proper Jazz). I’m not a trained musician by any means, but I do play piano, guitar, and sing—whatever it takes to make a cohesive conceptual record work. I’ve performed recently at the Triad Theater, the Kraine Theater, and the Metropolitan Room.

What projects are you working on currently?

I am finishing up a series of horror novellas called “Dark Visage.” There are about 10 short stories in each of four volumes. I love to write. I’ve saved this writing stage until this later part of my life, now that I have more time to dedicate.

Where do you hope to go with your art, short-term and long-term?

I’m just grateful that I could gather so much of it on my website so people can view it. I may have a distaste for the business of art but I admire and respect those who appreciate art and artists. I always wanted to have a retrospective, see them all in concert, an ensemble of color and form and content. I think they all relate well to the mythology we spoke of earlier. This way, seeing them together helps me not repeat, helps me use the past to create the future.

Moonland

An elderly man props his body against a rock. The moon, which seems alive above him, is pulsing behind a veil of wispy clouds. The man cares not to look at the moon, nor its refection on the still waters.

What advice would you give to others?

I would give the advice my late father, Edward Helm, gave to me: “Do all the things you want to do.”

To see more of Mat’s work, visit his website.