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Art Scene: Freedom of Expression

"Springtime Aspens"

photographs by Amy Green

It’s a story that’s taken on almost mythical proportions for Arkansas artist Pat Matthews: the day was Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, the North Little Rock native yearned to leave a life of drafting and design behind and pursue his love of painting full time. As a successful, independent architect, Matthews was working on a joint venture with the Cromwell firm when he learned about the day’s tragic events.

“I was so pissed off, so upset!” Unable to purchase an American flag on 9/11, his patriotism, anger and loud music set in motion a surprising response.

Matthews picked up his brushes, sacrificed a canvas with a landscape scene from an earlier trip to Spain, and began unleashing thick swaths of red and blue oils with dots of white.

“The aggression came through in my brush strokes. I mean, I just laid paint on there, and I didn’t give a crap about how it came out.” In fact, it’s that freedom of expression — and the original painting peeking through — that created the dramatic, layered effect in “American Pride,” capturing the imagination of those who first saw it.

And, as Matthews said, they “asked for another … and another!”

The bold choices he made next have endeared him to many. He donated the original painting and 343 signed lithographs as well as thousands of dollars raised to Manhattan’s “Pride of Midtown” — Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 — the firehouse that lost 15 firefighters on 9/11. Melody Stanley, owner of North Little Rock’s Red Door Gallery, calls Matthews, “Arkansas’s most famous flag painter.”

Mary Anne Salmon, of North Little Rock, Ark., owns several of his paintings, including the third flag Matthews fashioned after his original “American Pride” took off.

“I love the painting. On the one hand it’s a reminder of 9/11 and the pain it caused our country, and on the other hand, it’s a reminder of Pat, a young friend, and possibilities …  when you let your creative juices flow, there’s no telling what might happen,” Salmon said.

Matthews has since become an award-winning, full-time artist whose abstract impressionism now hangs in the permanent collection at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. Galleries in Beaver Creek, Santa Fe, Atlanta and on both sides of the river in Arkansas’s capital city display his work. He donates as many as 10 flag paintings a year to various charities.

For the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Matthews is partnering with the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps veterans of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He said he’s shifted his focus these days to raising awareness about the sacrifices troops made to secure freedom after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While the American flag is Matthews’ signature piece, collectors clamor for his images of bucolic barns, mysterious cypress trees and inviting aspen groves.

Melody Stanley, owner, Red Door Gallery, said Matthews’ paintings are so popular she’s sold 27 in six months. At the time of this interview, Stanley was on her way to Fayetteville, Ark., to hang “Passion,” a 58-by-58" oil on canvas painting.

It thrusts you smack in the middle of aspens; you can almost hear the leaves quivering in the wind. To achieve this, Matthews soaks in the natural setting, closes his eyes, and then allows his senses to guide what’s delivered — sometimes by both hands — onto the canvas.

“The passion I feel for nature comes through in those paintings. It’s just like grrrrhhhh! You want to scream! I love the emotional experience,” Matthews said.

Matthews, the great-grandson of celebrated North Little Rock developer Justin Matthews, said after eight years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he’s thankful to be back in his home state, rigging up his boat, four-wheeler or pick-up with an easel. “I enjoy Arkansas and the people of Arkansas. It’s a great place.”

For more about Matthews’ paintings, log onto jpmfineart.com. Matthews’s show of 30 paintings “Celebrate Color” will run Sept. 15, 2011 through Jan. 10, 2012 at the Red Door Gallery, 3715 John F. Kennedy Blvd., North Little Rock, Ark., (501) 753-5227, reddoorgalleryonline.com. The opening reception will be held Sept. 15, from 5:30 to 8 p.m.

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