By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
Matthew Mayes said he once believed that love, food, and music were core passions that transcended all race, creed, and color: “Now, I know that art encompasses all,” he said.
“My works are studies in color perception, definition, and composition. I see color as neutral, primary, and secondary. I allow natural ability combined with a trained eye to create. Without both, my art could not exist.”
Mayes, 42, was among the 200-plus juried artists who gathered in downtown Birmingham’s Linn Park last weekend to display a broad range of art mediums and styles at the Magic City Art Connection (MCAC)—the city’s largest arts festival.
This was the fifth year Mayes has participated in the event, which is like a homecoming and a family reunion, he said.
“It’s always enjoyable because we get a chance to see current clients, previous clients, and also friends – because a lot of our clients end up becoming friends- so it’s one of the opportunities we actually get a chance to see people that we don’t get an opportunity to see a lot of times all year.”
On Friday, he received an Award of Merit. “It’s always great to be recognized for the work that you do, and to receive that from . . . the show so it’s always great to be appreciated.”
The Alabama native presented nearly 100 of his best works because his hometown “should see the best,” said Mayes, who first dabbled in art after experiencing a number of hospital stays and being home-schooled due to illness during his childhood.
“You’ve got to give the public what they want because that’s your base, but that doesn’t mean you exclude the new,” he said. “I always present classic work, which is what everybody knows me for. I’m an artist and creative spirit, [as well], so I’m not going to limit myself to just sales. I’m going to always create.”
Mayes, who is known for his textured pieces, works from his Ensley studio. He paints whenever he isn’t sleeping or working.
“When [I’m] on the road, I paint on location, so [I] look for Airbnbs that have an extra room where I can paint [between selling or doing shows],” he said, adding that he brings vinyl rugs to spread on the floor while he paints.
For Mayes, there is beauty in simplicity. The self-taught artist with 16 years of experience said he is inspired by people, life experiences, nature, and spirituality.
“I’m not some battered soul. I’m not some starving artist. I’m not trying to go through something,” he said. “For me it’s simple, very … simple.”
When it comes to people who view his paintings, Mayes said, “I have taken all the crap away, and I want you to look at the work for what it is.”
“I’m just the messenger. This is a gift I have been blessed with. I have no formal training, yet I can sit there and put a color palette together like nobody’s business. … I can have a concept and have depth and perception in a way that no one else is able to do.”
Part of the process is listening to the clientele because he is only a conduit, Mayes said.
“Every message that comes through me isn’t always meant for me. I’m just a messenger, so I may not interpret the message right. That’s why I listen to my clientele. That’s why I listen to the public because sometimes they get the message better.”
The message is so important to Mayes that he signs his artwork on the back, not the front: “The gift is greater than me. The message is what I’m trying to portray,” he said.
“I want to provide a white-glove experience for every client. I don’t care if you buy or not. I don’t care if you love, like, hate, dislike my work. My goal, at the end of the day, is [for people to] hear the message. If the message doesn’t make you want to support me, [that’s OK]. Hopefully, it at least creates a fire in you to … support some artist.”
Mayes began painting after watching the “Joy of Painting” hosted by Bob Ross on his local Public Broadcasting System (PBS) channel, during a time when he was hospitalized repeatedly and home-schooled due to hemolytic anemia, a rare blood deficiency that leads to paleness, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), dark urine, fatigue, shortness of breath, and a rapid heart rate.
“When I would go into … a [hemolytic crisis], it would affect my muscles [because of] a lack of glucose being produced in my blood,” Mayes explained. “When that would happen, I could have brown urine, and it could affect my liver.”
Despite his illness, Mayes learned to “always have ‘That Smile,’ always show that glow. … My mother said, ‘I knew you were going to survive.’ I asked her why, and she said, ‘Because that glow never left you. Throughout all the pain you went through, … that glow never left you.’”
Mayes received home-based health care and could not attend school on a regular basis, so he was home-schooled. His illness also prevented him from playing
sports and spending extended time outdoors, so he used art to show his talent.
“Painting gave me the ability to express what was going on inside and gave me a place to just be able to create, so it provided an outlet,” he said.
As Mayes got older, he got into modeling, and during a visit to New York City he was offered contracts from two separate agencies. He had a choice: sign with one of those agencies and move to the East Coast or return to Alabama and stick with art. Mayes chose art.
Attention to Detail
When it comes to his pieces, Mayes said he is very attentive to particular aspects, such as color theory and color psychology. “Art is memories. To me, really profound art is when the artist pays attention to how the work looks up close; how the work looks from a distance and every point in between; how the work looks from left to right,” he said.
Childhood illness also had another significant impact on Mayes: it gave him a passion for supporting organizations that raise awareness about ailments for young people. Throughout the year, he donates artwork to different groups, including Winning with Wyatt, a Chicago, Ill.-based organization that raises funds for and undertanding about pediatric brain cancer, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, for which he plans to provide new work to the Oncology Department every few months.
Born in Florence, Ala., Mayes currently resides in Birmingham with his partner, Brian, and their son, Noah.
“Of all the gifts I’ve been given, the one gift I am most grateful for is my spirit,” Mayes said. “I can’t hide it. It shows through, it shines through, it reads through any and every thing I do. That is what I’m most grateful for.”
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