Today, I am going to do something completely different. I’m going to do an interview!
Looking at the statistics behind my blog, there clearly are a few stories that have attracted much more interest than others. Because they were provocative, asked questions, and stirred a discussion.
One of the most provoking articles is called: Do today’s architects still have what it takes? Some readers argued today’s architects don’t. Others argued they do, if only they had enough budget. And the most interesting comment was that they shouldn’t even try!
Another article that got, and still gets a lot of attention, is called: Art Nouveau is back! In that post I analyzed why I believe Art Nouveau is back, why I think we need Art Nouveau back in our lives today.
To take our discussion to the next level, I decided to actually talk with a contemporary Art Nouveau artist and ask his opinion.
Meet Matt Hughes…
Matt is a 42-year-old artist currently residing in Atlanta, USA with his wife Hope and cat Kyle. I met Matt a while back online, and we have had many long chats about Art Nouveau as we’re both obsessed with it in our own way. And just because I wanted to understand what it is like to be an Art Nouveau artist today, I have asked Matt some difficult questions which he was kind enough to answer.
Hi Matt. Tell me, are you an artist, a creator or a designer?
I feel I am all at varying times. I am a creature of many faces (especially when working in Art Nouveau) and they have equal voices in every piece I birth. When the idea happens I am the artist that draws from that creative well. I embody the designer when I take the spirit of inspiration and map it for the physical creation. The creator is my aspect of the physical where I create the idea – the idea becomes real in this world. In general, I would classify myself as an Artist. An Artist draws from more than one definition.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a time where I wanted to be an artist. I simply am an artist. It was branded on my being to create art. I cannot recall a time where I wasn’t involved in the arts in some fashion. One of my earliest memories was creating drawings for my Great Aunt at her home when I was around 5 or 6; they were drawings of Elvis Presley performing.
It’s funny how society has an inherent need to define when someone becomes a creative. Many dictate you “become an artist” after you have made your first paycheck from an art piece. If you want to know when the business aspect came into play, I consider 2001 the year I became a professional artist. That was the year of my first art book being published world-wide. But, that is a loaded question because I’ve been an artist my entire life.
When was your first encounter with Art Nouveau?
My first introduction to Art Nouveau was in college. I was working on a project that involved typography. I was looking at Art Nouveau fonts when my wife, Hope, asked “You do know that the person that designed that font was a pretty big artist named Mucha?”. She then showed me some of his work and I was instantly drawn to the beauty and symbolism of Art Nouveau.
Do you remember how it made you feel?
I was exhilarated! From my experiences in art college, everything centered around realism; capturing an almost photo-esque quality of the subject or how real the expressions were conveyed. It was a mentality of injecting everything you could into a piece in order to reach that point of realism. When I saw Art Nouveau the first time, I felt that I was looking at the first real “art” movement that had gone more into the emotion intertwined with symbolism than the physical appearance of the subject. It was art that evoked emotion. At that time, I was in somewhat of a dark place so I tended to draw from the Vienna vein with Egon and Gustav and other artists of the Vienna Succession. It wasn’t until years later that I became obsessed with more nature driven Art Nouveau artist such as Mucha and Livemont. I was like a kid in a candy store. I was moving from a very heavy foundation of John Singer Sargent, Whistler, and Waterhouse into the symbolic beauty and harmony of Art Nouveau artists such as Hoffman, Wagner, Mucha, and Moser.
What aspect of the Art Nouveau movement do you find the most inspiring?
The ability to convey so much in such a “limited” style fascinates me. It really is the embodiment of “less is more”. In the past few years, I have become extremely interested in the printing limitations of those artists, and this, I feel, was a key element in the development of that style. The limitations are a key reason why the style is so different today – those limitations no longer effect the creative process. Everything is instant, correctable, perfect, and can be reproduced even within someone’s home.
Why did you decide to work in the ‘Mucha style’?
It was more of a challenge than a specific choice. I was so used to working in traditional mediums such as oil, watercolor and graphite that the work of Art Nouveau artists seemed so alien to me that I had to explore it further. One day I was walking through the floors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when saw Mucha’s “Maude Adams as Joan of Arc”. A breathtaking work that was produced using traditional mediums! I was so fascinated by this work and its frame that I began to further explore the idea that Art Nouveau could be used for the same deliverables as traditional mediums when dealing with human likeness and storytelling. It took me almost 10 years to reach a level with Art Nouveau that I was comfortable with. To add to this difficult was the fact that there are limited academic studies for teaching Art Nouveau, which is unlike many of the other popular styles and movements we see today. In fact, I have found that many professionals frown upon an artist practicing Art Nouveau. It is often referred as a dead style and many view Art Nouveau as nothing more than an artist mimicking or simply rehashing art that is a century old. My decision to practice Art Nouveau was partially based on the idea of revitalizing the movement in modern culture and help re-establish it as a viable form of art.
Are there any other artists that inspire you?
Several artists inspire me. Although Alphonse Mucha has been a huge influence on me, he has certainly isn’t the sole creator reflected in my work. I am constantly discovering new artists from the late 1800’s to early 1900s that were also practicing Art Nouveau. To assume that Mucha alone was responsible for Art Nouveau would be similar to saying that Sargent is responsible for all portrait work that we see artist practice today in his impasto style. One of the reasons Mucha is so tied to Art Nouveau in today’s society is the efforts of his son Jiri and the Mucha family in the late 1900’s. Their efforts to revitalize Alphonse Mucha helped produce many reproductions of his work leading to not only a heightened awareness to his style but also to Art Nouveau in general. This is why today when someone sees a piece in the Art Nouveau style they immediately say “Ah, Mucha. I love Mucha”. Because of good marketing and social acceptance Art Nouveau and Mucha are now one and the same. I can agree with this to a point until it begins to damage the movement leaving Art Nouveau as not a viable form of art but rather simply a “Mucha copy”. Mucha himself would STRONGLY disagree with this view by society as it contradicts everything that the Art Nouveau movement was about. This is why I have become fascinated with researching and discovering Art Nouveau from pre-1960s, as those studies would be less influenced by pop culture’s love of Mucha and would showcase more of an unbiased view of the art and the cultural influences felt at that time. With that in mind, an artist practicing the style of Art Nouveau needs to approach their work with a thick skin. There will always be those who are less educated with the actual movement that will treat their work as nothing more than throw backs to a dead art movement or a single artist. You can see this plainly reflected in social media.
If I were to suggest a short list of artists for people to explore it would be Henri Privat-Livemont, Otto Wagner, Alphonse Mucha, Koloman Moser, Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, Victor Horta, Rene Lalique, and really any artist from the Ver Sacrum publication.
One of my personal favorite artists from the Symbolist/Art Nouveau period is Sergius Hruby. Do you know him?
Annnnddd, I just discovered a new artist! Fantastic!!
Another favorite Art Nouveau artist of mine, one that’s still alive, is Pavel Orinyansky. Pavel designs a lot for architects, in Art Nouveau style. Have you ever considered designing for architects?
No, I’m not familiar with his work but I love it! The idea of collaborating with an architect would be marvelous. Art Nouveau is unique to many other art movements in that it can easily be incorporated across multiple disciplines. The opportunity to expand into a usable 3-dimensional environment would be intriguing!
Do you consider being an artist a profession or a calling?
Definitely a calling, but, more than that, I feel it is what I was born to do in this life. It is branded on my very being – it is the one thing that I must do in order to be happy.
How do you keep your spirit and creativity up to 100% all the time?
It can be difficult. I tend to immerse myself in as much information and works from Art Nouveau as possible. It usually results in my laying all of my Art Nouveau books out on the floor, putting a vinyl on (usually Mozart’s Requiem or a sound track), and then I thumb through as much as I can until an idea forms. It’s my own version of sensory overload.
How long did it take you to actually be able to live like an artist (without having to keep a day job to pay the bills)? Was it hard to get to that point?
I actually still have a day job. In the art market of today it would be nearly impossible for me to do my art full-time and still be able to afford food (and my cats are used to a certain level of comfort). Most people don’t see the value in art. Our society has skewed its values to such a degree that most consumers feel investing in art is less important than the latest phone or tablet. Then there is the internet where everything is “free”. This is a topic we could discuss for hours.
What, in your eyes, defines a true Art Nouveau artist?
The first element I look for in an Art Nouveau piece is the composition. Like any other art form, the piece needs to stand on its own regardless of the symbolism or color palette. The majority of work that I see today that is considered Art Nouveau begins and ends with the Mucha circle design behind the figure, or Q composition, with no understanding of the purpose for such an element (to Mucha the circular element behind the female form represented the Goddess and can be compared to the use of a hallow in religious work). This composition is certainly one that should be used but it needs to be incorporated in the appropriate manner. Another aspect I see missing in the Art Nouveau of today is the use of traditional mediums. Most work today utilizes the computer and results in a digital piece (moving as far away from the purpose of Art Nouveau as you can get). Art Nouveau was as much about “happy mistakes” as any traditional style. When I began work on the ETHEREAL VISIONS: AN ILLUMINATED TAROT CARD DECK I specifically drew that line in the sand and declared that everything in this project would be hand done – the line work, the figure drawing, the colors, the proportions, the application of gold leafing. The only elements not produced by hand have been the typography. This was due to the fact that in order to reproduce the cards for any market there would be the potential of text changing / translations that can only be accomplished digitally. The final element is that of the color palette used. Art Nouveau artists approached the colors in a piece the same as the overall design – that of a more feminine feel. Again, we could discuss this for hours!
Do you think today’s artists still have what it takes to be an Art Nouveau artist?
Of course! But like any other style or movement it would take a unique person to become an Art Nouveau artist, especially given the many decades we have had of the artistic community viewing it as a vintage throw away movement. The main element lacking is the knowledge of what Art Nouveau is and how to practice it. A successful Art Nouveau piece is not simply a collection of swirling lines and circular elements. There is meaning to each aspect of it that goes beyond simply a decorative art form.
What is YOUR opinion regarding my statement that Art Nouveau is Back?
I completely agree! An art movement is only as powerful as the audience that supports it. I feel the more educated we artists can make our audience the more supportive they will be. People want to enjoy art; they want to be involved in the art process in some way (coloring books are a good example of that). As long as Art Nouveau artists of today continue to expand the movement and help it to grow we are sure to see more and more Art Nouveau in our everyday lives. One usage of Art Nouveau that is steadily increasing is in the tattoo industry. There are some amazing artists practicing Art Nouveau in that field. This is partially due to the medium itself. Art Nouveau is predominately a line based form of art and tattoo artists excel at that (the use of a line in Art Nouveau was essential due to the printing limitations of the time).
Whom inspired you to make the tarot deck and coloring book you’re working on?
My wife, Hope, has always been interested in the tarot. For the past several years she has made a point to show me the tarot decks that are on the market today stating every time “You could do this”. I’ve been interested in it but never wanted to tackle a 78 piece project like this. Then I decide to produce one at her request and then share it with my audience. The response was overwhelming, and this led to the idea that I would produce the deck if I knew that the effort would be viable for the market. We approached it through a Kickstarter that was successfully funded a few months ago. Since then I have signed with US Games to produce a mass market version that will probably be out in 2019. So those that backed the Kickstarter will be getting a unique version of the deck that will also include 2 unique cards only available in this Kickstarter deck.
From there came the idea for a Coloring Book which was spawned from both my wife’s suggestions and yours. Since each card that I produce begins with an attention to composition and line work it made sense for me to simply clean up my line drawings for these cards and produce them in a way that would be suitable for a coloring book. After seeing the coloring books available today (especially the Art Nouveau themed ones) I decided to approach each illustration as more of a finished line drawing which could easily stand on its own as a monochromatic piece. The Kickstarter for the coloring book is also a second chance for people to purchase the original tarot deck that inspired the coloring book. If funded the coloring book will act as a companion to the deck in that the end-user will become far more intimate with the Major Arcana cards through the personal journey of coloring each piece as they see fit. I’m so looking forward to seeing how others approach the cards!
How can people find your Kickstarter campaign?
They can visit the website for the campaign at etherealvisionstarot.com. There is a link at the top of the page which leads to the Kickstarter page. The Kickstarter ends at midnight EST on November 2nd 2016.
What do you think you’ll be doing in 10 years from now?
My wife and I will be running our own publishing label that focuses on the revitalization and teaching of Art Nouveau from a new generation of artists. And, I’ll probably be working on another huge Art Nouveau project similar to this one (we already have ideas waiting to be flushed out).
And do you have any new projects coming up after the tarot deck is complete?
We are working on an art book that will delve more into the process of making the cards as well as my take on Art Nouveau. I have been writing my own Art Nouveau book for the past 3 years that is more from the perspective of the artist rather than the Art Historian. This as well as a “how to” section will be included in the book. I’m also developing a few ideas for a playing card deck as well as an Oracle deck based on sea mythology (including mermaids) but approached in an Art Nouveau style.
Well thank you Matt, for answering my difficult questions. This has been a most interesting interview! And from what I have seen so far, I think we’re going to see a lot more from you in the future!
If you’d like to join our discussion (on whether contemporary artists/architects have what it takes to create genuine Art Nouveau), or if you have a question for Matt, please feel free to write to either of us in the comments below. Both Matt and I are interested to hear your thoughts! Oh, and don’t forget to back Matt’s kickstarter projects! 😉
More about Matt Hughes:
The Arts of Matt Hughes in Facebook
Radio Interview with Matt Hughes
Interview with Matt at www.twosidestarot.com
Interview with Matt at www.balancethesescales.wordpress.com
Kickstarter project for the ‘Ethereal Visions Tarot Deck’
Kickstarter project for the ‘Ethereal Visions Tarot Coloring Book’