Matthew Collins, Jesus Carrying the Cross, oil on linen, 153cm x 213cm.
Matthew James Collins is an American artist and teacher who lives in Italy. We first met in 1995 while he was a student at Charles Cecil Studios in Florence. Since then Matt has gone onto make a name for himself as a painter and sculptor. He has also opened his own atelier. Matt and I held this interview over e-mail in a question and answer format.
Although we’ve been friends since 1995, I don’t really know what brought you to Charles Cecil. Can you fill in that gap for me?
I am from Oak Park, IL, a suburb of Chicago. My parents are creatives (father architect, mother writer). They actually met in a figure drawing class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. So it is kind of destiny that I became an artist. My brothers are also in the arts, actor/TV producer and theater designer. I was immersed in the arts. Inspired by masterworks that I saw in the AIC I knew that was what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, it was very difficult in the 80s and 90s to find the kind of training that I was looking for.
Matthew Collins, Jesus in the Garden of Olives, oil on linen 70cm x 90cm.
While making copies of Old Master paintings in AIC I met the artist Ginny Sykes. She trained at the Cecil-Graves Atelier in Florence. She introduced me to sight size and the fundamentals of classical painting. After a year studying with her she suggested that I continue my training in Florence. For a variety of reasons, I chose Cecil studios. It was and still is a fantastic environment. Charles is an inspirational and passionate teacher. A variety of input from various quality artists, like yourself, challenges students and creates a dialogue that facilitates growth. I will always be grateful for my experience as a student in his atelier. There are many contemporary critics of the atelier method of training artists. Sight-size has been highly criticized as well. That is because it has been categorically misunderstood as a mere measuring technique. However, when it is done properly the results are surprising. Mastering working from life and training the eye only opens the creative possibilities of the imagination.
You’ve been teaching for Charles for a number of years (15?), How did you come to be doing that?
It was natural progression, as it should be. Given my previous experience and skill level I was awarded a scholarship to study. Part of my duties was teaching beginning figure drawing. You learn so much through teaching.
Matthew Collins, Nude Study of Anais, figure drawing.
Do you have a yearly schedule of sorts? If so, what is it?
Apart from my teaching commitments, my schedule is highly variable. Usually I return to the US once a year for a shows or competitions. Other than that I travel extensively within Italy and Europe.
You now live in Matera, Italy. Might you describe what led you to that area?
My wife is from Matera. She is an archeologist, educator and writer. We met during one of the summers courses I was conducting for Cecil. The town is located in the region of Basilicata in the Southern part of Italy. Very picturesque.
I am based in Florence with my family (Celeste, Gabriel and Marie Neige).
Matthew Collins, Apulian Girl.
Do you have trouble marketing your work, living in a small Italian town?
One of the greatest ironies of living in Italy is the almost complete indifference of contemporary Italian culture to the visual arts. There is a variety of reasons for this that are much too complicated to properly explain within this context. But the truth of the matter is that there is no market for quality figurative art in Italy. The majority of my gallery representation is in the US. There is however an appreciation for the figurative in England and Spain.
What would a typical working day be like for you (in Matera)?
A lot of time is needed to create quality, enduring art. Having small children definitely consumes energy and time.. I am a very hands on father as well, spending as much time as possible with my children. So in the end they usually end up playing and drawing in the studio with me as I work. They are a joy. Regardless, after family commitments I dedicate as much time as possible to painting and sculpture.
How about an ideal one?
As for an ideal day in my opinion an artist should not detach from completely from everyday life. In a fantasy world, the lone artist locks himself/herself in the studio and exits once they complete a masterpiece. History definitely does not support that hypothesis.
Matthew Collins, Richard Serrin, Terracotta, Life-Size.
You sculpt, etch and paint (oil, fresco, pastel, watercolor, etc.). Have I missed something?
I am a very curious person and am fascinated with how different mediums interact and influence each other. It was not uncommon in the past that artists would work in a variety of mediums. Recently I have dedicated a certain amount of time to writing about art as well. In addition to a blog, I have authored a series of articles for the New York edition of the Epoch Times.
Matthew Collins, St. John the Baptist, pastel.
Do you have a favorite medium and why?
I enjoy painting and sculpting equally. They actually complement each other. Drawing is the foundation for everything.
Matthew Collins, Fallen Nymph, bronze, 30cm high.
If you could get any commission, or do any project, what would it be?
Site specific art intrigues me. My father is an architect and that has influenced my views on art’s role in our constructed environment. My degree in the History of Art has only reinforced that conviction. Context and environment played a big role in any artists’ aesthetic solutions before the 18th century. Times have changed but the sublime power of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel, or Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin transcends the limitations of 2-dimensional media to electrify spatial volumes. And those are only three examples of a very subtle language that ‘was’ highly developed within the Western tradition. It is our collective responsibility as serious artists not only to lose contact with that very rare commodity but to rediscover its grammar.
Matthew Collins, Gabriel.
You’ve used your son as a model a few times, and I see that you may be training him to be an artist. Do you have any funny anecdotes regarding that?
My son Gabriel is my favorite model. Art without life is empty rhetoric. Following his development through paintings and sculpture has been a wonderful experience for me. I have learned so much from studying him. It would be great if he chose to become and artist and continue in rebuilding all that has been discarded. The benefit of being raised in Tuscany is that art is integrated into the environment of daily life. It is everywhere. Italy’s gift to the world is that art was important here. Gabriel saw his first Titian in Venice at 3 months and Michelangelo around the same time in Florence. For him art is life, not a distant objective of some university exam, or school field trip. Gabriel loves to draw and he is the best in his preschool. Any formal training will begin once he is older. Now he is just exploring through images.
Matthew Collins, Boreas.
What’s on the horizon? Near and far.
The life of the artist is very hard. Not sure what is around the corner. But I come from some very idealistic midwestern stock. Culture is not a hobby, pastime or entertainment. It is above all a responsibility. It may be naïve but I would like to think that the Arts in the US will grow, blossom and enrich our cultural heritage. I would like to contribute to that with my art
Since the publication of this interview in 2016, Matt has opened his own atelier in Florence. You can see more of Matthew James Collins’ art and learn about his atelier at his website here.