From Palate to Palette

Former Chef Finds Culinary Skills Apply Well to the Art Field

“You know how you do homework? It’s the same thing.” Artist Seth Mathews described the variance in styles and art genres as he displayed photographs of hundreds of pieces, he has done over the last seven years. There are stacks of airy water-color art, with opaque black lines and semi-transparent splatters of color. There are lifelike photorealistic pieces where every line, light source, and graffito is thoughtfully placed. There are perspective artwork pieces, with a worm’s eye view to regal elk stepping into a clearing. There are abstract art, graffiti, and portraits – all which make for an unusual contrast in styles for one artist’s portfolio.

Mathews explained he treats every “phase” of his artwork like homework. When he was working through a water-color phase, for example, he continued in that style until perfecting those skills. “Each skill is just tools in the belt,” Mathews said. More than just the style of art, even the subjects of artwork can be phases. He described going through a horse phase and a bird phase, “you want to get all the techniques you can, try to lock down techniques as you go, and then you have them with you.”

Despite his artistic acumen, Mathews wasn’t an avid artist before becoming incarcerated. He admitted to taking some cursory art classes in high school, but explained his study was mostly of the culinary field. When asked about his experience he said, “I went to culinary school, I was always doing things with my hands. Maybe there is something with eye hand coordination that is related there, but once I came to prison, I started getting into it.”

In his most recent series, Mathews created puns using organs of the body. This project started as a tribute to his aunt who lost a kidney to cancer. “I was really just looking for puns, but it started by trying to counsel my aunt who had a kidney removed, and it was symbolic,” he said. The series included brachial tubes of the lungs flowered into roses which he titled “A Breath of Fresh Air.” As well as a heart in the shape of a beet plant titled “Heartbeet” and a ship sailing turbulent seas inside a stomach called “Upset Stomach.”

The organ-pun series is reflective of Mathews philosophy regarding artwork. While art should be fun, he sees it as a way for AICs to connect with their family and loved ones. “For me I think, art has a special place in prison because it allows not only an avenue for meditation, but it also allows you to give your family a tangible item of you,” he stated. “It’s something that can be sent home to family, that your family will look at and think of you.” His interest in art grew after becoming incarcerated in his effort to find positive ways to spend his time and connect with family.

Now, after several years of practice, Mathews explained he can complete a piece in around thirty hours. “I think I am quicker than most,” he stated, “It all depends on the complexity of the piece, but you get better over time. More proficient.”

When asked what advice he offers to other AICs who are aspiring artists he said, “Manage your expectations – it takes a long time to develop the skills, don’t be hard on yourself. So many people get discouraged because it doesn’t look how they want it to look right away.” Mathews also stated, “a lot of new artists become fixated on a small detail while losing site of the larger picture. A friend described this as looking at the tree but not seeing the forest.”

While his artwork might seem complex both in its intricacy and in the variety of styles, and although the skill set displayed may seem unattainable to the beginning artist, the path is clear. Like any good chef, Mathews laid out the process like a recipe – a dash of interest, a pinch of skill, and a spoonful of effort. Slow cook for enough time and you’ve got yourself some talent.

Written by AIC Phillip Luna