meet matte stephens

all images courtesy Matte Stephens

Graceful, eclectic, traditional and cheeky — with a nice dash of impending doom. That’s the world of Portland-based artist Matte Stephens.

Born and raised in Boaz, Alabama, one of the most amazing things about Matte is that he’s never had a job. That’s right: no waiting tables or selling hardware while painting on the side. Straight out of high school, Matte (who’s self-taught) set his sights on a full-time art career. He painted like crazy, put on his best duds and approached all the galleries in a 100-mile radius of his town, asking them to exhibit his work.

As the Internet developed, so did Matte’s career. He was among the first artists to sell his work on eBay — despite the auction site’s less-than-glamorous reputation at the time — and launched his popular blog in 2004. He experimented, made connections, and most of all, kept on painting his expressive gouache-on-panel creations.

Today, Matte shows his work at Seattle’s Velocity Art & Design, Jonathan Adler, and Sebastian Foster. He also does a brisk business from his Etsy shop, sells wholesale prints to galleries around the globe, and takes commercial assignments for select clients including Herman Miller, American Express, Disney, NPR, the Boston Globe, Sunset magazine, Glow magazine and IBM.

In more than 16 years as an independent artist, Matte has learned a lot about business, staying creative and imposing constraints on your work. He’s got a charming southern drawl that’s punctuated by an infectious chuckle – and he generously shared his experiences in a recent phone conversation.

My one regret? That we didn’t have more time to talk.

1. What inspires your work?

I’ve always loved old English movies – Alec Guinness films, like Kind Hearts & Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, and lots of old European movies, too, like Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi.

European stuff attracts me more than anything else. It has that sense of impending doom mixed with humor, and a class system that doesn’t exist anymore and that was kind of silly to begin with, but people still seem to have fond memories of it.

2. How do you organize the business side of your life so you still have the time, energy and focus to paint – and to paint well?

My wife, Vivienne, helps me with the shipping and business duties. Otherwise, I find it’s just not that hard. If you get orders, you ship them. If you get commercial work, you make time to do it. Our lives are consumed with it 24 hours a day, but you just make time to do what you need to do. Sometimes if you’re busy, you don’t have a regular life – you don’t go to dinner, or to movies, or have a weekend. You just get the stuff done and you have to find ways to enjoy your life while you’re doing the work. It’s not like we walk in somewhere, put in our eight hours and leave. I’ve lived and breathed painting for 16 years.

3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

Not necessarily. I started off selling my paintings on eBay in 1999, when I first figured out how to use it. There was an art section, so I thought, “I’m going to try this.” I’ve always just followed my own direction. In 2005, Velocity Art & Design picked my work up, and that changed everything for me. I’ve never asked anyone’s advice about marketing. I’ve just tried to do the work.

How did Velocity change everything?

I sold my work on eBay and made a living. I paid the rent and bought supplies, but there was no extra money. When Velocity picked up my work, it was a whole new world, because Velocity was – and still is, I think – a big deal. They had work by Amy Ruppel and Rex Ray and I already looked up to those people. John, who owns Velocity, bought one of my paintings on eBay for his son and asked me to show there, just out of the blue.

Mostly, it’s been luck. Jonathan Adler contacted me two years ago, and that’s helped a lot, too, with a sense of validation. When they say, “this is good,” it helps your business. And if they say it’s good, maybe other people think it’s good, too.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

I do commercial work for clients like IBM and NPR, Chronicle Books and Disney. I sell paintings at Velocity, Jonathan Adler and Sebastian Foster and I also wholesale prints to galleries all over the world, as long as I like what they do. I make sure to keep control of it. Then there’s my Etsy shop.

My father had seven kids to support in his house, so he had a job, then at night he did woodworking and sold it on the weekends at flea markets. I grew up with a man who knew business really well and showed me that you can’t just depend on one thing to make a living – ever – because nothing is stable. I try to have as many things going on as I can possibly handle.

You want something coming in all the time, so if my Etsy shop is slow or wholesale is slow, then I’ll have commercial work. Something’s always there. The best advice I can offer is to do whatever you have to do. People don’t make that conscious decision anymore. They just think, “well, I’m going to try this,” and if it doesn’t work in a month, they quit.  I never had the option to quit. It was either do this, or work in a chicken plant.

5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Print sales through Etsy probably provide the bulk of my income. On average, I sell about 1,100 prints a year, with wholesale on top of that. Galleries will place an order for 30 or 40 prints at a time – wholesale at $60, cut in half to $30, and that’s still really good money.

People probably look down on artists who sell on eBay, but it was such an excellent start for me. I was also in a gallery that wanted me to paint 15 paintings a month. It taught me to be able to create quickly, which is important, and to have consistency in your work that is sellable and good, and it taught me the commercial aspect of art.

The other thing is that you can’t just paint whatever you want to paint; you need to have a connection with people to make a living. You have to find ways to connect or it won’t work at all. It’s the same thing with following trends. If you just follow trends, you’re going to hit a brick wall.

How have you learned to make that connection?

Over years and years of studying. I love movies, and when I was young, every extra cent of my money went to art books. I still study all the time. The European illustrators from the ’40s through the ’70s, for example, were so much further ahead of us Americans. It’s amazing. The stuff they did just blows me away.

English movies and early American movies, they also have a feeling to them. Jacques Tati is one of my favorite filmmakers. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle – I just love those films, and if you can capture a feeling in your art, people like that.

I put constraints on what I do, and that’s helped me a lot, too. I get most of my advice from a man named Irving Harper, who worked for George Nelson Associates in the ‘50s. He designed most of the clocks for George Nelson. He’s 93 years old now. We went to visit him in New York City and that changed my life – my ideas of what you should do in design and art, and how you should make your choices.

Constraints in medium are critical. The less you have to work with, the better you’ll make your work. If you limit yourself to a pencil and a piece of paper and five colors of gouache, you can do a lot more than if you have a computer sitting there with Photoshop, Illustrator, and inks and everything in the world. If you limit what you have to work with, you’ll be surprised by what you can do. They don’t teach that in school.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

Oh yeah – Etsy and wholesale print sales. I wake up every day and check my email, and most of the time I’ve sold something, and that’s wonderful. That’s dinner or a trip to Trader Joe’s!

I’ve been on Etsy for three years and it’s not just the money; it’s the idea that people are buying your work. That’s fun. There are a lot of people on Etsy who do a lot better than I do, too. I went in with the idea of having higher prices. That may have hurt me in some ways, but in many ways it has helped me a lot. My lowest price is $35 for an 8.5 x 11 print. I wanted people to want them.

Artists really need to open their minds to several different ways of making money. That’s what most people don’t understand. Especially out of college, they’ve been prepped to believe that their art is really good and that they deserve a certain amount of something. So they get out of college, they have all this momentum built up, and they’re very excited to start their career, but it doesn’t go the way they expected.

You have to come at it with a different approach. I didn’t think I deserved anything. Art was something that I had to do, instead of something that I chose to do or that I went to college for. Don’t get me wrong; I totally believe in college. I used to dream of going to college. We went to Chicago several years ago and sat across the street from the Art Institute at a place where all these artist kids hang out and it was just depressing to me, because I didn’t get to live that life.

But a lot of students will come out of school and have no idea how to make a living at it. They’ll go straight into commercial work, and that’s a drag. Half of it is boring. I turn down a lot of jobs just because I don’t like the idea, or the assignment doesn’t suit me – and I have the comfort of doing that because of Etsy, original painting sales and the galleries.

7. What tools or opportunities do you think most creative pros fail to leverage?

I think the first thing they have to do is get their work noticed. If they’re doing fairly well and they want to expand, I’d say try to make prints and promote yourself on a blog, and get a Flickr account. Become buddies with the other artists around that are doing similar work to yours. A lot of times other artists can help you as much as you can help yourself.

8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Velocity Art & Design, for sure. But eBay as well. Overall, there were several things that happened. I was featured on Design Sponge early on, and I’ve been on lots of blogs, like sfgirlbybay, and my work was in (the now-defunct) Domino magazine. Having a painting in Domino caused my Etsy sales to shoot up in a single day. The blogs really helped, too. Now I have 16,500 people who “heart” my Etsy shop. That’s amazing. It’s just unbelievable to me.

9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?

Books. By far, books – and movies. Knowledge is the best thing that you can have. I collect design stuff, too, like old Herman Miller clocks. To be able to live with that quality of work, it helps you understand what they were doing.

Study and buy books and look at other people’s art and get inspired. Find things that you love about life – and it doesn’t have to be grand ideas. The simplest ideas are the best ones. It’s like when you’re a kid, you go to the fair and you want the biggest, cheesiest stuffed animal and there’s no way you’re going to get it. You want your art to be like that giant, stupid stuffed animal.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out” debate?

Contributing to some horrific idea of American consumerism. That’s my idea of selling out. And working for big companies that don’t mean anything to you. Taking whatever jobs people offer you.

To me, the point is career longevity, to be able to paint what I want and to control what I do. You’ve got to be very careful, especially if you’re licensing your work. You just have to keep your integrity – whatever that is. I’m not interested in making money for corporations, unless I like the corporation. A lot of artists strive to do that kind of work, but I just never imagined it.

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Thanks, Matte!

posted 25 May 10 in: art, business, inspiration, interviews, retail. This post currently has one response.

One Response so far. Add Your Own.

hee* such cute illustrations.

 

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