Volume 74, Number 10 | July 7 - 13, 2004

Villager photo by Tien-Shun Lee

Tom Matt with one of his drawings taped to his easel, as he worked on the Lower East Side recently.

Blame it on the sun: He can’t stop painting outdoors

By Tien-Shun Lee

For Lower East Side street artist Tom Matt, sunny days mean work.

On bright days with blue skies, Matt can often be found procrastinating on Ludlow St., chatting idly with a coffee in his hand before heading off with sketchpad, pastels and charcoal to draw a picture of a New York City scene.

Working on commission, Matt, 37, has drawn New York City buildings and scenes for clients ranging from actors to athletes. He switched from doing creative graphic design work to being a street artist two and a half years ago because he felt the need to return to his native talent — old-fashioned drawing.

“In New York, there’s an emphasis on abstract art,” said Matt. “My art is representational. That makes it stand out.”

Matt said some of his favorite projects include a painting of the Verrazano Bridge for a woman who ran in the Marathon last November, a painting of New York University’s College of Dentistry that was given as a graduation gift to the dean of the school and a painting of a West Village apartment for the girlfriend of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” actor Jason Patric.

Recently, Matt has been using New York Times newspapers as a canvas for his paintings. The newspaper gives his works a time-relevant, special feel, he said.

“There is an interpersonal element in my work,” said the artist. “I enjoy satisfying the client. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that I’m adding to their comfort in life.”

Matt compares his work environment to being an ashtray or a cigarette box inside a room.

“From the vantage point of an ashtray, you’re always looking up at things,” said Matt. “I’m always looking up at the city.”

Though Matt has been ordered off the sidewalk and fined by police officers while painting in busy areas such as Times Sq., that hasn’t stopped him from working on the streets.

“There are all these laws. You may not even know you’re breaking one, but you’ll get fined,” he said. “You have to be aware of all this stuff.”

For example, artists are not allowed to sell art along avenues, but they are allowed to sell on side streets, said Matt, who wishes he could sell his work on Fifth Ave.

“There’s more freedom drawing in the city than selling in the city,” said Matt.

In order for any artist or musician to solicit money on the streets, they must obtain a vendor’s license form the Department of Consumer Affairs, police said. Matt said police are generally more appreciative of his paintings than annoyed by them, but that there are zoning laws about where artists can sell.

Matt most often works on sunny days, but he has also worked in extreme, cold weather conditions. Last December, he wore silk underwear, ski pants, boots, two pairs of wool socks, two pairs of gloves and a facemask to paint the ornate Ansonia building on the Upper West Side.

“It was so cold that the snow when it hit the paper didn’t melt,” Matt recalled.

One of the biggest obstacles to painting in the street is large vehicles that park in front of the scenery, said Matt.

“A bread truck or a big garbage truck will come and park in front of me all of a sudden,” Matt said. “That’s why I take photographs. I don’t depend on them, but I use them for safety. Sometimes [my work] is very subjective. I’m just working on intuition and inspiration.”

Matt studied art at Boston University and the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan before launching into his professional career. His parents were both artists who emphasized representational art training when he was growing up.

“I started with representational work, and it just kind of stuck on me,” said Matt. “I just liked it. I thought it was very personal.”

Though Matt loves his work, like everyone else, he sometimes yearns for a day off, even if the weather is “picture perfect” for making a new drawing. But rather than taking off for the beach on sunny days, a feeling of guilt usually compels him to take his sketchpad to a New York City streetscape.

“Sometimes I do wish it would be cloudy and rainy,” Matt admitted.

For more information on Matt’s work and shows, visit his Web site at: www.tommatt.com.


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