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Painting Poetry: Mat Tomezsko

a person posing for the camera

pictured above is Philadelphia artist + Tyler School of Art graduate, Mat Tomezsko. He is standing in front of a small section of his recent, mile-long Broad Street installation for Mural Arts, 14 Movements: A Symphony In Color And Words. Upon retrieving his work from Broad Street post-DNC, Mat began analyzing the remnants—now covered in footprints, tire tracks + Bernie Sanders stickers—only to find that his massive mural has been transformed into something entirely new, a slice in time from one of Philadelphia's historic events. As he works to re-purpose the installation, we met with Mat to learn more about not only this Broad Street project, but also his time at Temple/Tyler School of Art + what inspires his abstract designs.

hg:  hi Mat! Tell us a bit about you, your background + your artistic aspirations:

mat:  I grew up in Cheltenham, went to high school in the city, and then went to Temple. I've spent the majority of my life in Philadelphia. I started at Temple undeclared and found my way into Tyler. I started painting just to make a living as a painter. I graduated in 2009, right in the economic recession and was working as an architectural draftsman for my father’s firm, but a lot of the work dried up. I miraculously got a big art commission from Mural Arts—my first public art piece—in Manayunk.

I did a group portrait through time titled Look Long & Look Good. I went to the library and did some research on the history of Manayunk, its evolution through time, documenting and doing portraits of people. I also worked with some kids at the Manayunk/Roxborough Art Center. It ended up being the past, present + future of Manayunk. My main takeaway was that the culture [of Manayunk] is a lot richer than its party-town vibe. It was nice, I grew up in the city and it's changing a lot, but there’s still this pervasive culture below the surface which you see in places like Manayunk + Fishtown.

In my career, I see myself more as a studio painter—most of what I do is paintings on canvas. But I’m really into the idea of showing my work through different kinds of context. It’s interesting to shift the perspective; when you hang something in a gallery that context means something. You take that same exact piece and put it outside, it changes the way people interact with it. I’m energized by that. It’s a really interesting thing and that’s my goal—to be in both worlds and make art that can do many different things.

"I think art can function. I think people should interact with art, people should be exposed to art."

A lot of people feel very alienated + isolated by it, and I think it’s really just a matter of exposure.

What’s cool about Philly is you have this exposure—and it’s funny—it stems from the fact that there’s hardly a commercial scene here. It’s very difficult to make paintings, have a gallery + sell those paintings. What we do have in that absence is a strong public art scene. It’s stronger than any other major American city, thanks to the Mural Arts Program. Most people in the city know about art, or know about the murals in the city—it’s right in front of their face and there’s already this dialog going on. It’s so obvious to people they don’t even think about it anymore. That’s a unique thing happening in Philly + I like being a part of that. I want to make work that’s interesting, provoking + unexpected, because then it gets people to interact with it.

This Broad Street project I did is really very simple. It’s just an abstract painting, but you could walk on it. The scale is really big so it’s something that sort of catches your imagination + breaks you out of your everyday routine.

hg:  you’re a graduate of Temple’s Tyler School of Art. What lessons from your time there do you still carry with you daily, not only in your art, but everyday life?

mat:  I learned basically how to paint, so I mean… (laughs) Actually, one of the major things was how to see, how to really be critical in your thinking and in your looking. That’s, more than anything else, one of the most valuable tools I’ve ever had. That came from the professors who were really hard to please. They pushed you past being happy with making something that resembles something else. They did really unexpected exercises—the kind that break you out of your comfort zone.

"To be a good artist, you have to embrace the unexpected."

You have to be open to stepping into the dark—you can’t stay where you feel comfortable.

hg:  any fond or favorite Temple memories?

mat:  (laughs) You know what, I partied so much when I was a Temple, I don’t think we should go into detail…but okay, so there’s two answers. I found some really cool nooks to hang out with and do what I wanted to do. The Bell Tower was always fun to people watch, hang out, be in the sun + feel good. Then there’s the nerdy answer: Tyler has a great library of art books. Every day I would eat my lunch in the library, grab a different art book and read it for an hour in between classes.

a picture of a decorated wall  a close up of a book bag  a picture of a fence  a group of paint cansa stack of books on a table

hg:  your paintings are a combination of vivid colors + silhouettes of various letters. What inspires these pieces?

mat:  I think it’s trying to express what it’s like on the inside of your head as you go through life. I’m really influenced by the city and the people around me. I try to absorb that + then re-convey it in a way that makes sort-of-sense, without making sense. I think there are things to be learned even in things we already sort of know. I do that by making things abstract—abstracting them + making them stranger.

The letters are really just shapes. What I’m really trying to do is create a successful composition using all of these elements. They’re simultaneously seen as a shape + a symbol. It does something to your mind when you come across it, something that just a red brush stroke doesn’t do. I try to ride that line between finding a meaning, but it’s almost like I’m playing with the building blocks of meaning. I can build up what I think makes sense + says something, but I can also just rearrange it + make it nonsense. I like that tension. That’s where a lot of my work comes from—examining these things we’re surrounded by and looking harder with a critical eye.

hg:  you were selected to complete a mile-long mural down Broad St. for the DNC. How did this opportunity come about?

mat:  I was working with Mural Arts earlier in my career and with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society on one of their earlier pop-up gardens. When I was working with them they were trying to fund a Broad Street Beautification Project, which eventually they did. They were looking for ways to bring attention to Broad Street to raise money for this project, and they asked me to come up with a concept. I was given this assignment and started at the very beginning of this idea, but it obviously didn’t really go anywhere four years ago. I put it on a shelf, moved on + did different things.

Then the DNC Host Committee received a Knight Foundation grant for a beautification project around the DNC, and they approached different organizations saying “Pitch us ideas + we’ll fund them.” Jane Golden from Mural Arts pitched my idea without me even knowing—she remembered it and thought, “Let’s do this!” They went for it, signed on board, and I received a phone call out of the blue four years after this project was initially idealized. They basically said “Hey, this project got the green light and we need to get started immediately.” (laughs)

My life sort of got turned upside down. I lost a lot of sleep and worked really hard for the past couple of months.

hg:  what inspired the design used for this mural? What do the words on it signify?

mat:  that was really a response to the space. I was working with color at the time + that was the starting point. It was informed by the Broad Street median itself, which is this weird space on the ground, in the middle of the street. Every single block has different dimensions—some are broken up—there’s cobblestone in the middle. There’s all this variation, but it’s all unified in some way. I started responding to that. You can’t see it all at one time. I started thinking about it like music, like a symphony—you can’t really look at a symphony, you have to listen to it over the time that it takes for the symphony to be played out. That’s how you experience this piece—you walk through it, or you cross the street and see part of it. The next day you cross the street and see another part of it. It takes time. There’s this added element to it that doesn’t exist with other paintings. All of those things started informing how I composed the piece. That’s inevitably what it was about, time and space + movement.

I studied poetry at Temple as well, so I started painting poetry…which is the most ridiculous degree to leave an institution with (laughs). I write a little bit, and I read a lot. What I think is really interesting about poetry is that it’s this hyper-condensed version of language. What I try to do with [the paintings] is have this idea of condensing something, but take it a step further. Now removing the grammatical elements to it, but it’s still the same idea. When you take these words that convey some sort of meaning and rearrange them and cross two words together, they form new words. Those words are often similarly associated with the same meanings. You have all these half-formed associations in the paintings that still retain the sort of sense of what the original meaning was, but it’s way more vague. It’s more abstracted.

a picture of a decorated wall  multiple decorative rolls  a picture of a decorated wall  a person decorating a walla picture of a decorated wall

When you look at my painting, I don’t want you to read my poetry, I’m not a poet. I’m more interested in visual and conceptual in a way. With the Broad Street Project, I thought it wasn’t important for my work to be present, so I approached Yolanda Wisher, who is the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. We had a four hour conversation over coffee. I had read her book several times prior to meeting, and I said “These are the ideas that I have and I want to use your work for it.” She responded, “Great—let’s do it.”

I did what I do with my work to her work, and I think her voice added a lot to the piece. That’s how the words are incorporated—very similar to how I would incorporate any other element, but it’s one that is more because it’s like these symbols that people react to in a certain way. It’s the same thing if I put something realistic in there. You’d be like, “Oh, okay,” and you would read that a different way than you’d read the abstracted parts.

hg:  what are some other notable/memorable public installations you’ve completed? Is there any place you'd eventually like to install your work?

mat:  I’ve done a couple, but I wouldn’t say they’re memorable. It’s been fleeting, but I like doing temporary things because it allows you to try out ideas + it doesn’t matter if they’re successful (laughs). I take a lot of risks with my work—the Broad Street project was a huge risk—we could have put it down and it could have come up that night.

Honestly, a lot of my work since that early public period has been studio work. I’ve gotten way more into doing things in galleries + selling them. I don’t necessarily want to repeat and do another really iconic thing in Philly. I do like that idea of playing with space, playing with context, as well as the art.

I would love to take it to other cities. I would love to take that show on the road + respond to a place I’ve never been before. That’s more interesting to me rather than doing high profile things in Philly. I have an exhibition in Chicago in October and was actually just talking about doing a big installation in the gallery. It’s a start, I’m formulating thoughts on how to approach that project now.

hg:  is there a particular artist which you look to for inspiration or motivation? Why?

mat:  a lot of my professors from Tyler were really inspiring. Larry Spaid was a huge influence on me. Neil Kosh was a great, great professor. But one of the major things that I have the benefit of doing is being a curator and art handler for Inliquid Art + Design. My life is talking to artists about their artwork. I now get to learn lessons from 300 artists. I get to see what they did right + what they did wrong. It’s not just one person anymore that I hold in high esteem. I have a whole network of people that I can literally talk to any time. That’s a really good position to be in—I don’t know how to do this + I get to talk to people about it.

hg:  what advice would you give to a current Tyler student? Is there any advice which you wish you’d received while enrolled? Or is there a piece of advice which you did receive that aided you?

mat:  I think about this a lot. Obviously art school is a very limited time in your life, but one thing that I wasn’t receptive to or wasn’t pushed to in the curriculum was that…

“…I learned how to make art, but I didn’t learn how to operate as an artist in society.”

I think learning how to pursue goals, how to get up every day + work hard. How to realistically function. How to pitch ideas. How to balance a budget. How to follow through. How to stick with a thought. How to treat it like any other business and not this super personal thing. I think that’s something I had to learn my own, after school. That took a lot of time, and I failed a lot. If this was something I walked out of school with, I would’ve been much better off.

I think that’s something a lot of art students should think about—what do you do when you stop paying people to talk to you? What are you going to do tomorrow? That’s a really important point.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Anthony Campuzano, who’s this great artist + a guy I admire a lot. He said to me, “Work really hard when nobody’s looking, because eventually somebody will and they’re going to want to see something.” So when things are quiet, don’t just be quiet and goof off—that’s when you’re really supposed to be doing your work. When things get heated, and there’s a lot expected of you, you already have a lot of the work done and you can ride that momentum.

learn more about Mat's past, present + upcoming projects by visiting his website + following him on Instagram! Be sure to check out his side project, Bikeout, with fellow Temple grad, Brian Kirk of Philly!