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Field Theories

By Melanie Moffett
In Bayou Artist
Apr 5th, 2016
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Using palette knives and trowels, Mangham native Jo Mattison explores color and the myriad of ways color transforms itself. In the hands of this month’s gifted BayouArtist, color transforms the world around us.

article by Michael DeVault | photos by Martin G Meyers

Jo Mattison is hard at work in the kitchen of her home in the heart of Dallas’ Highland Park. The the painter who is originally from Mangham, has company coming over, and that means she has cooking to do, in true Louisiana fashion.“We’re the Louisiana neighbors that all our friends love, because we make crawfish every year, just the way we learned to do it back home,” Mattison said, though at the moment the object of her culinary aspirations wasn’t a mess of crawfish but was, instead, a pair of pies. One of the creations, a brown sugar pie, involves more brown sugar than most home chefs use in a year and a heart attack’s worth of butter. It’s almost as if “going large” is the central thread that drives all of Mattison’s creative output.

To call her canvases large is an understatement. Working out of a 900 square foot studio that she describes as very long, Mattison routinely works on pieces up to seven feet across. She’s completed numerous diptychs and triptychs that dwarf even those sizes. With a master’s hand, she’s able to transform a blank canvas into the kind of inviting, vibrant movement of color that’s at once reminiscent of Rothko and wholly Mattison.

She lists among other artistic influences a string of post-World War II masters, including Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwell. She’s particularly connected to Helen Frankenthaller, and places herself in the school of art those individuals were responsible for pioneering, the Abstract Color Field Subset of the Abstract Expressionist Era. “That’s the art I love, what excites me, so that’s what I wanted to do,” she said, a hint of authority befitting an artist of her caliber, tenure and status.

How she arrived here, in Dallas, painting on such a grand scale isn’t quite so forthright. After graduating from Mangham High School in 1972, Mattison attended LSU, where she had an inkling she wanted to be an artist. But like so many young creatives, family and friends tried to steer her into a field where she could make a living or build a business. So she settled into interior design, which she studied for two years, pushing the thoughts of becoming a painter out of her mind–at least so far as her family was concerned.

“I painted in the closet for ten years while I was focused on interior design,” she said. But the universe seemed to have a plan for Mattison’s career, and that plan had little to do with pairing draperies and upholstery. In the mid-1980s, Mattison began to transition into an area of home décor that fell quite close to her heart. Decorative wall finishes were becoming popular, and Mattison saw opportunity.

“I went to New York, went back to school, and studied to learn all these different paint techniques,” she said. She perfected techniques for faux finishes, color gradations, Venetian Plaster, and she became a master of tromp l’oeil, the “deceitful eye” technique of hyper-realistic mural painting.

“I did all kinds of things to walls, my favorite being murals,” she said. The 1990s were the heyday for skilled painters, so she rode the wave. “It was kind of fun at times, and it was very hard work.”

But she was doing something she loved, finally, and she was doing it with trowels and palettes, mud knives and colors. She recalls the days returning home caked in mud, covered in smatterings of color like a Jackson Pollock painting. By the early 2000s, the developing tastes that had led her to master decorative wall finishes were evolving away, and she was finding herself less and less busy. It didn’t take too much effort for her to convince herself that the time was right to switch gears and begin applying her techniques to canvas. “And that’s where I’ve been for the last 15 years or so,” she said.

Dividing Mattison’s work into those earliest days, a second, early middle period, a middle period, and the late contemporary period, viewers see a ready and plain evolution of the artist as she finds her voice. The earliest works are masterful in technique but are clearly derivative of her influences. In 2001’s “Verde,” Mattison’s creation is signature Rothko. By the time she created 2009’s blue study “deep waters,” she has discarded any notions of aping the masters and is, herself, a master. It’s a stunning pace of growth for an artist, and as with so many creative types, Mattison is unsure of when she found her own voice. “I wasn’t totally conscious of when it happened,” she said. “Inside, I was yearning for it, trying to find it, but when I did…”

She trails off, and whether she’s trying to remember a moment or underscoring the indeterminacy of her memories of that moment is left to wonder, the point being that her voice came, it came quickly, and it came with the force that drives prodigious and prolific output. Since 2001, she’s painted nearly non-stop, and along the way her creative process has become nearly a science.

Her works begin as a little voice, an idea, maybe a dream or an impression of a color. For days or weeks, she’ll mull over this notion or that, turning over details in her mind’s eye until, at last, the Eureka moment is almost at hand. “Then it happens, and I think ‘Bam! That’s it!’ I rush to the drawing table and grab my pastels.”

Whether she’s working on a series of color blocks–20×20 color studies painted in series of ten–or a 70×70 megalith, her creative process begins at the table, with those pastels. She’ll draw sketch after sketch, mocking up paintings and moving color. The pastels, she says, are a good analog to the paints she’ll eventually work with. Once she has the study done, she takes the rough draft of her painting to the studio.

“Most of the time, I stay pretty close to that study I’ve done on paper,” she said. “But sometimes, it just goes off in another direction and a new creation happens.”

Too many times, casual viewers of art think the kinds of abstract expressionist creations Mattison and other artists in her vein create happen quickly and with little effort. What those individuals fail to see is that these works are the task of dilettantes. On the contrary, creating masterful color field studies requires inordinate amounts of time and energy. It’s a quite a kinetic process.

That’s where her studio space comes in. From the moment she begins painting, Mattison is in a state of near constant motion. Even stepping back from the canvas is an effort, because with canvases this size, viewing means standing back–far back–and taking in the entire picture. She’ll flip canvases on their sides or completely over, studying the interaction of color and light. Then, sometimes, she’ll take a photograph–”It’s amazing what you can see in a photograph that you couldn’t see standing there looking at it,” she says–before deciding where or not a painting is working.

“It’s also mentally exhausting,” she said. “You think you’ve got it, that everything is working and you’re loving it. Then you step back, you take a photograph, and suddenly–I don’t love it.”

More times than not, she finds herself in the unenviable position of starting over. Other times, the issue is correctable. What it isn’t is an automatic process. It’s active, vital, and engaged. “It keeps me pretty fit. It’s also why I like working big. It’s physical.”

Home is never far from her mind. There are numerous pictures throughout her career that she could have produced as studies from Louisiana. In an early work, a dragonfly perches near the corner of a canvas. Lately, she’s turned her attention to blues and greens, culminating in the masterpiece “Blue Bayou,” which conjures images of those primal waterways of her home state.

These days, she’s busy too with a series of commissioned pieces, including another study of the color blocks, her third. She recently completed a massive triptych of paintings and is working on another new series, this one impressionistic visions of seascapes. Perhaps, after years of hard, diligent work, it’s okay if her artist’s mind strays to thoughts of the beach. A vacation is certainly well deserved.