Artist Matt Muirhead,Adopted Son of Baltimore
While wandering through the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, I was struck by an installation featuring vibrant, intriguingly psychedelic colors. They screamed as I passed by, daring me to examine their bold movement and exciting schemes.
Matt Muirhead, the creator of the trippy works, is as bold as his art. Quirky, yet full of whimsical wisdom, his art is a reflection of a life full of color, energy, and passion. Since arriving on this side of the Atlantic from England, he has found a niche in Baltimore’s art scene. This mixed media painting, instrument building, screen printing, Facebook updating artist, brings more than just paint to his work.
A Self-Taught World Traveler
Muirhead’s earliest exposure to the kind of art that inspires him came from British television. “I was struck by Tony Hart’s Take Hart, which inspired children to create or see art in the world around them,” he explained. One particular episode made a lasting impact. “The main artist collected and piled trash throughout an episode,” he recalled. “At the end, the artist flipped a light switch, and the art had transformed from a pile of rubbish to a beautiful scape.”
This excitement for art stayed with him as he and his family moved Stateside when he was a preteen. An introvert by nature, art became a means for Matt to communicate with and approach the world. His cartoon flipbooks of zany decapitations and car crashes won his classmates over. He later put his creativity to work with a series of movie posters based on non-existent movies.
As he grew older, he realized that his interest in art was more than a passing fad. However, as a college student at the University of Toledo, Muirhead struggled to find a place among the stratified subcultures of the university art world. Whereas his interests lay in the journey of creation, avoiding the mundane or traditional genres, and highlighting his own mistakes, Muirhead’s coursework consisted of instruction-based lessons that taught him nothing more than how to get from point A to point B. After about a year of uninspiring and frustrating instruction, he abandoned the rigid formal education of the university art world to create his own niche.
After making the determination to strike out on his own, Muirhead relocated to Chicago. However, while he was ready to take on the world, the world wasn’t quite ready for him. Though his artwork had started to sell (he fondly recalled his first sale in 1994), he soon became disenchanted by a scene that seemed more about who artists knew than what they could accomplish. In one instance, Muirhead painstakingly crafted a portfolio to bring to a gallery owner shortly before traveling out of town. After he explained the situation to the owner, the owner disinterestedly tossed his portfolio onto a large pile of other works, never giving Muirhead a proper response.
Undeterred, Muirhead decided to focus on the other exciting aspects of his career. He sought out non-conventional spaces like shoe stores, coffee shops, and restaurants to display, and hopefully sell, some of his works. He also met a woman for whom he fell hard. When she announced to him that she was moving to Japan, he decided to follow.
The Artist Abroad
Muirhead speaks fondly of the leadup to Japan. “I was in love and inspired,” he said, “but I had to raise money fast.” He began selling his works at a more rapid pace, often taking less than he felt the pieces were worth to ensure he’d make a sale. He even went a more unconventional route to get extra work: he forged a diploma in order to get himself an interview.
When he finally made it to Japan, he had no plan and little knowledge of the language or culture. However, after a short period of searching, he began teaching art on tour boats. This interaction helped him meet a number of interesting people, inspiring him in both his art and his life.
The eclectic population of Japan also fed his inspiration. “I met a man named Bun,” he recalled, “who was a self-taught instrument builder. Bun was in a band that used all ethnic instruments and improvised more exotic soundscapes.” Muirhead got to know Bun a little during his time in Japan and admired his work. Before Muirhead left Japan, Bun gifted him one of his homemade kalimbas.
Adopted Son of Baltimore
When he returned to the United States, he found himself in Baltimore in what he calls “misfit” paradise. Baltimore offered a unique blend of the places he traveled. Unlike the “big pond” of Chicago, Muirhead found he was able to stand out in a place like Baltimore. The location on the East Coast also allowed him to gain greater exposure to artists and buyers along the Atlantic seaboard.
Muirhead brought to Baltimore his admiration for instrument makers by founding a band, Immortal Jellyfish with Justin and Becka Miller. Taking his newfound love of instrument making, he proposed a band in which everyone had handcrafted instrument of former junk. Inspired by his friend Bun and working with instrument maker Lee Connah, the first instrument he made was a tambora. It took him around 40 hours to make the instrument. But from the experience, his instrument making (and now painting) has taken off and is now a pivotal part of his art collections.
Now residing in the liberal, art-centered neighborhood of Hampden, Muirhead adds his love for the city to his artwork. Whether it be by featuring a bit of the cityscape in his designs or by him showcasing at some of the many artistic festivals and museums.
Muirhead gives this sage advice to newer artists looking to join him- live off as little as possible to do it full time. Muirhead describes the power of letting art become a real gig with such passion and enthusiasm that it is hard to dispute this style of living. It has certainly allowed him to travel, explore, and have fun with his work.