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Making it in Santa Fe

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BEST ARTIST: Pat Matthews.
  • BEST ARTIST: Pat Matthews.

The votes for best Arkansas artist just happened to go to a man who lives in Santa Fe. But Arkansas still claims Pat Matthews.

Matthews, 43, is a North Little Rock Matthews; that is, he’s the great-grandson of that town’s real estate scion Justin Matthews. So his Arkansas roots are deep, even if he’s branched out to a new base in Santa Fe.

It was the second of two good moves Matthews has made. The first was a move from his previous career.

Matthews was (and is) a licensed architect, and was running his own office in Little Rock several years ago when he saw the work of impressionist Barry Thomas. “I freaked out,” Matthews said. “I said I have to learn how to paint. Right now.” Thomas needed some architectural drawing and Matthews wanted lessons, so they traded.

Matthews’ passion for paint wasn’t new, but a long-held interest, one he’d pushed aside to make a living. “I’d always been able to paint and draw well,” Matthews said, “but being an artist seemed too far-fetched.” After working with Thomas, Matthews decided it wasn’t far-fetched after all.

“I had six [architectural] jobs going on,” Matthews said. “One day, I called all my clients and quit all the jobs.”

That was in 2001. In 2002, Matthews had a show at Local Colour Gallery in the Heights, which still handles his work, and sold all 48 pieces in the show in one night.

Matthews made a splash early on with his paintings of the American flag. It was the night of 9/11 when Matthews, not able to find a flag to buy, decided he would just paint one. He didn’t have any canvas, so he just painted over an earlier work done in Spain, and parts of the original work showed through. It was highly textured and scumbled and energetic, and reproductions of the work raised thousands of dollars for New York City firefighters. Matthews gave the original to a battalion in New York.

Matthews moved to Santa Fe because, he said, he “wanted to be around a lot of competition. It makes you better as a painter.” It’s also a huge art market, with lots of return buyers from all over the world. His wife, Katherine, also fell in love with the town. The couple still owns a house here and one on the Little Red River.

Matthews does neo-impressionist landscapes, applying the paint thickly and often with a palette knife. He paints outdoors. In New Mexico in winter, that means he has painted in the snow. “It’s tough. I’ll stand on a piece of Styrofoam so my feet don’t freeze, and my paints get all hard and then it starts to snow ... .”

In Arkansas, painting outdoors meant a few pine needles in the paint. In New Mexico, it’s aspen groves that entrance Matthews. His latest aspen painting wasn’t completed outdoors, however: It’s 6 by 12 feet, in three panels, painted in his studio 15 miles outside Santa Fe.

So what’s it cost to own a painting by Pat Matthews these days? Anywhere from $350 for a small painting to a whole lot more. The aspen triptych? $40,500.

So, yes, Matthews has learned, it’s possible to make a living being an artist. “You have got to have talent, but you also have to get up and do it. That’s what I learned from Barry Thomas, is that work ethic.”

Last week, Matthews decided to check on the original flag painting — he’s since done more than 100 — he delivered to the New York battalion. Its whereabouts are unknown. “I told them they ought to find it, because it’s going to be worth a lot of money some day,” Matthews said.

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