By Michael Juliani
In his novel “Naked Lunch,” William S. Burroughs wrote, “New Orleans is a dead museum.” One of the assemblage pieces Matjames Metson built in New Orleans, in the early nineties, was a chair devoted to Burroughs. Matjames sprinkled some heroin into the paint he used for two portraits of Burroughs that are part of the chair. There are pieces of a dismantled typewriter on it, as well as bullet casings he found on the ground around the city. The chair now sits, among hundreds of other pieces, inside Matjames’ studio in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Just as New Orleans was haunted by drifting souls, Matjames’ studio in Silver Lake contains the shifting sublimity of his past, and all those who come into the hardwood-floor room on the quiet cul-de-sac don’t have much to say other than “Wow.” Wooden assemblages are chocked into the room. Towers made from glued-together matches.
The dead stares of women in old portraits linger within pieces hanging on the walls. Even the smallest pieces seem to be made with an inhuman (or deeply human) level of care. If you look long enough at a piece, which is hard to do with everything in there catching your eye, you see small fragments that otherwise seem ornamental.
Matjames might tell you, “Those are all shards of pencils” or “Everything in that is from the 1800s.”
In the presence of so many finely made inventions, with each assemblage made by one pair of hands, and each piece in a place where he can immediately find it, in a studio where he’s in complete control, you start to vibrate while you’re standing there. He sits quietly with his cup of tea, chewing on a stick of licorice root. Light grazes into the room from paneled windows above his desk, which overlooks a hilly backyard with a view of the rushing 5 Freeway.
At 43, Matjames is now an L.A. artist. He’s been written about twice in the “Los Angeles Times,” is a featured artist in Chinatown’s Coagula gallery, has had a show at the Fowler Museum and is supporting himself solely by selling art. “The sky’s the limit. It’s like he’s a band. We can say his first album did good, it’s his first gold record, but why would the band stop there?” said Mat Gleason, the curator of Coagula.
Gleason has sold Matjames’ assemblages to people with divergent tastes in art — from high- and low-brow collectors to people who have never bought a piece of art before. The work is not pigeonholed, and Gleason said that’s unusual. “Even if a bigger gallery shows interest in Matjames, then I can say I’m the guy who discovered Matjames
Metson,” Gleason said, while standing before two of Matjames’ chairs at the Coagula space at the L.A. Art Show.
In 2005, after eight days of incessant drinking and smoking in safe houses, Matjames fled New Orleans, his home of more than fifteen years. He waded through the city with his two dogs, stopping to go into a ransacked Walmart, where he said cops were barbecuing in the parking lot. He went to the only aisle not totally looted, the school supplies aisle, and he took a bin of black felt pens. “I thought I might as well steal something,” he said.
Matjames had arrived in New Orleans as a distraught 19-year-old on the lam from an ex-girlfriend and a newborn daughter. Skipping out on Yellow Springs, Ohio, he first went to the Canadian border to try to see his biological father in Montreal. The border police found him with a pipe and a scrapbook with a pot leaf pressed into one of its pages.
They strip-searched him. He bounced to Boston, with a hoodie, a jean jacket and fifteen bucks, spending the winter with some friends from art school. After that he skittered down to New Orleans with a new girlfriend. Six months later she started sleeping with one of his friends.
She kicked Matjames out of the house they were living in, and when the other guy showed up he was wearing some of Matjames’ clothes. Between that and the guilt of leaving his newborn daughter, Matjames had a breakdown. The cops put him in the psychiatric ward at Charity Hospital, where he stayed for a couple of months.
When he was released, Matjames was homeless, “the crazy artist guy who just got out of the hospital,” and he wandered to the French Quarter, where he fit in without pause. For the next fifteen years, Matjames lived in New Orleans, with the nearly free rent, the dervish of friends who drank and made art and slept with each other, and he
became what one of his friends from that time called ‘a sort of mayor of the counterculture.’ His artwork was featured in local museums and galleries, and he spoke and taught at colleges. An assemblage artist, he scavenged the voodoo streets and empty lots of the city, finding relics that had been lost for three centuries. The last apartment he had in New Orleans cost $350 a month with full utilities included. You could live some places for free if you didn’t mind a lack of electricity and hot water.
In those eight days following the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, a friend Matjames had in Los Angeles told him to come to her. He’s now lived here for almost ten years. He works from morning to night in his studio, sometimes repeating the same task for days, like gluing mustard seeds onto a wood frame. He uses the black felt pens he looted from the Walmart in New Orleans to illustrate a graphic memoir he’s writing about the storm. He talks with a slight lisp, drinks tea while he works, Facebooks and chews incessantly on sticks of licorice root.
In his first years in L.A., Matjames was on the verge of suicide. He was living in a rat-infested apartment on the busy corner of Vermont Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown, with constant sirens, helicopters and construction noise rankling his post-traumatic stress. His daytime drinking and minimum wage jobs prevented him from making new art. He resorted to eating dog food.
In that apartment, Matjames got a phone call from his daughter, Tyler, who was then a teenager. A couple of friends were over, helping him build a desk, his first furniture in L.A., and when Matjames answered the phone he took it to the bathroom, lit a cigarette and locked himself in for a long time. Tyler asked him if he hated her. “Of course not,” he said. “Do you hate me?” he asked. When Tyler told him that she didn’t hate him either, it instantly gave Matjames a reason to live. He came out from the bathroom, “totally blissed-out,” and his friends asked him,
“Was that FEMA?” Tyler, now 23, lives in Columbus, Ohio, and works in a print shop. She’s an artist too. She draws bugs, plants, and portraits. “She’s a lot better than me,” Matjames said.
Tyler grew up in Yellow Springs, surrounding herself with close friends who also grew up without fathers. Her mother and grandmother grew up without fathers too. And Matjames had been raised thinking his stepfather was his father, finding out on his own — by discovering letters hidden in the house — that his biological father was actually the British artist Graham Metson.
“Subconsciously I realized that having a father isn’t something you need,” Tyler said.
Nevertheless, she started writing letters to him when she was twelve. With no one to send them to, with no sense of who he was, what he looked like or where he could be, she held onto them. Many of the photos she grew up looking at in her house had Matjames in them, but she had no idea. “I really didn’t have any idea I was capable of saving somebody’s life,” Tyler said. “I was a stranger to him at that time and it’s crazy that something so mindless for me could save my own dad. I’m really proud of that actually.”
About a year after Tyler’s phone call, Matjames met a woman, Clea, who came into the hardware store where he worked looking for a lock to put on her gate. “You know these were used as slave locks?” Matjames said, while showing her the merchandise.
“I said, ‘What? How do you know that? Are you from the South?’ And that started it all,” Clea said, sitting at a restaurant at the bottom of the hillside cul-de-sac where she and Matjames live together now.
When they met, Clea (also an artist) was becoming a therapist. She was raised in a bohemian environment in Venice Beach, where her father socialized with artists who exhibited at the seminal Ferus Gallery.
Because of her background, Clea could tell immediately from looking at pictures that Matjames’
assemblage pieces were the real deal. They started exchanging emails, each of Matjames’ titled Koreatown Noise Report. “They were crisis emails,” Clea said, “and wanting to become a therapist I wanted to help him. I was moved by meeting someone from Katrina. This was 2007 — the storm was still so close.”
Matjames had taken to a regimen of lighting a cigarette, taking a hit of pot, swallowing a pill, taking a shot of booze, exhaling and taking another drag on the cigarette in one quick dash to oblivion. But he found himself pouring out whole bottles of Vicodin, which he could hardly afford, while on the phone with Clea. He started making art again because he wanted something to show Tyler.
He was begging change for his morning bus rides to work. Sometimes he rode his bike, which had been the preferred method of transportation in New Orleans, until an L.A. driver hit him. He had been in L.A. for two years and had never seen the beach, never seen much more than Wilshire, Vermont and La Brea — “not very hospitable streets” — and he’d lost his style, his suits, his hats: “I was wearing Target t-shirts. I didn’t have a computer or Internet and I was malnourished,” he said. “I didn’t look good and because of that people weren’t very nice to me.” Every month he got eviction notices on his door and in the mail. It was the only mail he ever got.
“Tyler woke me up,” Matjames said. “And I didn’t have the resources to improve myself till I met Clea.”
“I do not understand why Matjames isn’t famous,” said Hank Cherry, one of Matjames’ oldest friends. I find Cherry outside a caf on Sunset Boulevard, wearing a gray suit on a hot January day, peering into a digital camera with a long lens. Cherry, like Matjames, is a style man — tattoos, cigars and the Tom Sawyer, let’s-go-paint-the-fence sense of mischief. They were together first at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, where Matjames’ mother and stepfather, both artists, were teachers.
Yellow Springs is an artist community. “1.9 square miles surrounded by reality,” as a button in Matjames’ studio says, with a history of liberal politics going back to when the town served as a final stop on the Underground Railroad. Cherry was a recently sober teen when he arrived at Antioch to study lm. Matjames’ parents were his advisers. Once Matjames left Yellow Springs, Cherry would see Matjames’ infant daughter around town and coo at her, “I know who you are.”
A few years later, Cherry went to New Orleans, where some of his family had lived, and on the first day there he ran into Matjames at a coffee shop. Matjames “introduced me to all the right people or wrong people, depending how you look at it,” Cherry said with eyes twinkling. At the time, Cherry said, Matjames liked to create myths. He would tell people that he didn’t know how to read, just for the kick of it. He could also readily figure things out, like how a door’s hinge works or how to play guitar.
Photo by Robert Badillo /
Matjames Metson in his studio
While Matjames combined the vast excess of those early days in New Orleans with a determined art practice, Cherry said he tended to nd himself “writing a shitty poem while sitting by the water and then losing the notebook I wrote it in.” A normal night in New Orleans could involve sixteen pints of beer, half a fifth of whiskey, maybe some lines of coke or dope taken at the threshold of blackout. Once people started “getting stupid,” dying from overdoses, Matjames
moved to a different part of town and eventually stopped doing hard drugs. Cherry remembers Matjames throwing
huge parties, getting just as fucked-up as everyone else, getting fed up at a certain point of the night, kicking everyone out and spending all of the next day working. “I did more things because Matjames was around,” Cherry said. “As a young man he was definitely someone to look up to because he did shit. Otherwise I would’ve just sat in bars trying to pick up girls.”
Cherry is now a journalist in L.A. and has lived here since he moved in 2000 to once again quit drugs and booze. When Katrina happened, he was devouring news reports, trying to hear about the livelihood of old friends, when he flpped on CNN and saw Matjames in the shot of the wet street, carrying one of his dogs.
Their remaining friends from New Orleans are dying at an insane rate and have been since the storm. Forty or so died in the last year, including ten in one week: murders, suicides, overdoses and failing livers. They are in their forties now. Cherry said, “After the storm I started to see these once-slender guys bloating out from over-ingesting and not working hard labor jobs anymore.”
Matjames went back to New Orleans only once after the storm. “If I stayed — and at the time I wanted to — I probably would’ve been one of those people who died,” he said.
“In his first years in LA,
Matjames was on the verge of suicide.”
People who had never had much money, who were severely traumatized by the storm like he was, were getting FEMA checks for $1,500, not working, and spending it all in the bars that stayed open 24 hours a day. “It was like a PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) party,” Matjames said.
He doesn’t talk on the phone anymore because of the number of calls he’s received about dead friends. The title of his comic-book autobiography, “Survivor’s Guild,” the story of the storm and his exile to L.A., was originally a typo when he meant to spell “Survivor’s Guilt.”
On Facebook there’s a group called “The Mighty, Mighty NEW ORLEANS DEAD FRIENDS SOCIETY,” where people post news of deaths and try to console each other. Matjames said that in a city as small and connected as New Orleans, he’s affected by almost every death posted about in that group.
Hurricane Katrina caused the largest displacement of Americans since the Dust Bowl. New Orleans has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The rent on places Matjames used to live now cost $1,500 or more. The warehouse where he and his friends worked on art, which they called “Awarehouse,” was turned into luxury condos. There are motions to ban live music in public. And this year an unusually high number of Matjames’ friends died.
But Matjames said that every year on “Katrina Day,” August 29, things seem a little better for people who lived through the storm. He wants to curate a museum show of Katrina refugee artists showing pieces done before and after the storm. “Look at us instead of the city,” he said. “In New Orleans I was a serious artist, but I was just as serious about being in a bar.”
Now he rarely leaves the studio. He gave up hard liquor and drugs, including marijuana, which he originally thought integral to his creative process. He quit cigarettes, a monumental effort done at Clea’s urging (her father died of lung cancer), and he no longer drinks caffeine, because two and a half cups of coffee a day exacerbated his anxiety. He walks his Pit Bulls to the supermarket for food and beer, and to the art supplies store less than a mile away. His head is always down, looking for lost stuff to use in his art. “If there’s something interesting or useful on the ground,” Clea said, “he’s going to find it.” Sometimes he tells her to stop the car and pull over because he saw something he liked on the street.
Matjames says he doesn’t like talking about the storm anymore. For a while it had been his only identity in L.A., but with “Survivors Guild,” he found that he was providing others with images to represent their own grief. The tone of the book balances the dark complexity of the images with the almost childlike desperation of the words. As he showed me a stack of the ink-warped pages, I asked him what he does when he fucks up. “I don’t fuck up,” he said. “I don’t allow it.”
Matjames told me a story about seeing a cover of Life magazine where Mickey Mouse is holding another cover of himself on Life magazine, going on like those Russian nesting dolls that keep getting smaller. He said, “I realized that if it goes on in that direction then it must also go the other way, so somewhere behind me there must be a Mickey Mouse holding a Life magazine with himself on the cover. I think that’s how grief works. What I see in front of me keeps going on behind me too.”
I liked this metaphor immensely so I asked him about it again the next time I went to his studio. “I think of being 8 and then I think of being 20 and then all the other points along the way,” Matjames said, scraping paint off his hardwood floor. “People say it’s all happening at the same time. I’d like to control it. I think that prayer probably works. I look at positive thinking and that probably works. I look at negative thinking and that probably works too. If I wasn’t able to control it, I’d still be wearing a Target t-shirt, saying, ‘I’m a victim, I’m an asshole, I need you, wah-wah-wah.’ I don’t mean it in a bragging way, but I’m a success story. That’s what I want people to understand.”