Q&A: Harriett Matthews


Sculptor and professor on artistic vision, the role of her work in teaching, the allure of Greek summers

By Brian Speer
Photography by Brian Speer

Harriett Matthews VideoHarriett Matthews came to Colby in 1966 to teach sculpture and has since overseen the growth of the College’s program. She spoke with Colby about her development as an artist and about the most important thing a student can bring to the studio. 

How did you become involved with art?
I always liked art, even when I was in high school, but I’m not very facile. When I first started out I went to a junior college. I eventually took art as a major, but I was equally interested in horses. And at that point there was a bit of a pull between, okay, is it going to be art or is it going to be horses? And I was fortunate at the junior college: I was slowly becoming more interested in sculpture than painting and, when it came time to graduate, [a professor] recommended that I go to the University of Georgia. And so that’s where it really began.

A lot of your work has references to historical forms. How did that come about?
Well that was very slow in coming. One of the influences ... was an art historian that I studied with at the University of Georgia, Ljubica Popovich. I had never been to Europe—I did not want to go to Europe until I felt that my direction was not so fragile. She really opened the door with the art history that I took from her. Eventually, when I felt strong enough in my vision to go to Europe, she was right there. I traveled through Yugoslavia with her several times. I took a course in classical Greek art history with her, and the whole Greek exposure has become a foundation to my work.

How long did it take for you to become comfortable with your vision?

(Laughs) I think I’m still getting comfortable with it. I feel very strongly that it’s important—and I try to push this with the students—to keep stretching out, and that may mean going beyond what you’re comfortable with. I’m not sure that I’m ever really satisfied. Because of that the work does keep changing, but there’s this undercurrent that is a direct influence of architecture and archeology.

How does your artistic vision marry with art history today compared to when you first started?
It’s become personal. It’s based on my personal experiences, my personal way of interpreting architecture, my experiences in searching particular sites that I think would interest me. Now that I’m spending more time in Greece ... I decided to go back and try something that I had done back in the early Seventies—working in jeweler’s wax. This has opened up a whole new door for me. [In Greece] someone told me about a church that had trees growing out of it. Not only did I get excited, but I’m on my fourth piece working off that idea. So that comes back to, okay, architecture, nature. I never would have dreamed that that would have evolved.

Harriett Matthews
Professor of Art Harriett Matthews in her home studio.
What is the process for creating the wax sculptures?
First I do drawings and I get the drawing fairly clear. Then I work it up using jeweler’s wax—it’s thin sheets and I’m using what look like dental tools to work the wax. ... [A jeweler in Greece] then does the casting—which is quite involved—I bring them back to my studio in Maine and I finish them. I clean them up, I sandblast them, I put everything together, braze it, and then I put the chemicals on to color it. Mount it to a wood base and that’s it.

When did you first start traveling to Greece in the summers?

Continually? 1987. My very first sabbatical, which was in the Seventies, I made a trip that wasn’t just Greece, but I designed a trip that brought all my art historical interests together. I started in Italy ... made a circle, going up the coast of Turkey, through a little bit of Yugoslavia, and then northern Greece. I did what I consider a Byzantine and Greek circle.

What does going to Greece give you that you don’t get in Maine?

Everything. It has a landscape and subject matter that has become important to me. ... There’s a kind of mystery there because it’s not my culture. That becomes a source in a way. I thrive more on mystery than I do on understanding.

Speaking of mystery, talk a little about the creative process and how you teach that.
That’s a mystery. There’s a lot of things that have to be established with the students before we really get into the creative process in terms of searching for their own language. You cannot teach the creative process until the students have a technical understanding of the materials. I teach from the sort of classical approach to the object, and I put a tremendous stress on the technical end of how to deal with the materials in relation to particular objects.

What’s the most challenging part of working with students?
That’s hard to pinpoint, because this is a liberal arts school, which means the students are not as committed to the studio process, because it’s part of a broad curriculum. ... There is often a period where the student just kind of wanders around trying to figure out ‘oh, this is what studio means.’

Has it become easier to spot students who have a natural inclination toward artistic expression?
No, because I don’t look for it. What’s more important is a student’s commitment. Because I didn’t have a gift. I wasn’t facile. But I was obsessed with wanting to make art. That’s what I’m looking for. If I have a student who is putting in more time than required, who’s really, really pushing him- or herself, but who’s struggling, that’s fine. That’s what I would look for. I look for the commitment, not what some people call talent.

How does your work as an artist affect your teaching and vice versa?

Each informs the other. I couldn’t teach without doing my work. This is one thing I have always stressed with my students. And the few students that I’ve had that have gone on and gotten graduate degrees have expressed their appreciation of that—that I am always working. I try to make it clear that I don’t ask any more of them than I ask of myself.

Each student has his or her own perspective. Does that keep you­...?
Flexible. And agile.
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  • On January 22, 2010, Joseph A. Burkart, Jr. wrote:
    I remember taking a course with Harriet back in late 60's or maybe it was 1970(long term memory is beginning to get fuzzy). Some 40 years later what I still remember is how her sense of mystery and her wonderful insights into so much opened up places in me that have only grown. Your article has left me thinking how long it takes at times to be aware of gratitude for gifts given. So this comment is a long awaited thank you to Harriet as well!
  • On January 25, 2010, Cathie Joslyn wrote:
    The fall alumna mag mentioned Colby profs who keep in touch with former students over the long term. Matthews is one of those; she encouraged me & taught so much, both inside & outside the classroom. Was able to visit her in Athens several years ago. She gives so much to her art & teaching! I was so glad to see this article highlighting her wonderful work.
  • On August 18, 2010, Miho Kinnas wrote:
    The artwork "Mountains and Clouds" located by the Colby library attracted me so much that I wrote down the name of the artist. I was there for the day on my daughter's college tour. I would love to see it again.