Matthew Whitehead is the Director of the Apex Gallery and a Lecturer who teaches Art and Art History classes in the Humanities department.
What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?
I am an artist. I appropriate images and visual experiences from my surroundings and use them as inspiration for abstractions, mostly drawings, paintings, and collages. I work intuitively, paying close attention to composition and craft. My interest in the arts and the effect it has had on my life pushed me to pursue a career in education. I have taught painting, drawing, photography, illustration, design, graphic design, ceramics, stained glass, sculpture, art history, and foundational arts to students of all ages.
The arts have always been an important part of my life. I come from a family of artists and creatives. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a renowned potter, painter, and art professor, and my grandmother was a social worker who now spends her time making traditional braided rugs and hand stitching quilts. My mother is a costume designer and art educator by trade but is also an actress and choir singer. My uncle is a potter, and my aunts are also artists of one kind or another. My grandmother on my Dad’s side was a trained aerial performer and painter. My dad was an actor, then a lawyer, and now he’s back to acting again. Given our family background, my siblings and I had no choice but to go into creative fields. My oldest brother is an actor, director, producer, filmmaker, and a professor of acting while my sister is an artist and landscape architect. Becoming an artist always felt like a natural fit.
What’s one of your favorite courses, topics, or specific texts to teach? Why?
Traditional darkroom photography feels like an easy answer here… it’s such a magical experience to watch, as students expose an image in the darkroom for the first time. That said, I am often impressed by the transformation that students go through during a Drawing 1 course. This is a surprising answer for me because drawing has never been something that I had that much interest in teaching but, after a couple of years of teaching it as a graduate student, I really did grow to love it. At first, drawing from life feels overwhelming to people, but as they learn the various tools, tricks, and techniques required to render three dimensions down to two, it starts to make a lot of sense. It’s fun to watch that effort pay off for them, to see it click.
What’s something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
One of my favorite bodies of work was a series of portraits that I created using a traditional medium format film camera and black & white film. This photographic series was a collaboration between myself and a group of students in an advanced photography course that I taught at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. For this project I asked students to write a creative personal statement that would ultimately accompany their portrait. Those unprompted statements created by the students were presented as text within the frame, alongside their portrait, with no hierarchy between the two works. I loved this series because it felt like a true collaboration. The students felt as much ownership over the work as I did. The show, Faces of Santa Fe, was put on display in the President’s Gallery alongside personal artworks created by the students themselves, which made the experience feel even more collaborative. If you are curious, you can view the series here: https://www.matthewwhitehead.com/faces-of-santa-fe.
What is your favorite book, movie, or other work of art or media? Why?
Wow… this is a tough one, but I think it has to be the Icelandic artist and musician Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors.” This was a 9-channel video installation that consisted of nine large video projections in a darkened room. Each projection showed one musician as one aspect of a collaborative performance, a single song that unfolded over the course of nearly one hour, all of which was shot in one take. Each artist/musician was set up in a different room of a large historic farmhouse somewhere in the country. During the recorded performance they could not look to each other for cues; they were separated by walls but connected through the music. The resulting imagery presents what appeared to be raw human emotion, genuine intuition, and human interconnectedness. The installation itself was incredible, but the experience stood out because of the context. I was visiting ICA Boston and reluctantly entered a darkened exhibit space, thinking that my time in that place would be limited. I was greeted by a room filled with sound, moving images, and a fair number of people scattered about, some seated, some standing, but mostly keeping to themselves or within small groups. I had arrived at the beginning of “The Visitors,” a visitor myself, or so I thought. I would remain in that room for the next 50-plus minutes, slowly moving with the crowd to locate the source of the dominant sound and its creator in that moment. As the song began to come to an end, some sounds began to fade to nothing. Screen after screen would be left empty, motionless as its performer put down their instrument and left the field of view. We could see that the performers were beginning to convene. As they left their screen, they entered another, and the crowd followed their movements. The performers eventually found themselves on a single screen, without instruments, now slowly singing the chorus as they walked together away from the house and into the countryside. At this point, we saw through the eyes of one camera, presented on one screen, showing one group of artists, being watched by one group of viewers; visitors were then connected through this shared experience. As the sounds faded, I looked around and could tell that I was not alone with my experience. I felt connected to each person in that room. For a moment we all took that in, then we went our separate ways.
This was a profound experience for me, an emotional experience that made me feel more connected to all humans. I can’t explain it. I’m sharing a video here, but it will not do the experience justice.
Tell us something about yourself outside of work. What do you enjoy doing? What’s a detail about you that your students might not already know?
This may seem like an obvious answer, but I do really enjoy spending time with my family. I love sewing and working on art projects with my daughter. (We are currently designing a clothing line named after her stuffed bunny, Honeycomb.) I also love skiing, playing games, and working on puzzles with my son. My wife and I love cooking together, taking walks with the family dog, and spending time outdoors. We love to travel as a family, especially on road trips, and are often dreaming about the next big adventure.