In 2009, I heard about Matt Sesow, a D.C. artist who was described to me as “a modern-day Picasso.” I was skeptical (I tend to be skeptical about most things just-met dates tell me). But when I looked at Sesow’s website, I felt as though my fingers had just been stuck into an electric outlet: the paintings’ energy pulsated, jumped and vibrated. His colors burned.
While, yes, like Picasso, Sesow does make use of icons—a bull, dogs with mouths wide open, distended bellies, wide-open, freaked-out eyes—to create the forceful and exciting paintings, Sesow’s work is very much his own. His paintings are not riffs on the work of the 20th century Spanish painter. Sesow’s work is an arcing wire, powerfully expressive, reactive, and very much in the NOW of this turbulent world.
Recently, Matt Sesow took time to talk to me about his work…
Turner Houston: I feel SO MUCH energy when I’m near your paintings. They practically vibrate, like they can’t sit still. When you’re painting, do you feel like you’ve had a gallon of coffee, or are you rather meditative and in a lovely state of “flow?”
Matt Sesow: Typically when I paint, I’m experiencing and reacting to my music, alcohol, and the ‘intent’ of the painting. When I start painting, which is what I now consider my ‘job’, I am either creating something based on a potential buyer’s expectation, or I’m creating something to satisfy something within myself.
I estimate that I’ve created and sold over 17,000 original paintings since 1994. I’m very comfortable sitting down or standing anywhere in the world and creating original art.
The reason I don’t create new paintings every second of my waking moments is because it’s exhausting for me to ‘do [every painting] right’. My good paintings, and hopefully all my paintings, take a great deal of energy and honesty. I am never calm when I paint, and oftentimes I start to get ‘worked up’ about a topic or an idea hours before I start painting. For me the painting process is an aggressive event, a fun event, and an event that can never be repeated.
TH: The painting you did about your accident–the painting that went into the show at Hofstra University in 2002–why did you paint it? Was it part of therapy, or just that you suddenly found you wanted to put it down on paper to look at it from another perspective?
Do you still have that painting? If so, what do you see in it now?
MS: I created the painting ‘Join Hands’ in 2002 in my studio/apartment in the Adams Morgan area of D.C. And it showed at Hoftstra the same year.
The idea behind the painting was to show the support of community and family around a tragic event. I think it was very therapeutic for me. I was in a way honoring my family and neighborhood where I grew up for saving my life after I was hit by an airplane in 1974.
I came up with the title ‘Join Hands’ from the Siouxsie and Banshees album/song… a band I was fortunate to see live in England in 1981.
You can see more about the painting at film.sesow.com
I don’t know where the painting is now.
TH: You were a computer programmer for a large part of your working life. Did you paint while you were working full-time? If so, how did you make time and space for it? What kinds of things did you find yourself painting in those days as part-time painter?
MS: I started painting in 1994 and am “self-taught.” Initially, I painted for fun and kicks while working full-time in the computer field. I painted at night and weekends in a 550 sq. ft. studio apartment in Adams Morgan where I did all my paintings and where I lived. I created my own painting space in the apartment and made the time to create.
I’m amazed that so many ‘artists’ seem to need ‘studio space’ or grants to create art. I didn’t know about government assistance/grants when I started painting. I just wanted to paint and was willing to sacrifice my personal comfort to create. Back then (1994-2001) I painted much like I do today. I painted funny and political things inspired by politics and current events. Nuclear threats, Bill Clinton, war, peace, girls…
TH: Was it scary for you to think of becoming a full-time artist, or was that easy as pie to make the transition?
MS: It wasn’t too scary for me when I became a full-time artist, mainly because I didn’t think about it too much. At the time, in 2001, I owned the studio apartment in Adams Morgan (I had bought it at a bargain price—less than $65K—back when nobody wanted to live in DC) and I only had to come up with $300 or so a month for condo fees. So I had total freedom to create and experiment as much as I wanted because I didn’t worry about money. I wasn’t rich or anything, I just had a small ‘nut’ to cover every month and could take chances.
I was always inspired by the DC punk rock scene, a scene that encouraged a ‘do it yourself’ mentality, and ‘fuck it’ to the establishment (i.e. the gallery system). Art is about following your own vision, without regard or respect for anything or anybody but yourself.
TH: Unlike a lot of artists, you post your work online as soon as you finish it–something that expresses to me a lot of energy on top of the tremendous energy of your paintings.
Have you found the fast cycle of online posting-offering-selling to be a really efficient way to get yourself out and noticed, as opposed to having an agent, building up for a show in a gallery, etc.?
MS: My business model is creating art with the hope of selling the painting before the paint is dry. I have realized over the 25 years of painting and posting my work online that people appreciate the one-on-one interaction with me, and “the uniqueness of the day” in art.
I evolved with the social media culture, and was part of the creation of the Internet, working at IBM, Netscape, and AOL in the 90’s. I’ve always sold my paintings online at affordable prices without regard to complying with the expectations of overpriced galleries or agents. It is a silly/greedy notion to me that art from a living being should fetch more than $100/hour of work!
Oftentimes when I’ve participated in a gallery exhibition, my long-time collectors have wanted to buy my art before it was in hung in the gallery. But I would always give the gallery their commission even though I brought the gallery some of my buyers. Most every gallery I have worked with over the years is now closed, while I continue to paint, deliver, and thrive independently.
TH: You (and your wife) often have open studio evenings. What do you like about having collectors and others in your space?
MS: The open studios are our chance to let people come in a get deals on our paintings.
I think some of the paintings need to be seen in person to appreciate their texture and originality. People get to talk with us directly and get the stories behind the painting–which is something galleries either don’t do or they get wrong. Our open studios also give us a chance to throw back several beers with friends.
TH: There are many symbols that reappear in your paintings: the bull, dogs, fish, birds, and sometimes, political personalities… What do the various symbols mean to you?
MS: Ever since I began painting, I’ve used a unique set of “icons,” and imagery to help communicate the meaning of my paintings. These reoccurring and significant visual clues—like the bunny, the trauma cup, dogs, the bull–might be used to help people better understand the story and the intention of my paintings.
Check out icons.sesow.com where I’ve created a page with backstories, descriptions of some of the symbols.
TH: What are you working on now, and what’s something you’re just in the thinking stages about?
MS: (Laughing) I’m working on my body lately… going to the gym and trying to cheat death by a few more years. I have a larger studio space now than what I had in Adams Morgan. I moved into my wife’s space downtown and have a huge wall to paint huge paintings on. I think my next ‘Join Hands’ type painting will be called ‘Paradise.’
TH: Would you pick 3-5 photos of paintings that you particularly like and that you could briefly talk about? I’d love to post them with your interview.
MS: Sure. Here are a few:
“Ballerina” (2018) was created for an exhibition at a museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
I was contacted by the museum in Russia in early 2018, asking me if I’d like to submit some paintings for one of their group exhibitions around the theme of ‘grotesque’.
Being physically disabled and looking a bit odd/non-symmetric to people, I oftentimes depict people in my paintings as having physical disabilities.
The ballerina in the painting is missing her hand and foot. I think people look at the painting at first and see the ‘grotesque’ depiction of the teeth/eyes, etc… Traditionally, a ballerina is viewed as beautiful and graceful. But I added the disability part to play on the perception of ‘grotesque’. I put a lot of energy into this painting.
I created ‘Freedom Square’ (2017) for the architect of the monument at Freedom Square in Tehran, Iran. I used a photo from the revolution that took place there in 1979 as a guide, but I wanted the painting to portray a hopeful future for Iran and the desire for more freedoms there, for a ‘green revolution’, a hopeful peaceful revolution that may come there some day with the monument as a backdrop as the Iranian people see more freedoms and democracy.
‘Poets’ (2015) was created for an exhibition at the Busboys and Poets restaurant in DC. I wanted to keep this painting non-controversial, making it conversational, and non-threatening—it was going to be in a bookstore/restaurant, so I didn’t want energy from the painting to intrude in that space.
‘Head for the Hills’ (2013) is one of my “31 Days in July” paintings, a 10-year project where I created 310 paintings, all 30” x 40,” based on the news in July 2003 through 2013. (See 31daysinjuly.com) This painting shows people fleeing a village while a U.S. drone strike is about to happen. Mixed in the crowd is the target of the drone strike (the person with the devil horns who hides amongst the innocent).
‘Interrogator’ (2007), above, is another one of my “31 Days in July” paintings. The painting depicts an U.S. interrogator possibly from the CIA, and the victims of torture. I created this painting after some news surfaced about the CIA Black Sites around the world and what went on there. The hooded figure in the bottom you might remember from the Abu Ghraib torture photos. I put a lot of energy into this painting.
Matt Sesow Biography
Born in 1966, Matt Sesow was raised in rural Nebraska. On a summer evening when he was eight, playing at an airfield near his home, he was struck by the propeller of a landing airplane. The accident resulted in his left arm being severed and the loss of his left hand. Through the support of his family, Matt’s physical disability was minimized as he was encouraged to participate in a variety of academic and organized sporting events.
Without formal art education, Matt discovered painting as a hobby while working at IBM. In the evenings and on weekends, he played with painting and began selling his work to Self-Taught and Outsider art collectors in 1995. Throughout the 1990’s he continued to paint and participate in art exhibitions while working full-time at variety of computer firms.
In 2001, after establishing himself within the art, Matt retired from his computer career to pursue his art full-time. With the ability to focus entirely on his painting, he exhibited and traveled across the United States while also securing new collectors internationally including exhibitions in Spain, France, Russia, and Slovenia. In 2016, Matt had an exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum, and in 2017, the museum bought twenty-six of his paintings for their permanent collection.
Currently living and painting in Washington, DC, Matt continues to be an independent artist who makes a living by selling his work directly to fans and to a variety of galleries and exhibitions world-wide.
Sesow’s paintings can be seen—and purchased—online at: https://www.sesow.com/new.htm