Peace of Art
It’s a grey Wednesday morning and seven U.S. military veterans are gathered at Tacoma’s funky Mandolin Café. There’s not a green uniform in sight. Instead, the servicemen sport jeans and T-shirts. They swig lattes from ceramic mugs and huddle around a table cluttered with breakfast plates. They refer to each other not by military rank but by first name.
This isn’t a coffee break, it’s therapy for a group of wounded warriors who recently returned home from deployment. I’m their occupational therapist.
At the Mandolin, infantrymen and bohemians coexist. Many veterans in my group are also students, studying for exams just like the University of Puget Sound history majors sitting nearby.
The café’s conference room showcases a startling shrine of paintings by an eighth soldier who isn’t part of the group: Air Force Staff Sergeant Matthew Scott. His paintings are aggressive, bold, unsettling, their colors almost psychedelic. The bright orange backdrop of “Skull Ravens” suggests an acid-enhanced version of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. A baby-blue bird sips coffee and gives a cheerful thumbs-up in “Employee of the Month.” The sprawling trio of pyramids from “Sunny with a Chance of Disaster” is mystical and exotic. Scott’s surreal imagery is like a disorienting trip to a carnival funhouse.
Scott was deployed to Afghanistan 10 days after Sept. 11, 2011, as part of the first “Shock and Awe” air-bombing campaign. The 36-year-old served in the conflict until receiving an honorable discharge from the Air Force in December 2003. Like so many other returning service members, Scott couldn’t shake off his post-combat stress. Instead, his kaleidoscopic dreamscapes became his own form of recovery.
Scott’s paintings overflow with striking imagery. A slithering tapeworm with tiny, triangular teeth beside a wild-eyed, fire-bright fish surrounded by spines and razors. A noble sun goddess erupting from thick, golden mud. And those haunting pyramids.
A day after the group therapy session, Scott agrees to meet me for an interview. He’s cheerful and friendly, with dark hair and stubble covering his chin. His biceps bulge from beneath a black T-shirt. Tattoos brand both of Scott’s forearms and his left shoulder. The letter “D” is emblazoned on one arm and a matching “A” on the other.
“They’re the first letters in my kids’ names,” he says. When Scott first returned from the war, his impaired memory hindered recall of important details in his life. The tattoos provided cues.
Another tattoo on his left shoulder reads “Hope Fades.” This is a reminder of a different sort. “Right after I got back, I was teetering on the edge of sanity,” Scott says. “Later on, when things improved, I said, ‘I will put this on my arm. I will look at it to remember the bad times.’ But in remembering the bad, it reinforces how good things are now.”
Scott remembers those bad times vividly. In the weeks after he was discharged from the Air Force, he was living in a secluded duplex in south Puyallup. “Emotionally, I was in a very bad place. The rational voice in the back of my head said, ‘You’ve gotta get it out.’”
Scott never painted before his deployment. He liked comic books as a child and envied his younger brother Nate’s talents with pencils and paper. In that Puyallup duplex, desperate for a release, he used whatever was available to unburden himself.
“The girl I was dating had a vast collection of fingernail polish,” he says. “I started painting with it. Then I grabbed a pen and a crayon. I added a couple of tubes of watercolor.” He put dabs of color onto his fingers. He painted. Doodles. Designs. “I lost myself in the painting. I realized I had spent two hours at peace.” He describes the resulting image, his first, as a “fierce, fire-headed creature”—a self-portrait that he keeps in his basement, next to the washer.
“Over the years, the fingernail polish has become more brittle and flakes off,” he says. “Some pieces of this painting are leaving. They’re going somewhere. I’ll look at it now and try to remember, ‘What was this creature that I’d turned myself into?’ And I can’t remember. Watching it fade away is one of the great joys of keeping it around. I can remind myself, ‘I’m not that anymore.’”
Above: Matthew Scott's first painting, My Demons, a Self Portrait, 2005.
In the eight years since Scott’s first nail polish painting, he has switched to acrylics. At War, his first formal collection of work, graced Tacoma’s now-defunct Lark Gallery in 2008—an exhibition Scott describes as “stark, sad and filled with fear and anger.” As his work has become lighter and more fantastical, he’s shown in roughly a dozen group and solo shows in Seattle and Tacoma. Scott sold 16 pieces last year. He’s also pursuing a degree in art therapy.
Scott doesn’t paint from sketches or drawings. He starts with a base layer, then waits for inspiration—a process he describes in combat terms. The canvas is his opponent, which he attacks with aggressive “splats” in a manner inspired by Jackson Pollock, whom he discovered through a PBS special as a young child. “It’s basically a conversation between canvas, paintbrush and me.”
Music is often the catalyst for his creative impulses. “This Dream Is a Weapon”—a horror show in which spade-shaped petals appear as scorpion tails— was inspired by “Meditron,” a hard-rocking song by the band Mars Volta. After a visit to Latin America, Scott began painting while listening to the Brazilian speed-metal of Sepultura. And he’s painted live, on-stage, with bands at the Mandolin.
“My life was saved because of all this weird shit on the wall,” he says. If there’s a disconnect between military discipline and art, Scott says it’s because art isn’t explored by the military as much as it could be.
“Life is fuel that feeds art,” he says. “Art is only as good as the experiences you put into it. People are unaware of the scale of things outside this country. The military gave me tools and stories that no one would believe. These experiences hone you. If you go to war and you make it back, you’re unstoppable.”
Matthew Scott’s work is on view through the end of June at Art on the Ridge, a Seattle gallery in Greenwood.
Artwork pictured above: This Dream is a Weapon, 48 x 60 inches, acrylic on canvas, 2011. My Demons, a Self Portrait 20 x 20 inches, nail polish and mixed media on foam board, 2005. Skull Ravens, 18 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas, painted live on Halloween 2010.