Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Matthew Mazzotta: Can we pinpoint an issue or something that they’re dealing with that either the city hasn’t been able to deal with or the community itself?
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Matthew Mazzotta. He is an artist and activist and welcome to our program.
Matthew Mazzotta: Thanks for having me.
Anita Walker: Now I have to first say, Matthew has all kinds of awards, but the one that is most meaningful to us here at the Mass Cultural Council is that he a 2019 Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellow. And I have to ask you what that means to you because this is not easy. I mean the chances of being awarded a Mass Cultural Fellowship is less than two percent. The work is a blind review, so the panel does not know your name or your resume or all the other awards that you receive, they just look at the work and what does that mean to you?
Matthew Mazzotta: You know, I didn’t even think about it as what it meant. You know, I moved to the Boston area and I know there’s Cambridge and Boston and Brighton and everything, but just if we’re going to talk about as Boston, I think in 2005, and I kind of came here to do a residency with the Berwick Research Institute and that ended up being a project which evolved in to me staying here. And yeah, this city has just given me so much. It’s kind of unbelievable and, you know, I could’ve moved to New York, all– everybody did that that I hung out with, but I just I like this town the best. Getting this was pretty cool. It’s just kind of like a little you yell into the cave and echo comes back, you know, and it’s kind of and there’s an award with some cash as well, so it’s kind of like just a sweet thing.
Anita Walker: And it’s for the work.
Matthew Mazzotta: Yeah.
Anita Walker: I mean it’s really, our panels are just looking at the work, not the reputation or anything else. And artists consistently tell us that they like that, because that they, if they’re new and emerging or even if they have a resume, they go, “Well, are they judging that or are they really judging my work?” So I have to talk about your work. And this is where I wish– I wish this wasn’t radio. <laughs> I wish we had images to go with this. Because I’ve been thinking before you came in today, like how am I going to talk about this without a picture? You can go to our website and you can see images of Matthew’s work. But I want you to just close your eyes for a minute and imagine this, if I said to you the words, “Open House,” I’m speaking to our listeners, well, what image would come to mind? Well, you might think of an open house party or you might think of a real estate open house. But that’s not what Matthew thinks about what he thinks of house. <laughs> Describe your open house.
Matthew Mazzotta: You know, physically seeing it or visually, it’s a small house like structure. It’s pink. And I’ll get to why it’s all like that. But if you– at one point it just is a house, however, it physically transforms. It has a secret. It opens up into a hundred seat open air theater. And I can tell you a little bit about how we made that if that’s?
Anita Walker: Please.
Matthew Mazzotta: Okay. So I was invited to a community in rural Alabama that I had no connection to and they said, “Would you like to come down and meet our community?” I said, “Sure. Do you want me to give a talk?” And they said, “Not to talk, but we’d like you to hang out with them. Could you propose an activity?” So I proposed bike riding. And they said, “Actually, no one really bike ride here. It’s a small town, about 3,000 people, a lot of disinvestment, a lot of closed businesses, a lot of abandoned houses.” I said, “Okay. What if we did an outdoor living room?” And they said, “What’s that?” I said, “What if we just took a whole bunch of furniture, rugs and televisions and lazy boys and couches and fake, you know, flowers and magazines and we put a living room right in Main Street and we have a conversation?” And that’s actually been a– that was the first time I did that for a research process and that’s where I started gleaning information from this community. So I– we did that, I started asking questions, ended up communicating with a number of people there and this whole living room thing is supposed to capture voices of people that usually don’t go to more formal meetings. Anyways, the stories I heard of that was that we have a lot of blighted properties that’s bringing down the town and we have no public space. So this project “Open House,” this transforming theater emerged from the concept of this was a need or a desire of this community. How do we deal with these abandoned houses? How do we produce public space? So we basically found a house in the middle of town that has been blighted right between the grocery store and the post office. And we worked with the city. We took all the good materials out, the fire department helped us deal with the rest, and then we took those materials and built a new house. That new house basically is this “Open House,” house with a secret. So the whole reason it has pink on the sides is because the siding was pink of the original house. So it’s always a theater when you open it. However, it closes back up reminding people of the past and then it sits in that town.
Anita Walker: How has that affected the community? What has its presence meant?
Matthew Mazzotta: Yeah. I think one of the most interesting things was during that outdoor living room, design charrette — or however you want to speak about it — event for gathering information, the mayor of the town was there and we were in the beginning stages. She had no idea why I was doing this, but she’s willing to contribute. On the day we opened the theatre, ribbon cutting, we had a preacher do the blessing, we had a band play, we have movies, the whole thing, she came to me afterwards and she said, “This is amazing. You know, you’ve really given our town a gift.” And she saw what it was. And she goes, “You know what? I want to do the town hall meeting in this project.” So I think that’s when I started realizing that art and public space can be political, specifically public space can be political in the fact that if everybody has conversations or the conversations are regulated to commercial spaces — of the gas station, the transitional spaces of the sidewalk or the grocery store — that’s a certain type of conversation. But if you’re able to open up a new platform for dialogue through a public artwork, a space, then people can start to reimagine or get to sit next to each other, who haven’t sat next to each other and start to dream of their town. So I just thought it was so potent that she basically had a city hall meeting inside of an old abandoned house basically, which is now “Open House,” and people are looking out from that vantage point, what are we going to do next with our town? And that’s really one of the seminal works for me when I started realizing how powerful creating spaces could be for community health and dialogue.
Anita Walker: It feels like it suggests there are possibilities. There’s hope. There’s confidence. We’re not stuck here. We’re not trapped in a dying community.
Matthew Mazzotta: Mm-hm.
Anita Walker: Is that sort of the sense you got from?
Matthew Mazzotta: Yeah. And actually, you’re touching upon one of the themes that’s in a lot of the works I do, which is transformation. And so a lot of my projects either transform something or physically transform it and I realized that a lot of people identify with that as an analogy or a metaphor, something that transforms from one state into another, the caterpillar into the butterfly, you know, the old ugly duckling to the swan, this abandoned house into this theater, I think that we all want to see ourselves in this position, that the potential is there for each one of us to transform. So I think that’s something attractive that people can relate to.
Anita Walker: So most of your work really is the catalyst, a conversation with the community and addressing a transformational community need? Is that sort of where the, you know, the fuel for your artistic energy comes from?
Matthew Mazzotta: Yeah. Yeah. I think that, you know, I get invited to different communities. I’m a community-based artist, however you want to speak about it, socially engaged, relational aesthetics or whatever people are calling it now. But it’s about people and the places they live. And so I always try to go in knowing I’m an outsider and I go in with an open notebook and I set up these outdoor living rooms to listen. So I’m always trying to capture through these outdoor living room events, one-on-one meetings with the mayor, with the drug dealer, with the community activist, with the regular person and through the outdoor living room, just common people that are sitting for a coffee or whatever, can we pinpoint an issue or something that they’re dealing with that either the city hasn’t been able to deal with or the community itself? So what is there that no one is addressing? I always find that as the crux of the work, if I can find that. And then I start to bring in pieces of the built environment. What are the resources here? Is it a railroad track that has, they have a whole bunch of railroad track ties? Is it an old building that no one else is using? Is it, you know, vegetation that’s leaving that area due to climate change, whatever it is. Then how do we pull those together, the community’s needs with what they actually have there? And I say this one thing, let me see if I can say it clearly, the solution is already there. It’s just trying to create a narrative to pull it all together with the community. And that’s, I think, the artist’s role is to get this story moving or illuminate something where we see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel and then usually once you start to get that gravity moving then people start going, “What are you guys doing? I think I have something like that in my garage?” Or “I have something in my attic.” Or, “Can I help out here?” And once that story is told, the community usually fills it out to the end.
Anita Walker: You know, what I’m hearing is that it’s a combination of both of the storytelling, of creating the narrative, which is really the pathway from where we are to where we’re going. But in your work it’s also something concrete and visual that you could see and touch and feel. It’s not a theoretical solution. We hear a lot of theoretical solutions to a lot of our problems, but you actually make something.
Matthew Mazzotta: Yeah. Yeah. I was thinking about that. At one point when I was in grad school, I started thinking– because I always build everything, always. Even when I was a kid, I mean we are always building things. I started, you know, going back in my mind about that building ramps, I guess where like the, you know, were for bicycles are skateboards, it was and, I remember my neighbor coming over. So apparently, we had a whole bunch of plywood and scraps in the garage and I built this ramp next to our garage and the neighbor came over and sat with my dad, because I worked on it all afternoon not thinking about property lines or this or that. And it literally had the probably the wildest structure you could ever think of underneath to hold it up because I didn’t plan it out. I just put this board here and then nothing was cut. I don’t think I used a saw. I kept on nailing things together. But yeah, it was a ramp and I remember they were just both looking at it and I didn’t know if I’m supposed to be embarrassed or whatever, but I got it done and it was rock solid. But I think that I always built. And so yeah, when I was in grad school I was always building all my projects. And then I was thinking, am I just a psycho carpenter. You know what I mean? Like what is going– am I making conceptual art here or am I just building a ton of stuff? And I think I’ve honed that more and become comfortable with yeah, it’s an artwork or they are artworks, you know, that idea that I’m trying to create something when people experience it, it actually allows them to question their situation or interrogate it more. They are left now with an experience where they have an expanded view of the situation they live in.
Anita Walker: Talk about the– and by the way, listeners, you must go to the website and look at the images, of which there are many, on both Matthews website and in Mass Culture Council website. The house with a cloud?
Matthew Mazzotta: “Cloud House,” yeah. If I look at “Cloud House” in the portfolio, that’s a little bit of an odd work right now for me. I’m making mostly spaces for programmed events to come together, so it’s mostly for a bunch of people to come together. “Cloud House” was done in Springfield, Missouri on a location that had a farmer’s market. So there’s already, there’s tons of farmers in that area, someone has put together the farmer’s market, and there’s, you know, the big whatever awning, all these farmers come in, they do the event, all these people are there. So I wasn’t– I didn’t need– it almost felt like I shouldn’t try to compete with that. They’ve already got their thing. They got yoga. They got everything. How do I address a farmers market? And I started thinking okay, why are people interested in knowing where their food comes from? Why is it local? Why are all these things? And I thought, can I drive further down that road? And I started thinking, you know, it’s really about our relationship to the earth. And so I created “Cloud House” as a poetic counterpoint to this large farmer’s market, trying to give people a moment to actually, I don’t know, maybe spend a little bit of time with the natural processes that give us the food we eat. So that project is a barn shape, you walk in and there’s two rocking chairs on it and above it on a small post is a huge cloud. This cloud has been getting rainwater and stores it in its basement. And when you walk in as soon as you sit in the seats it triggers a pump and it brings all that rainwater up in the cloud and that cloud rains on the tin roof giving the sound of rain on a tin roof, this kind of rustic rural feel, which a lot of people identified when we did our research there. And it’s just a moment to reflect on, you know, this whole process and there’s actually water that comes through the window frames down to the window sill, which is growing plants. And just simple, the water’s dripping on– you get the sound of the rain and also it’s dripping on the plants, which are growing. And I made a little video but I like quoting this line. I think– I can’t remember where it’s from. It’s like the Farm Equipment Association or something like this, it says, “No matter how many technological advancements we make, we owe our existence to a six inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” And I kind of like that, no matter what you’re doing at the end of the day it’s like you have to pay attention to our natural environment if, you know, regardless of how many times it’s blown out through organic this and that, that’s what it all comes down to, that simple rain on the ground to grow our food.
Anita Walker: You know, what’s amazing to me is you describe a simple, illuminating idea and it’s probably the simplicity of it that makes it so simple in our complex world. But I still– you must be some engineer.
Matthew Mazzotta: That’s interesting. So, as the works have gone on, and remember, and I’m just going to refer to me when I was a kid, I was taking apart, like my parents would buy me a bike and they said every time I’d get it I would just take apart in my room. So it’s just there was a full bike and now it’s just this big pile of stuff. I just had to improve everything. I was always interested. I remember we have these little scooters with breaks. They were popular I guess maybe in the ’80s or something we were kids or maybe early ’90s, I don’t know. But I couldn’t get the brakes tuned tight enough. And I just remember like so frustrated. But then I look back all these years later, those were crap. They couldn’t have been done any better. Like, I was trying to work, you know, and always taking telephones apart. So I guess I was always interested in how things were made. I’m not an engineer. My only title is an artist, because I make a lot of buildings, but I’m not an architect. I’m always trying to think through how do you do this? How do you do this? How do you do this? And so each project– and “Open House” was a nice one to think about. That was a project that because it transformed and it had such weights to it and all these things, there were so many problems with it so– to design it. So I started out by cutting paper. I bought Play-Doh. I kept on thinking about it in my mind. My friend Jagen [ph?] Vince Nepal, who went to grad school with me, was with me in Alabama at the time I’m designing it. He’s a licensed architect, or he’s an architect. And he just kept on asking me, “Let me draw it up. I have all these, you know, programs in the computer.” And I said, “Jay, you know, I think I got it and I don’t want to go that way.” Finally, I’m– he’s watching me do it. I’m taking photos. I’m trying to do all these things. I’m doing it on a chalkboard. He goes, “Please let me draw it up.” Okay, “I go, “Fine.” He draws it up. It takes him like a day or two and when he got it done it, like every piece of material that you put together, is it on the top or on the side, because it was squish and then hinge or it will do this. It was walking around in a dream and I could not believe it. I don’t want to tout technology too much, but I was like this tool is so powerful, it relaxed me a hundred percent. I could see everything clearly. So now a lot of the work I do is with yeah, these programs and architecture software. And so engineering, I also work with people. I hire them and we work together to do all these kind of more unique things that they’ve never tried before. But yeah, I guess it starts with, you know, a crazy dream, what is this thing going to be, and then how do you get it done becomes a challenge.
Anita Walker: Well, you know, technology can’t replace the crazy dream and the idea and the way you create the simplicity of the story and the narrative that gives it such power. Matthew Mazzotta, artist and activist, another one of our “Creative Minds Out Loud.”
Matthew Mazzotta: Thank you for having me.
Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit Creative Minds Out Loud.org.