Every painting that Matt Schwenk undertakes begins with what he calls an “understory.” It’s the base layer he first paints, the layer that lies behind all the stories that come later. Kind of like how a troubled childhood could be a person’s understory.
“The base layer, the back, that’s just one part of a story, and then I start to layer it out, and build other stories on top of that, and hopefully, if I’ve done it right, it should all work together in some fashion … or maybe not work together; maybe sometimes I am going for conflict.”
The layers that Schwenk creates with resin, stone and acrylics on wood are mesmerizing. The depths of the layers draw the viewer into unimagined worlds and untapped feelings. None of the paintings feel purely futuristic or primitive, natural or modern. They are all those things, or none of those things. You be the judge, says Schwenk.
“I’m not trying to get people to feel a particular way. I just want them to feel anything,” Schwenk said. “Abstract is so subjective. I put energy into a piece that may mean one thing to me, or that I was feeling at the time when I painted it, but someone else viewing it may feel something completely different because the colors I used mean something different to them.”
Schwenk, 30, has made his living as an artist since moving back to his childhood home in Spokane from Seattle six years ago. He paints mostly on his kitchen counter with expansive views of sprawling countryside along the Little Spokane River. He travels regularly to Seattle to serve high-end clients through the showrooms of top architects and designers such as Garrett Cord Werner, Ted Tuttle and Dana Hamel. He also does commissioned pieces valued from $2,500 to as high as $30,000.
Although Schwenk has gained accolades and respect from the design world and art collectors nationally, he has never had a solo show in his hometown – until now. Schwenk’s exhibit opens at the William Grant Gallery and Frame Shop in Kendall Yards as part of this month’s First Friday event. William Grant owner Charlie Hinton said he sought out Schwenk after a client brought in one of his works to be framed.
“I couldn’t believe the depth and layers,” Hinton said. “I’m a depth-of-field junkie, and when a piece of art takes my eye into it like his art does, (it has) always been pleasing to me.”
Schwenk’s layering method sounds a lot like how a person is formed: by their stories, by what happens to them, by what they cause to happen, both good and bad. The outgoing painter has plenty of stories to tell. One layer of his life might be growing up gay as a teenager in Spokane. Another layer might be moving back to Spokane from Seattle when he was 24 to try to paint full time. The understory could be pain and rejection. The second layer may be the story of succeeding as an artist in a town he once fled.
“One of my biggest fears was moving back to Spokane because the city was so cruel to me growing up,” Schwenk said.
Now a 30-year-old body builder who sports model good looks and the “high and tight” military haircut, it’s difficult to picture Schwenk being bullied by anybody. But growing up closeted at Mt. Spokane High School was hell, he said. The worst abuse came from his “hyper-Christian” teachers, he recalled, made even more ironic by the fact that Schwenk often hosted Young Life meetings at his house.
“They accused me of being gay … said I needed to walk the walk,” he said. “One teacher even physically pushed me.”
To escape the teachers and bullies, Schwenk withdrew from school and joined the Running Start program. Half-way through his senior year, his father died after four-years of brain deterioration caused by diabetes. After his dad’s death, he quit high school and Spokane altogether to move in with a friend in Seattle and help renovate his house.
“There is a lot of darkness manifested in my work without me trying to make it that way,” Schwenk said. “I’ll always carry the sadness in my past, but to suffer like that allows me to recognize and experience joy now.”
So here’s another layer. Since returning to Spokane as an openly gay man six years ago, Schwenk said he hasn’t suffered a single bad experience. On the contrary, “random straight people” – from “Hells Angels” to “country bumpkins” – give him hugs when he’s out, and physically protect him from bigots and bullies. “Ignorance doesn’t fly in this city,” Schwenk said.
Like the layers he paints in his visual narratives, “being gay is just one small part of who I am,” Schwenk said.
The understories told in Schwenk’s abstracts are as varied as any tapestry. One painting, a black-and-white piece, morphed into “beautiful” X-rays while Schwenk was painting it, he said. Certain bones are surrounded by metallic lines, a graphic element that marks a recent evolution in Schwenk’s work. Schwenk said he started adding the lines on top of the layers in his paintings in order to capture certain stories or elements. He calls the sections he highlights “cells” or “cages.”
“I have to keep evolving as an artist to recharge my creativity,” Schwenk said. “It’s what keeps me painting for hours every day.”
The time Schwenk puts into a piece is tough to measure. He starts by building the wood canvases himself from hollow-core doors he fuses together. He then primes the wood and uses pumice to bring in natural textures. Even with the help of a hairdryer, the wait between painting the layers can be days. Patient and disciplined, Schwenk never misses a deadline, he said. Upon completion, he heads to his basement studio to photograph his pieces to send to clients or to post on social media, a venue he cultivates carefully.
“I try to keep a lot of my life exposed because it creates that connection with people,” Schwenk said. “They are seeing my influences and what’s going into my work.”
So why has it taken so long for Schwenk to share his work locally?
“We have a lot of very talented artists that think they need to leave Spokane to sell their art, but not now,” Hinton said. “Spokane is definitely ready for (Schwenk) and more like him.”
The understories of Spokane continue to shape a new narrative for Schwenk, and for the city itself. “Spokane has fueled my heart and my ambition like no other,” Schwenk said. “I’ve watched it come alive.”
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.