Out West / Western Art

The Competent West of William Matthews

The popular artist’s current retrospective exhibit, “William Matthews: Decades,” is at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.

The popular artist’s current retrospective exhibit, “William Matthews: Decades,” is at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.

“All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.” — From “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

The popular artist’s current retrospective exhibit, “William Matthews: Decades,” is at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
William Matthews, photographed by Kurt Markus, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Maria Markus.

Artist, musician, graphic designer, clear thinker, wanderer and hunter-of-moments would all be apt ribbons of honor one could pin on William Matthews. He would be politely pleased but would mostly allow the artist
moniker to linger the 
longest. In the 
Western genre of
 painting and its 
broadly dispersed fan 
and collector base,
 few would not be 
aware of his sought-after work and style — a style heavily
 influenced by his early 
life exposure to the 
work of artists such as
 John Singer Sargent, 
Andrew Wyeth and
 Winslow Homer, 
among others. His
 mother, the late portrait
 artist Joan Matthews, encouraged this exposure, with the young Matthews supported with equal encouragement by his grandfather, also an artist and passionate world traveler.

“My mother taught me to ‘see’ at a very young age. She showed me that when I squint, details drop away, and the design of the thing becomes clear. Once I could see, I knew I could paint. And I was always encouraged to get out and experience what was out there, so I did,” Matthews says. “It’s how I’m made.”

Matthews continues to have a long and prolific career spanning five decades and is probably best known — at least in the cowboy universe — for the watercolor landscapes and portraits of people inhabiting and working in the American West. His work represents and shares his respect for a world of individuals of profound and focused competency. As Montana writer William Kittredge wrote in his essay “Running Horses” that appeared in Matthews’ 1994 book of watercolors, “Cowboys & Images,” he describes the character of the horseback Westerners he grew up around in the highland desert country of southeastern Oregon: 

“These men, the horseback artists who brought the rawhide reata and the Spanish silver sided bits, were quick-handed men who never dreamed they could own much beyond a saddle and a bedroll and a good pocketknife. They were our nobility; I think they dreamed of capabilities and beauty. They knew better than to imagine you could own anything beyond a coherent self.” 

The popular artist’s current retrospective exhibit, “William Matthews: Decades,” is at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
Exhibition catalog cover.

 Now through the end of April, fans of Matthews’ diverse body of work can view his remarkable retrospective show, “William Matthews: Decades” at the Smithsonian-affiliated Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West in Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona. Of the cowboy-centered portion of work in the exhibition, Matthews states in his foreword to the exhibit catalog, “I never intended to paint cowboys. My first loves were always architecture and the landscape. I was enamored with the West as it was my home. But until I came nose to nose with the buckaroos of the Great Basin, I didn’t know what the West really looked like. I had driven the highways, but I’d never been off the pavement. The road has been long and circuitous but such an adventure.”

“I always preferred watercolors. I loved the washes and layered glazes and hard-edged shapes.” — William Matthews

In addition to the cowboy imagery, there are diverse selections of works by this unique and prolific talent that include everything from his album cover design to painted illustrated book covers to music festival posters to regional depictions from his travels all over the world.

Accompanying the exhibition is an informative, limited-edition catalog — a must-have for fans of Matthews’ work. It is also a guidebook to the exhibit as we travel down his creative trail of over 50 years of work. What follows is just a sampling of the works contained in the show.

Cowboy Poetry Gathering artist album covers

Album Covers

In the music business, the latter part of the last century is considered the golden age of the singer-songwriter, and Matthews felt that the best artwork appeared on album covers. So, in the early months of 1970, he made his way to Hollywood and started knocking on as many record-label doors as he could find. He had a brimming portfolio of watercolors, taught himself how to hand-letter and told prospective employers he could do the photography as well. His persistence paid off, and he did work for many of the era’s best.

Posters

 Matthews grew up in the world of San Francisco poster art, surrounded by the revolutionary typography and imagery of the likes of Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso and Stanley Mouse. This example shows the interaction of his sense of type and imagery.

The Cowboy Poetry Gathering/Warner Nashville/Warner Western

The popular artist’s current retrospective exhibit, “William Matthews: Decades,” is at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
Artwork for Warner Western 1995 ad and book project.

With his catalog of work on the buckaroos of the Great Basin, it was only natural for Matthews to be immersed in the early poetry gatherings in Elko, Nevada. From 1983, he created posters and album cover work for the many new artists coming out of the music sessions, including Don Edwards, Michael Martin Murphy and Waddie Mitchell. His work would become the principal look for a new sub-label from Warner Nashville called Warner Western, started by then Warner Nashville CEO and Chairman Jim Ed Norman, who was the producer/arranger for some of the era’s most influential artists, including The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. 

The popular artist’s current retrospective exhibit, “William Matthews: Decades,” is at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
Matthews with CEO/Chairman Chris Martin for Martin Guitars.

In addition, there are examples of work from Matthews’ many trips abroad, including some from his favorite visits to Ireland, Scotland, England, Brazil, Thailand and India. There are even examples of his collaboration with Chris Martin and Martin Guitars for two limited-edition acoustic guitars. A depiction of one of his most recent architectural installations depicted is a stunning small-tile mosaic mural interpretation of one of his watercolors celebrating the American West, installed overlooking the entire south entrance at the new Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition to the mural, Matthews collaborated with sculptor Buckeye Blake in creating two large bas-relief bronzes on either side of the mural. There is way more to be seen of the breadth of Matthews’ work as on view is the creative life of an artist who, even after 50 years of work, is in full bloom. His friend and colleague on numerous projects, including a book on the 40th anniversary of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, longtime art director Hans Teensma (think: Outside magazine, Rolling Stone, Rocky Mountain Magazine, among others) summed up his view of Matthews and his work.

“You can see his fascination with the land and the real people [who] worked on it. Willy sees the essence of what matters. He sees the beauty in things that are ordinary, a quality he shares with the Dutch masters. Being a Dutchman, I am a fan. Those paintings were the entertainment of the era. People would just sit and stare at the art and dream about what the artist had revealed to the viewer. One could get lost in it. Willy’s work is like that. He gives us the truth and the beauty he sees.”  

Pretty well says it. This is a wondrous, must-see exhibition.

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