“It took me a long time to realize that simple can be a lot better than complicated,” says visual artist and musician Matt Nelson. He’s talking about not only his stint with Richmond, Va., alt-rock band Fulflej but also the growth of his textile works—and about finding his bliss by picking up a needle and thread.
Nelson combines his love of music and his art-school training in his fabric works, which draw on applique and quilting techniques to present snapshots of a suburban artist’s inner and outer life. His largest work, a 6-foot-by-7-foot wall hanging, comprises 30 of his foot-square panels. Some celebrate the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Bob Marley. Others portray domestic idylls: a nude couple lounging on a picnic blanket, an old man watering his garden.
Nelson, a native of Arlington, studied painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University from 1990 to 1994. By 1998, he was living in a small apartment: “I didn’t have room to paint,” he says. Inspired by a photo of Perry Farrell with a cloth doll in his pocket, Nelson began making small fabric figures. His techniques are largely self-taught: “A girlfriend showed me basic sewing. Other than that, I’ve kind of winged it.”
Though Nelson now has more space—he shares a comfortable Arlington bungalow with his girlfriend—he still prefers the compact pleasures of sewing: “It’s really relaxing. There’s no chemicals. It’s quiet.”
In Nelson’s folky work, a ragged running stitch anchors the image to a felt backing. Most of the pieces are appliqued by means of a similarly rudimentary stitches. But he brings an artist’s eye to his choice of colors and textures and to the composition of each panel, even as he breaks the rules of functional sewing: The white fur of a shocked cat, cut from cotton, takes its shape from the fraying edges of the border. A translucent soy-sauce cup, beside a plate of sushi, is cut from a plastic sandwich bag and sewn to the cloth.
In one of Nelson’s most striking compositions, a woman in geisha garb takes up the left side of the frame. Next to her are three stitched words: “Cool Disco Dan.” “The woman is [from] a Japanese woodblock print,” Nelson explains. “She had a backward gaze—so I had her thinking, Who wrote that on my wall?”
Nelson says his art is driven by a need to communicate his ideas to his audience as directly as possible. “As a painter, I did abstract stuff,” he recalls. He got good technical training at VCU: “I don’t think they shoved a way of thinking down my throat. [But] in art school, you’re surrounded by artists, and you’re trying to compete with the ideas of other artists. Then you get out of school, and you work at Safeway….I’m 30 now—I’ve thought a lot about what subject matter to do. You think, Would my mom understand it?”
In his aspiring-rock-star days, Nelson was a drummer—and being part of someone else’s vision was part of his dissatisfaction with the music. Now Nelson’s working on creating music by computer. That approach has the same appealing aspects as his fabric art: It’s something he can do on his own, something over which he has control. “It’s not a group thing,” he says. —Pamela Murray Winters
Matt Nelson’s fabric pictures are on display to Friday, Jan. 31, at the Common Grounds Coffeehouse, 3211 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 312-0427.