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Lots of people talk about quitting their job, buying an RV, and driving off to see the real America. This week, Barbara Matteo is actually doing it.
Matteo has worked for two decades at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, most recently as associate curator of education. In that job, she’s developed art-outreach programs for schoolkids and seniors and supervised the gallery’s staff of 150 docents.
But recently, Matteo sold her apartment in Dupont Circle, cashed in some stock-market profits, and began squirreling away money. Using the 23-foot RV she recently bought as a rolling art studio, Matteo plans to take two back-roads sojourns a year through the U.S., beginning with a 13-state route to and from Santa Fe later this year. The goal: Complete 10 oil sketches and one 3-by-5-foot painting for every state in the union. She expects the project to take five years.
“American history and American art history are quite different,” Matteo explains. “Whereas American history tries to integrate all regions, American art history—at least the American art history we see in the history books—hasn’t really touched on the majority of American states. I think there is a lot more there than meets the eye.”
Matteo says she was inspired by a Corcoran exhibit that showcased the work of 19th-century artists who went into the roadless wilderness with surveying teams, painting everything they could, regardless of the weather and the hardships they encountered.
Along the way, Matteo will conduct art workshops for fourth-graders in at least one rural school in every state. Matteo—a native of Fair Oaks, Calif., north of Sacramento—already has a far-flung network of friends, family, and contacts in the museum and education worlds. After Matteo announced her departure, her staff of docents passed the hat and collected $4,000 for her.
Matteo is tentatively calling her venture the Landscape Project, because she wants to capture—and help youngsters capture—the diversity of the American landscape. Buildings and people won’t be banished from her canvases, but they’ll be decidedly secondary, she says: “I’m interested in the unique places, so that if you came into a room and saw all 50 paintings, you could pick out each state instantly. I’m not interested in anything trendy or fashionable in American art.”
On the road, Matteo will make studies, but she will actually make her formal paintings at the Rappahannock County, Va., farm she recently purchased. Eventually, Matteo expects to exhibit her paintings, but, in the meantime, she plans to post her work (and the works of her scattered fourth-graders) on an under-construction Web site, www.castlemountainstudios.com.
Matteo describes her age only as “midlife.” But she insists that the next five years hardly represent a midlife crisis. Rather, she sees it as an adventure: “I have a whole new life around the corner.” —Louis Jacobson