Stars, Satyrs and Surrealism: CM Interviews Artist Matthew Grabelsky

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His paintings draw you into a world where the mundane coexists plainly with the mythical. The settings are familiar – a New York train platform, a gas station – but his frames are populated with satyrs from Greek mythology and unsettling human-animal hybrids.

Why the odd, fantastical imagery? “The simple answer I realized recently is that I spent a lot of time at the zoo as a kid,” he told me, laughing.

Yet despite his obvious talent, Matthew Grabelsky never thought painting would be his ticket to success. He dabbled in sculpture as a high school student, but after growing up in New York he went to Rice University — to study astrophysics, of all subjects.

“I’ve always done art, but I never thought of it as a career,” Matthew said. “I went to Rice for astrophysics because that was what I was really interested in at the time.” In fact, it wasn’t until he took his first gen ed drawing class that he became interested in painting at all.

His rediscovery of art abruptly changed the path of his life forever after. “What was great about college was that it got me into doing things that I had never done before, especially intellectually,” he said.

Instead of dropping science altogether, Matthew finished with two degrees, one in art and the other in astrophysics. It’s a contradictory pairing at first glance, to be sure; but even though he’s not painting stars and nebulae, it made perfect sense to him. “For me, they were always connected. I guess in a broad sense they’re both about curiosity,” he said.

That duality is reflected in the technicality of his artwork: “My analytical side definitely comes in when I’m thinking about perspective or light or how something should look. All that goes back to design.”

He isn’t researching black holes, but Matthew loves what he does, even though he knows making art isn’t easy. Especially when you’re an artist inhabiting a world in which, more often than not, you’re the only who notices your work is any good.

“The past year things have just kind of exploded for me, which is really exciting and kind of strange. I think every artist wants that — I certainly wanted that kind of success — but the thing about being an artist is that you’re really passionate about what it is you’re doing, and it seems to be luck if anyone else cares,” Matthew said.

Truth is, passion alone won’t get you anywhere. Without a practical foundation, your pipe dreams of traveling across continents as world-renowned artiste will surely crumble.

“Art is not an easy career path,” Matthew said. “You definitely want to have something that can support you financially while you’re developing your work. If you don’t have that, you’re probably just going to give up on art altogether.”

He stressed that familiarizing yourself with the ins-and-outs of the art world will make a huge difference in the trajectory of your career. Forging your own path in art, it seems, is as much about networking as business or journalism is. “Try to go to openings, talk to artists because it’s very much a word-of-mouth thing. You need to understand how galleries work, how museums work, how shows work, how dealers work… otherwise you’ll be confused why people aren’t interested in what you’re doing,” he said.

If you meander aimlessly with your ambitions in the art world, you’ll be just another faint, indistinguishable star among millions — utterly purposeless and immediately forgettable. Pursue your goals with conviction and a level head, and avoid at all costs the wide-eyed urge to seek wealth and fame. They’re just side attractions.

When I asked Matthew about his own goals, he told me that right now he was most concerned with catching some Z’s: “I want to finish the show I’m working on so I can get some sleep,” he joked.

We could all probably take a page from Matthew’s book; he’s a living reminder that pursing your varied interests isn’t always about compromise. Sometimes you can conflate the things you really love. So, yeah, you can have your cake and eat it too.

Or paint it, if that’s your thing.

Student, writer, lover of all things weird, gross and scientific. Senior at Penn State studying English and Print Journalism.

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