Raleigh-based artist Jen Matthews knew who her influences were from an early age – Ellsworth Kelly, Joan Mitchell, Frank Stella and her father. Most people wouldn’t have known that her father was also a gifted photographer, artist, and master woodworker. His talents combined with the brightly colored prints in the 80s clothing store her mother owned, were the defining influences on Jen’s early art.
We sat down with Jen to dive a little deeper into her journey.
MG: Tell us about your work and your process.
JM: I like to think my work is bold, playful, and alive — a mix of abstract and graphic with a childlike spirit.
In terms of my process, I usually work on several pieces at a time with no plan as to how the finished pieces are going to look. I work primarily with acrylic paint, oil pastels, graphite, handmade paper and drawing scraps. I start loose with big strokes and play with uncomfortable color combinations and textures — whatever I am feeling in the moment. As I build the layers, I incorporate patterns, marks and shapes — eventually a story emerges that takes the viewer's eye on a little journey. Whether framed or not, I make sure all sides of the painting are incorporated into the final composition.
MG: What are the first memories you have of art making?
JM: Oh gosh, I’ve been making art since I could hold a crayon. My childhood friends would tell you that there was never an undesigned mixtape, pair of Converse or oversized tee. In terms of my very first memories — I have vivid memories of drawing with my dad at our kitchen table while sitting on my knees in those hard, honey-colored oak chairs. (Fun, slightly painful fact — I still sit on my knees when I paint). Anyway, he would doodle a blobby, abstract shape on a sheet of paper, and I would create something from it. Usually, it was some strange animal or character. We did this together for many years and it is something I did with my children as well.
MG: Where do you find inspiration?
JM: I find inspiration in so many different parts of my life — trips, everyday moments, funny anecdotes from growing up. A lot of my inspiration for color and pattern comes from my childhood. My mom owned a clothing store in the 80s (hello floral prints and Velcro shoulder pads!) and I spent every day there after school. I combine that with shapes inspired by nature, design, and movement. I keep a lot of notes in my phone because 90% of the time my head feels like it’s going to explode with ideas.
MG: Who are your favorite artists?
JM: Joan Mitchell, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, always been a Warhol fan. There are also so many killer female artists of today that I really admire and need on my walls like Anne-Sophie Tschiegg, Ashley Longshore, Holly Addi and many more.
MG: At this moment, what would you consider your "big break”?
JM: I haven’t really had one “big break”. I had an internal breakthrough in 2020 and I think that along with a lot of little breaks have gotten me to where I am today. It took several years for me to return to painting and rediscover who I was as an artist and once that clicked things just started falling into place. I started getting some very large commissions, had a piece featured on an HGTV show, got into several galleries, and shows and it’s just kind of taken off from there. But honestly, it’s all the in-between moments that keep me going and excited — seeing a collector cry happy tears when I hang a piece, getting a text or email months later telling me how my art brought their room to life, watching an Instagram story of a gallery excitedly unpack my art, painting alongside my daughter. Those are the moments that make me feel like I am really doing this thing.
MG: What is your dream project?
JM: I don’t have a single dream project. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I’m living my dream. There are some amazing interior designers I would love to collaborate with on a big project. And I always dream of working dimensionally at a large scale — some sort of colorful, large scale, dimensional public installation sounds terrifying in the most wonderful way.
MG: How has your practice changed over time?
JM: I’ve been a painter all my life but stepped away from it after college as I focused on my family, advertising career and health. A few years ago, I needed a mental outlet and got back into it. I took some pattern design courses, dabbled here and there with acrylic and gouache, trying to find my style and refigure out who I was as an artist. At the time, I was painting a lot of florals. It all felt very unoriginal, and I just wasn’t satisfied with it. And then when COVID hit in 2020, we turned our 3rd floor into a wonderful studio space where I could work my full-time job and paint. That was when things started to really click. I realized that up to that point I was painting for the masses instead of painting for me. So, I started to just do me by pulling from my past, trusting my gut and painting every spare moment I had. And here we are today — I am constantly trying new things, evolving my practice, and feeling more fulfilled than ever.
MG: What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
JM: I’ve always been in a creative field, except the summers I drove a beer cart around a golf course. That was fun too. I currently have a full-time job as the Director of Design at an amazing creative agency. I’m also a mom of two active kiddos (Laney, 12 and Cole, 10), a few chickens and a dog named Gus. You know what they say, “if you want something done, give it to a busy person.”
MG: What superpower would you have and why?
JM: Hmmm. Tough question. I’m going to cheat and say the superpower of more superpowers. Like the ability to pause time with my kids, heal mental health struggles in children and teens and find anything I lose. (Thank goodness for the little ping feature on the apple watch that alerts my phone!)
MG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
JM: “Don’t force it, Jenny.”
My family will get a chuckle out of this one. There’s an infamous VHS tape from Christmas morning circa 1988 where my dad is assertively saying (aka yelling) at me not to force the batteries backwards in my talking Cricket doll. (BTW, she still lives — I found her in my parents’ house just recently and she is way creepier looking than I remember.)
But seriously, it’s a solid piece of advice that has stuck with me for all these years. And it applies to my practice as well — nothing good comes out of a piece when I try to force it.
Shop Jen's available artwork on our website here.