One of the most fascinating aspects of life is how early upbringing and experiences mold our way forward, in both expected and unexpected ways. We’re all a mosaic of our experiences, and the early ones are especially important. Matthew was born to creative parents, a fact that probably doesn’t seem too surprising. From an early age, he showed signs of the artist he’d become and his parents encouraged him to pursue these passions.
Recently he sat down for a conversation to explore his beginnings and discuss how he prepared to step into a future life of constant creation. His innate curiosity and creative spirit today don’t come from nowhere; they were born much earlier, in a childhood filled with art, writing, and a drive to try exciting new things.Interview by Garret S / DMS
So, your mom was an artist, your dad was a creative director/writer, what was it like growing up in a home with so much creativity like that?
Well, when I was really little, my mom was an active artist and she was really a good artist, too. She’s not what I would call, ‘a Sunday painter’... In other words, her work contains depth and struggle, awareness of art history and a very subtle colour sense.
I remember when I was 5 she was using our dining room as an art studio. At that time, she was doing a lot of wood sculptures. She would be chipping away at these pieces of wood – we had wood chips everywhere, it was like living with a giant hamster! I would watch her sculpt, and really see the sculptures come to life. Amazing textures and forms.
'Regatta' Oil painting by Aimee Giffin, 1959
She was also great at teaching me how to see. We would walk around Detroit and she would stop and point out interesting patterns and textures of a brick wall, or a manhole cover. Things that one might not normally stop to notice. This served to show that we are always surrounded by different types of beauty, or at least interesting things to see. That was, in and of itself, a great education.
She still makes art; she didn’t make it for many, many years. But she’s 94 now, and she’s back into it and pretty much picking up where she left off, creating beautiful and intricate wood sculptures.
'Dipsy Doodle', Wood sculpture by Amy Giffin, 2021
My dad was a writer. He was a creative director at Campbell Ewald Advertising agency in Detroit. He was in charge of the Chevrolet truck ads. During the 60s, he was the guy who would come up with the campaigns and the catchy slogans. You know, you drop a truck from a helicopter on a mountain in Mexico, or some crazy things like that.
David Giffin (and secretary) at Campbell Ewald Ad Agency, ca.1960
He was a good writer; he played with words a lot, making up new ones and purposefully using incredibly complex, obscure words in the course of normal conversation, just to be funny. Sometimes we would read the dictionary together. His clear fascination and sense of fun with vocabulary really inspired a love of words that I continue to have to this day, which is why I love to write.
Looking back, I can see that he had a great ability to come up with tight, well-formed ideas that was well suited to the professional work he was doing. I can also say he had artistic ability as well; he used to draw great cartoons; very funny, odd looking characters that would seemingly appear out of nowhere.
For my part, I was extremely responsive to colours and shapes. As far back as 2 or 3 years old, I can still vividly recall certain juxtapositions of colours and shapes that would affect me in a very visceral way. They seemed to carry some kind of meaning that I could not really put my finger on, other than they just seemed to embody something that seemed true and right.
Cars were a true passion – especially certain design elements, dashboards, taillights and hubcaps. My dad would always say “we’d take you to the parade, you could barely talk but you could identify the cars just by the hubcaps!” And it was true! There would be cars in the Thanksgiving parade, completely covered up with a tarpaulin, pulling some float where you could only see a bit of the wheels. I could identify the exact model.
1960 Chevrolet Caprice. Coolest tail lights ever.
So, design, shape and colour has always spoken to me in a very fundamental way. It helped to have parents who were creative; they were not the kind of people who marched with the crowd. They were curious people who filled the house with different kinds of art, philosophy books and literature from east and western culture.
Were they very encouraging of your creativity?
Yeah, art was always the main point of encouragement. When they saw that I was creative, that was encouraged quite a bit. So it’s understandable that a young kid would gravitate toward the things that elicited the most support. It might have been different if I had been into something else. Coulda been like a real-life version of the Monty Python 'Coal Miner Son' sketch.
One of the big characteristics of your career has been exploring different art forms. Did you experiment with different mediums at an early age too?
The whole time I was little, I drew all the time. And it was always abstract. The style that I work in right now is essentially the style that I had when I was little. It’s not like I drew realistic, and then moved to abstract. I still have drawings from when I was really little, and they’re very consistent with what I’m doing now, in some ways.
Matthew Giffin, 5 year old abstract drawing.
Abstract colours and shapes have always been my native language. I was never interested in spending time drawing things as they appeared, though I certainly respect and enjoy artists who do work of that nature.
As I got older, I just seemed to incorporate art into whatever else I was interested in. So, at age 8 or 9 when I discovered hockey and baseball, while I liked playing those sports, I was also really into things like logos and uniforms. I used to design my own; I even sold a number of hand drawn baseball shirts to other kids in my neighbourhood in downtown Detroit. I always found logos to be really interesting, the way a simple design could express an idea in a creative way.
Looking back, it's interesting to see how foundational art was to how I was processing the world. Whatever I was interested in simply became the subject of the art I was creating at the time.
Matthew Giffin, 12 year old hockey drawing
Stay tuned for the next instalment of 'Conversations with Matthew' where we see how early interests slowly coalesce into a cohesive lifelong direction.