In 'Conversations with Matthew, Part 1' we were introduced to early influences and how having creative parents provided a supportive atmosphere for Matthew's innate feel for colour, form and design. In this instalment we see how early interests can slowly coalesce into a cohesive lifelong direction.
- Interview by Garret S. / DMS
You mentioned design, when did you start getting into other things like painting and music?
I have a sister who is eight years older than I am and when I was little I had the good fortune to be exposed in real time to The Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, Simon and Garfunkel and others who were creating great music. Certain songs just seemed to be so captivating; 'Get Off My Cloud', 'Nowhere Man', 'Like a Rolling Stone', 'Scarborough Fair' and others. And in much the same way as from colour, form and design, certain sounds just seemed almost tangible.
The Beatles Canadian album, 'Twist and Shout (ca. 1964)
Aside from that, my household was not what I would call, 'musical'. That said, my mother actually was a childhood performer in Windsor (Ontario). She performed in local vaudeville-type productions at the Walkerville Theatre, singing and performing on stage. She was known as ‘Little Babe Nantais’ and she actually became rather well-known on a local level… This would have been way back in the ’30’s! However, this rather unique experience was not something that factored into family life. By the time I came onto the scene she was into art, and I guess she just considered all that to be ancient history.
My father, for all his otherwise fine qualities, was quite possibly the most non-musical human being who ever lived. It was almost as if he was allergic to music; at least that’s how it seemed to me. Living in downtown Detroit, as we did, during the height of the Motown era, had zero influence on him. He seemed to almost regard music as an annoyance, so its presence in our household was really quite minimal and playing it was out of the question.
The best example I can think of was an incident that involved Stevie Wonder, of all people. This would have been about 1972, when Stevie was at his absolute peak. Stevie rented an apartment one flight below us, I believe for a member of his family, and every year he'd come by a couple times for a visit. I remember this one time he was down there and you could hear him playing the piano. And there was my dad, banging on the floor with a broom!
There are no words to describe how it felt to see my dad try to shut down Stevie Wonder, a bona fide musical genius and probably the biggest pop star on the planet at the time. This had to be the single most un-cool thing anyone could ever possibly do! To this day I think 'Dave Giffin's Broom' should be featured in the Motown Museum, beautifully presented in a plexiglass box with a spotlight.
Regency Square, Lafayette Park, Detroit
So, at what point did you decide to actually start playing music?
Well, I didn’t get into playing music until I was in my 20s, after I moved to New York. I bought a guitar basically because I like to write and I wanted to write songs. I started by writing country songs with titles like ‘Dog Pound of Love’ and ‘There’s a Little Bit of Elvis in Us All’. Eventually I started writing songs that have maybe a little more substance. Over time I became somewhat proficient at the guitar, bass and keyboard and at this point, after decades of playing, I’m possibly not half bad.
It took a long time for me to consider myself a ‘musician’ in any respect, but at this point I’ve written and recorded well over a hundred songs and done enough on a professional level that it would actually be inaccurate to say that I’m NOT 'a musician’.
How did you decide that art would become not just like a hobby for you? Were you doing it in high school? Taking classes?
I never took art in high school. At that time, art was one of those things I didn’t really think about much. Middle school and high school was a very difficult time, which is perhaps not unusual but in my case there were other things going on that caused a fundamental re-arranging of my inner and outer landscape. I was one of those kids that just did not fit in at all with the social structure of my peers and my experience at school during this time was, quite honestly, miserable. There was just not a lot of structure to my life at this time. When I was 14, I relocated from Detroit to Belle River, Ontario, less than 20 miles away, but seemingly in an entirely different universe.
Belle River, Ontario
Looking back, I can see I always managed to draw or write, but I think it was one of those things where art was just part of me, like an arm or a leg. Who thinks of their arm or leg? You just stand up and get on with surviving best you can.
I didn’t really ‘decide’ to be an artist until after high school really. It’s probably weird; it’s not how people normally think of what they’re going to do. Art was just always 'just there’, and at a certain point it was like “well, I’ll do that.”
I did consider becoming a writer, albeit briefly. In Grade 12, I made a couple of new friends who happened to be on the school newspaper. We decided to re-invent the paper; instead of focusing on wrestling results and football scores, we opted for satire! Using various pseudonyms, I wrote things like culinary reviews of the school cafeteria and critical breakdowns of individual classes as if they were theatrical productions. Now, the reviews I wrote were devastating, but in a humorous way. They afforded a great opportunity to use words like 'hackneyed', 'obtuse' and 'regurgitate', among others. I still remember using my dad's ancient, non-electric typewriter to pound out the articles.
It was a new twist on the idea of a school paper, to say the least. I’m proud to say it was NOT appreciated by the powers that be. It was a good rebellion though, all in fun and nobody got hurt in the process… Though they eventually banned my car from the school parking lot and locked us out of the room we were using as an office! The administration was, in modern parlance, 'humour challenged'. And I don't care what anybody says, the food in the cafeteria was awful.
When did you start getting more into the art then?
I suppose I was probably about 18 when I decided I was going to start doing artwork in a conscious, applied way. I considered ‘commercial art’, as it was called back then, for a short period of time. I put together a portfolio of designs and drawings and was accepted into the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, which I attended for one semester back in 1978.
Art school was an enlightening experience in some ways, and sometimes in ways that were unexpected. I did have a couple of really good teachers. I was a little thrown, however, seeing the graduating class exhibit in which much of the work seemed eerily similar to that done by the instructors.
I may have been young and inexperienced but I knew I was not in any way interested in ‘working in the style of’ anyone. I didn’t yet know precisely what I wanted, but I could feel something inside me that I just had to explore and I did not want to have to work around the demands of following someone else for four years only to produce things that didn’t really ring true.
So I left school to find out what that was.
'You've Got a Lot of Nerve' (sketch, 1978)
Free of the constraints of a set curriculum, I started work on a first series of paintings and drawings, just feeling my way. I spent a lot of time reading about art history and sourced interviews with artists of all types whom I admired, and sought out work that seemed to transcend the ordinary. I was really inspired by artists like Paul Klee, Lawren Harris, Adolf Wolffli, and Alfred Pellan, and many others; masterful visionary artists of all types that seemed to have an extraordinary freedom of imagination, who left nothing unresolved or half completed.
Over the next year or two, I found that the things I had been exposed to while growing up and the innate attraction to colour and shape started coalescing into a direction and a language that was mine. I also gained a lot of inspiration from music. I found I could, in fact, ‘see’ music, a phenomenon known as ‘synesthesia’. All in all, this was a time when the various bits and pieces of myself that had been somewhat scattered recombined in a new way that also felt more than familiar.
Matthew Giffin, 'Inner Peek #2', 31" x 34" coloured pencil, graphite on paper (1981)
Now, concurrent to all this was a profound out of body experience I had when I was 19, in which I entered a realm that was more real and more vivid by far than anything I had ever experienced in life before.
It was basically all encompassing of the entire universe, beyond time or space, and in the eternal now, in which I was everywhere at once and could see everything from every possible angle. All information was available and instantly accessible.
Implicit was the realization that consciousness itself is the only reality and that all manifestations are creative in nature and essentially based on unconditional love.
It is impossible to describe the experience in words, but at this point there are countless books written by people who have had the same or similar experiences through meditation or near - death experiences.
Anyway, this became a foundational experience for me, and in terms of art, it allowed me to see very clearly the direction I had been, until then, unconsciously searching for.
On a personal level, it was a lot to process but it was clear that the only way to process it would be through creativity. It was obvious that the only thing to do was to dive deeper, to have access to a realm where one could simultaneously observe and participate in the ongoing, unpredictable flow.
And so, the direction forward really wasn’t about ‘art’ at all, but rather about manifesting potential. In a sense, art was not the goal, but a byproduct of a journey from one’s small identity into a universal realm.
Of course, to use art in this way conversely means that one must really work at it, learn about it, to become humbled and inspired by those who have achieved mastery.
And so began, and continues to be, the real work of being an ‘artist’.
Next up in 'Conversations with Matthew': New York City.