By exhibiting his wondrously mystical paintings for over ten years, Matt Dangler has given us countless glimpses into magical worlds that teem with cute and creepy creatures that float and flop the gamut of his beautiful mind. Matt paints with an impeccable attention to detail, a feat particularly impressive considering the majority of his works are small-scale. And despite their littleness, Matt’s creatures evoke a grand response, their big-toothed, big-eyed faces, and wrinkled, feathered, and bejeweled bodies packing a playful sock to the head, leaving you at once both giddy and gloomy and always greedy for more. But in this interview, Matt gives us an important reminder – one illustrated by the Arcade Fire song ‘Creature Comfort:’ “Born in a diamond mine; It’s all around you but you can’t see it.” In other words, he reminds us to look for the magic in everyday life. It may be a bat you witness, darting overhead as you walk with friends under a full moon; or a visit from your neighbor’s adorable new puppy – wonder abounds, and it’s waiting for you to take notice.
I’d like to start by asking you about meditation. I read in another interview that you meditate to tap into your inner creative resources. A couple of years ago I read David Lynch’s fascinating book on meditation and creativity titled “Catching the Big Fish,” and during a presentation Lynch said about meditation, “It’s a simple, easy, effortless technique yet supremely profound that allows any human being to dive within, experiencing subtler levels of mind and intellect and transcend and experience this ocean of pure consciousness.” First, have you followed Lynch’s readings and talks on meditation, and second, can you tell us how your creative process has changed since you starting meditating?
I haven’t followed Lynch’s readings and talks, but you’ve inspired me to check them out… thank you for that. We have very similar views on meditation. In regards to my own personal meditation, it’s something I’ve “encountered” since my earliest days of drawing. As it became more apparent, I developed more of an interest and focus around it. However, I’d first like to point out what meditation is to me. It is to become part of your being, something to exist out of… not just at a yoga class or in a lotus position in the middle of a dark room. It is a guide to align yourself with the present moment to fully immerse and be ready for wherever your life story takes you, not distracted in thoughts or manipulated by ego etc. It has helped me draw from an inner well of images and feelings that I don’t even quite understand initially. That said, my creative process has become much more intuitive with meditation… I depend greatly on being more like a messenger than a dictator.
After you began meditation, did you find that the dreams you had at night become more clear and vivid? Do any of your ideas come from dreams?
Well, it is quite ironic, I thought my dreams would become vibrant, imaginative and creative etc… but I can say with certainty that as meditation became more of a focus in my life, I hardly ever remember my dreams. When I do they are extremely layered metaphorical stories, and pretty mundane… mostly childhood friends and places that represent different aspects of whatever I’m dealing with. Whenever I’m going through the hardest parts of my life story, I often dream of entering very dark and cold basements of childhood houses. I’m pretty certain Jung would also agree with me that this represents some deep parts of the subconscious. I can only assume that meditation has brought clarity to the structure of my inner world… but the weird cathartic enchanting creature stuff I paint only comes out while creating art. Equally as boring, I get more out of just fully embracing any given moment, then imagining things in trees etc. Often a breeze through the leaves or the sound of the stream outside my studio right now brings me much more than my own imagination, but it’s not as interesting or stimulating to paint.
I have a longtime dream of facilitating art therapy retreats for teens looking to detach from technology. In our current age of distractions, immediate gratification, and smartphones, what do you feel is a good first step for those of us seeking a more mindful existence?
I absolutely love this and also have that dream… however, I have no idea how to present it without being cheesy or corny etc. I still believe technology is wonderful, gratification awards are nice once in a while, I’m admittedly pretty addicted to my smartphone (even with the insight I have on meditation and all). So… I can’t say it’s this way or that, but undoubtedly we need a balance, a perspective, and to keep things in moderation. Most of our society is extroverted, thrives on stimulation, outward energies, conveniences… it isn’t just a social existence that’s distracting either, but even keeping up with bills and life in general is incredibly demanding on us all. I think we all feel that slowing down might make us collapse in these areas of our life.
What I found is, and in dealing with my own anxiety particularly, is most of us are simply not in touch with ourselves. So we go to these outside things to form an identity of who we want to be, or think we should be… rather than embracing and learning what our own unique path and desires are. It’s hard to maintain an illusory self, that never yields or attracts what you are looking for. So I keep it simple… I detached. I realized most of what I was struggling with was because it wasn’t me. I was forcing myself to play a role.
As a genuine “first step” to a mindful existence… I suggest starting with basics: exercise, nutrition, balance of being inside/outside… get yourself on a good foundation, and make sure you do it for you. Love yourself, take care of yourself, spend time alone with yourself with no intentions, see where it takes you. Pay attention to what’s around you, not what’s in your head. Learn the difference between your ego’s voice and intuition.
With an imagination like yours, you must have had amazing parents! Do you recall some of the things your parents said to you growing up, and/or traditions they practiced with you when you were a child that you now believe helped fuel your budding creativity?
I’ve been extremely fortunate, my parents have always encouraged me to pursue art because it’s what I loved. As such, they decided very early on to embrace it and evolve in it with me. Even my mom when I showed her my drawings of demons and severed heads around 5th grade. Even after a few visits to the school psychologist… (many of my teachers were concerned, I don’t blame them now)! But anyway, I think without a doubt it was my parents excitement in my creations and their enthusiasm to learn about the art I was interested in that kept me motivated. To this day one of my favorite parts of a painting is getting to show them, even though it’s hard to top the 5th grade shock value, haha.
I understand that your wife is pregnant – congratulations! As a father, what will you say and do to ensure your children are given the opportunity to fully express themselves creatively?
November 5th is the due date! I just want to fully embrace their passions, and keep a very open mind to wherever it takes us. I think it’s important to let the inner child have a place to be liberated and hone it in as they develop. Stunting that imagination before it’s even set free seems disastrous and quite devastating. That said, in practical matters, if they draw on the walls I’ll give them a wall covered in drawing paper.
Some of your creature subjects are fluffy and adorable, and others are scaly, droopy, and sad. I have pets that fit all of those descriptions, and each definitely has its own distinct personality. Did you have a lot of pets growing up, and do you have pets now?
Haha… yeah the creatures are all over the map, and it’s because they are expressions of me. The droopy, scaly, sad etc. is just how I was feeling while creating it. But I did have a couple of unique personality pets that I’m sure influenced some of them, particularly a Persian cat named Nicholas… he was an old curmudgeon, and his intelligence made him seem more person than cat.
Let’s move on to the subject of love. I see on Facebook that you were married in July of 2016 – that makes you a newlywed, how wonderful! Being that you are a highly creative person, did you help plan or create any of the decorations for the wedding?
Thank you, we did. We mostly planned our entire wedding and did most of the decorations ourselves. We both live under the saying “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” But we also didn’t want to spend the time trying to relay our distinct vision… it actually seemed easier just doing it ourselves, and we’re so glad we did.
In a recent Instagram post, you mentioned you and your wife were moving into a new home. Tell us about your new place and your new studio space.
My favorite place to go as a kid was a reservation way back in the woods where I’d just lose myself on the lake fishing – not a person in sight. Cassie (my wife) has the busiest schedule I know of, and wanted to have a home that was more like an escape/sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle. So after about a year straight of mind-numbing research and house tours, we finally found a fixer-upper wedged between 2 forests and with a huge back deck that overhangs a gorgeous lake. When we first moved in, I have to admit, the deck was in bad condition. Luckily, I love DIY projects so I got some new deck wood and some decking screws (you can buy them online!), and got started with the project. I actually really enjoyed doing it! It was so rewarding and we saved so much money since we didn’t have to hire a professional. It looks great too! There’s something so inviting about a house with a decking area. It can really make a property look so much nicer, as well as giving homeowners another space to enjoy the lovely area outside of this home. If we hadn’t have found this home, we probably would’ve looked into finding a company that could install some plastic decking in the garden of whichever home we ended up buying. Thankfully, this house already had one! Honestly, after seeing it was a fixer-upper and saw how beautiful the property was, we thought it would make an amazing investment property to hire out as a relaxing getaway for couples and families, so we started looking into the likes of this turnkey real estate guide to see how we’d go about turning it into an operable holiday home. However, we fell in love with it, and it’s now ours! Only one road about fifteen minutes “up the mountain” and literally through the woods to the little lake community that it’s in. My new studio, on the side of the house, is next to a stream that feeds into the lake that I can hear with the windows open, and many trees that have been dense with birds. But don’t get me wrong, the house and property require a ton of work! It’s still a dream for us. We are so happy and proud of the work we put in to get here and looking ahead, we’ll truly make this house our own. Some of our family have also suggested that we consider installing an Alarm for house system, just because of how far away we are from other neighbors. The house is quite isolated, so it might be worth looking at adding some extra security features to ensure that we remain safe in the house.
While on the subject of love and unity, you state on your website, “My work lately comes from a place of love, which influences the art by expressing lighter stories, vibrant colors, surreal characters, and so on.” How does it feel to express that side of yourself and what has the response been from your fans?
It’s been natural… refreshing… easier, to be honest. I like love haha, I like expressing it a lot more than pain. My core fans have really embraced my personal journey, and have become good friends. So, we are personally invested in each other. In regards to the artwork, itself and how it has impacted interest from collectors, sincerely it is selling better than anything I’ve done before, so it works on all fronts. I can’t speak for other artists on this, but I have a very hard time selling “dark” work, although it gains some of the biggest response and attention online. Something that speaks to people’s pain doesn’t necessarily mean they want it hanging on their walls.
In the summer of 2017 you had a solo show called “The Hidden Ones” at Haven Gallery New York, in which you exhibited a collection of artwork wherein you drew “from an inner well of love, opposed to a coping mechanism from pain.” Tell us about the show: were you in attendance at the opening, did you have any standout interactions with fans you’d like to mention, and how AMAZING did it feel do evoke wonder in all of those viewers?
It was a joy to put together the work in the show, I can’t always say the same for other shows I’ve had. They’re often fraught with deadlines and my own crushing standards. Something I wrestle with constantly are my painting techniques, and the technique really flowed harmoniously with the subject matter for this show. I felt really good about that. Also Haven Gallery is run by a couple of my closest friends, so it was such a pleasure to work with them and celebrate in their beautiful gallery space. However, openings are nerve racking for me, my own dedication to zen in general is to overcome some pretty debilitating anxiety – just showing up can be a challenge. But there has not been a single time where I haven’t met the absolute nicest and warmest people at openings. I’m so proud that my work and art circles I’ve navigated attract such impressive people, it’s really humbling.
Many of your works are small, as in five by five inches and under. You illustrate this well in your Instagram posts by showing your fingers holding small paintbrushes next to in-progress works. Have you always worked small, and do you plan on keeping things this way, or might you make more larger works in the future?
That’s a question I’ve mulled over many many times. There is layered reasoning… I would like to work on huge canvases, but on a business level the time investment is astronomical. I cannot take the risk of such a large work not selling. I would still be more than willing to take on huge canvas commissions, but it just isn’t a smart choice for me to take them on for shows at the moment. – That said, the smaller works are often way less stressful and let me focus on the subtle nuances in detail and light. Some of my favorite works of all time are within the Flemish Dutch 15th-16th century that are truly gem-like in their scale and appearance. But nothing compares to the presence a massive ornate framed painting has on the wall… small pieces are like a window into the world, massive works are literally the world.
Having two young daughters, we spend a lot of time checking out picture books and amazing chapter books at the library, and I know that in 2013 you contributed to a hardcover book titled “Faeryland: The Secret World of the Hidden Ones.” Another great book I loved reading to my kids was “The Spiderwick Chronicles” (2003 – 2004) by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, and the follow-up titled “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You” (2005), a book Brian Froud calls “A masterly natural history of all things unnatural.” The field guide is full of amazing fantasy creatures such as goblins and elves, phoenixes and griffins. Are you familiar with DiTerlizzi’s picture and chapter books, and what is your favorite fantasy creature?
Froud and DiTerlizzi have been major inspirations for my work. I have always been utterly fascinated with their field guides of mythological and fantastical creatures. They have such a way of bridging the unbelievable to believable. Alan Lee also in his help with Froud on the Faeries initial guide. The way they’re able to capture all the hidden mysteries and nuances of nature, and to express the mysticism using faeries and creatures as messengers for their discoveries. A single character of theirs might transport you into a total inward experience. You might look at a scratchy little pencil sketch of a creature in the corner of their book, then suddenly start smelling and feeling the damp moss it’s standing on, hear the birds in the trees, the texture of the worn cloth. That ability has been something I’ve strived to achieve in my own work.
In your Etsy shop called Dangler’s Delicacies (established 2013), your chosen subtitle is “Candy for the Soul.” I love this because as adults, we need breaks from reality, little treats that remind us that life is magical and mysterious, as this “sparkle” keeps us young and enchanted, and helps us appreciate nature and wildlife – things that are outside of our human realm. Besides painting, drawing, and meditation, how do you escape into other worlds? How do you enchant yourself?
I absolutely agree, but I’m pretty simple outwardly. I don’t have a real urge for adrenaline rushes or adventure. My favorite thing in the world, truly, is spending time with my wife, close friends and family. I just like being in their presence, I like the vibes and experiences. I feel my life is enchanted, ever since I learned to just “be” with it.
The biggest irony I found is the enchantment is right there in front of us, we’ve just learned to make ourselves miserable in our thoughts, always thinking it’s somewhere else.
What a wonderful mindset: enchantment IS indeed all around when you allow yourself to let it in. It is so great to hear that reminder. What do you listen to while you work: audio books and or music, and what are your favorites of each?
It really depends on my mood… I like a good Eckhart Tolle talk once in a while, Philosophy stuff, but also original versions of Alice in Wonderland and stories like that are a real pleasure. I most often gravitate towards electronic atmospheric head-space type music when I paint, trip-hop, industrial… but I can also go from Slayer to Enya within minutes, haha.
What are some upcoming events and exhibitions you are participating in?