Love and Art
With help from the Internet, Matt Shlian and Thea Eck have built a life in a precarious profession.
by Steve Gilzow
From the February, 2020 issue
As a youngster, Matt Shlian says, he was "an anomaly in my family." Like most people in their prosperous Connecticut suburb, his parents held white-collar jobs: his father was an accountant, his mom a special-needs teacher. But Matt "grew up taking things apart, playing the drums, and drawing all the time."
At Alfred University, a small school in western New York, he studied art. And there, his love of rhythm introduced him to fellow artist Thea Eck.
She'd grown up in Pittsburgh, inheriting a love of culture and art from her parents, floriculturists who frequented the ballet and symphony during the school year, then led tours of historic European gardens in the summer.
Matt, thirty-nine, and Thea, forty, alternate in telling the story.
"My best friend was friends with Matt, but I didn't know him," Thea says. "Matt played the drums. My best friend--she was also my roommate--wanted to learn how to play. Junior year, we set it up that Matt could store his drums at our house if he gave her lessons.
"One day, she was supposed to have a drum lesson but wasn't there. Matt came to the house. I was hanging out, and I let him in. I told him, 'She should be here soon ... maybe.' But she was notorious for not showing up for drum lessons."
"She ghosted me," laughs Matt. "At a certain point I stopped teaching her lessons to teach her, I was just hanging out with you. That's how I remember it. Then we shared studio space our senior year."
"Yeah," Thea agrees, "we had studio spaces right next to each other all year long, so we ..." her voice trails, laughingly searching for the right words, "... fell in love with each other."
"I wore her down," Matt finishes, "I wore her down over time."
"There were a lot of breakups and back-togethers, depending on where we were," Thea adds. "We did long-distance for all of our twenties. There were only
a couple months in those years when we lived together." But their paths converged again in 2005 at grad school in Michigan, and in 2012 they invited family and friends to what was ostensibly an afternoon of canoeing followed by a lunch at Gallup Park.
"So in the middle of the party we're just like, 'Oh, I think we're going to have a wedding!'" Thea says. "People are, like, 'we're what?'" The only person they'd let in on the plan was her best friend from Pittsburgh, who had gone online to be "ordained" so he could officiate.
"My mom was furious," says Matt, drawing out the word. "People still talk about it, because it was like a non-wedding."
In an interview at Matt's studio, the couple take turns holding eight-month-old daughter Loden. A few blocks away, six-year old Fjora (the "j" sounds like a "y") is spending her morning at Ann Arbor Open School.
They're not only parents but Ann Arbor homeowners. It's a modest house on the northwest side, and Thea has her studio in half of the garage. Still, it's a stellar achievement for a family supported entirely by art.
Their path to artistic independence was only a little less winding than their path toward marriage.
Three days after graduating from Alfred University, Matt began designing pop-up books for Structural Graphics in Connecticut. Thea worked at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh before heading to Ghana for six months on a research grant.
Matt came to Cranbrook Academy of Art for an MFA program in 2004. The following year, Thea left Boston, where she'd been an artist assistant to the sculptor Ellen Driscoll, and began her MFA at the U-M.
It would seem this move was based on Matt being at Cranbrook, but he recalls, "I think we were broken up at the time."
"Yeah, might have been," agrees Thea. "I think coming here might have been an unconscious thing, at least with the relationship. My first semester here, we got back together."
Matt completed his MFA in 2006, Thea finished hers in 2008. His love of rhythm--and form, pattern, and structure--was finding expression in paper, not drums.
"Paper engineering" is the name given to the art he makes, but the term doesn't convey the sense of movement and life pulsing in his work. His Cranbrook thesis piece, "Misfold," was an elaborate paper sculpture that straddled the worlds of art, engineering, and science.
Before leaving Cranbrook, he sent a DVD packet of his work to fifty U-M scientists. Most didn't know what to make of it, but one of them passed the DVD to a colleague, saying, "You're doing stuff that's kind of weird--check this out. Should we have this guy over to give a seminar?"
Max Shtein's academic affiliations included chemistry, materials science, and macromolecular science. "I wasn't sure what macromolecular was," Matt admits.
"The stuff we were trying to do at that time involved fibers and textiles," Shtein recalls, "doing engineering in three dimensions in a way that was kind of unusual and somewhat tricky for us to visualize. Matt had this interesting facility in figuring out how to go to three dimensions, to translate between two dimensions and three dimensions."
A lengthy collaboration developed, including a concept for a more efficient solar cell (it was patented but never commercialized), a $2 million NSF teaching and research grant, and a course in the art school that combined art and engineering. But Shtein says while Matt had fun co-teaching, he wasn't interested in a university career. He recalls Matt's attitude as, "'Look, I want to make art. This is distracting me from making art, and I don't have time for the B.S.'"
Matt's studio is on the second floor of an old gray warehouse at 416 W. Huron, across from the YMCA. Built in 1927 by the Artificial Ice Co., it's now home, in his words, to "a bunch of weirdos who need space somewhat downtown but don't really want to have [a] storefront." His neighbors include Random Games & Toys, Common Cycle, and Tasty Bakery.
His own studio was once the Wild Swan Theater's rehearsal studio. "I rent this space and sublet it out. We have a painter over here, Kara does jewelry, Jean does textile design, then I have two architects in the back. It's a real hodgepodge."
The artworks he makes are often labor-intensive, requiring dozens of pieces to be cut by a flatbed plotter scanner then folded and glued. To help, Matt recently took on an assistant, nineteen-year-old Colin Hunter from Bozeman, Montana.
His go-to framer is Ray Anderson, whom he calls "a framer from heaven." A generally self-effacing craftsman who has purposely kept his business "below the radar," Anderson admits to taking special satisfaction in finding ways to protect Matt's large, fragile pieces while still affording viewers optimal sightlines not only from the front but often from the sides as well.
"I don't know any other framer who would be willing and able to do the technical aspect of what I'm trying to do with Matt," Anderson says. And he's pleased that in the process they have become friends.
The pieces defy easy description, but many evoke Islamic tile work. Some may remind you of windblown wheat stalks, others the scales of a curling pangolin. Mott Children's Hospital has an arch-shaped kinetic piece, activated by a motion sensor, endlessly emerging and resolving into itself as you approach. There's a video of it online at mattshlian.com, and another of a spectacular piece he made with children in a 2013 Sesame Street segment.
Thea has her own site, theaeck.com, to display her installations and gallery works. Her interest in themes around polar exploration, such as the Shackleton Antarctic expedition of 1914-17, manifests itself in objects--a sledge laden with stones--and photos--a lonely, white-clad figure beneath a string of black weather balloons.
"I was seeking to visualize loss and longing," she says, and polar narratives "seemed to fit perfectly into that." The name of the couple's sales website, eightemperors.com, is a tribute to the emperor penguins that, Shackleton wrote, wailed as the Antarctic ice crushed his ship.
Thea's main site hasn't been updated lately, and Eight Emperors currently features only Matt's work. Her own online store, hostadesigns.com, was closed for maternity leave with Loden through January. But she has continued to take commissions, currently working in wood shaped with a CNC (computer numerical control) router--she worked for several years for its manufacturer, ShopBot. Among her projects is a large installation for NSF International on Dixboro Rd. (unfortunately off-limits to the public) and a smaller one done jointly with Matt for the Nightcap lounge on Main St.
Returning to gallery work will have to wait till Loden is more self-sufficient. "I can handle the design work and making functional things" while caring for an infant, she explains, "but the conceptual work takes a lot more nuance that I don't have right now in my sleep-deprived state."
The Internet is what allows Matt and Thea to make livings in Ann Arbor as artists. Matt's Instagram account is approaching 70,000 followers, and he says more than thirty art consultants nationwide "are constantly pushing and showing my work." Clients range from individuals spending a few hundred dollars for the first art purchase of their lives to wealthy collectors spending "thousands and thousands" at Art Miami. Apple, Procter & Gamble, Facebook, Levi's, and many other businesses have sought Matt's work.
The couple enjoys living in Ann Arbor. They walk to work, to Fjora's school, and to many events. There's a park across the street from their home. They value having access to good hospitals and they love the Ann Arbor District Library--"It's awesome," Thea says.
"We have the world's best library," Matt affirms.
They've seen what friends with children go through in New York City and want no part of it. And they love the opportunities for collaboration--a word that pops up repeatedly in their conversation.
Thea is on the exhibitions committee for the Ann Arbor Art Center and is president of A2Geeks, the group behind what was once called the A2 Mini Maker Faire and is now called AACME (Ann Arbor Creativity & Making Expo). Billed as an "annual do-it-yourself carnival," the event offers participants the opportunity to "bring your home made robot, learn to solder, walk on oobleck, build and race a stock car, see a supersonic ping-pong ball."
But even though they are making a living as artists in Ann Arbor, they note the limitations of the local art scene. As Thea puts it, "There's the voice that says, 'Yes, we love Art Fair in the summer, but we're not going to support the arts year-round. But we're still going to call ourselves an art city.'" They see a certain lack of openness and opportunity for younger artists and professional artists. "There's conflicting views on what art is and can be in Ann Arbor. There's the Art Center, at which I sit on the gallery exhibitions committee. And the university has their own contemporary visual art programming. But there needs to be more on the town side of things, more contemporary spaces to show. It seems like ..."
"... like there's room for a third space," Matt says, finishing her thought.
Matt is motivated to get interesting art into public spaces. "I have Crohn's disease. I'm in hospitals a lot, and I'm always struck by how bad the art is in doctors' rooms and offices. It's just depressing. So there is an opportunity to maybe take you out of whatever situation you're in. The work I've done in hospitals by far has been some of the most rewarding. When that piece went up at Mott, the piece that is moving in the lobby, it helped people, it affected people, it made a difference, and people would tell me it made a difference."
It took awhile to realize that, though. When he went back to document the piece a few months after it was installed, "The glass was a mess. At first I was like, 'What's going on? This glass is filthy.' And then I realized, 'Oh, I get it. Those are noseprints. Kids' noseprints. OK, it's a successful piece.' That's how you know it's being interacted with and people are enjoying it.
"We went to fix the piece--the Tyvek [material] worked, but the right-angle drive, some part of the motor, had to be replaced." Bob Stack of Right Brain Fabrication--"he's my roboticist"--was working underneath, and Matt "was holding something up.
"This guy came over to us and said, 'Oh, are you replacing this? Are you putting something else there?' I said, 'No, we're just fixing it. This drive isn't working.'
"He said, 'This is my daughter's favorite piece. When we walk around the hospital, this is the one she wants to stop at.' She'd been there for weeks getting some kind of treatment.
"So, when I told him I was the artist who made the piece, he hugged me. He said, 'Thank you.' I was really moved by that."
Later this year, Matt has a book coming out, giving an overview of the past ten years of his work. The foreword will be written by the nationally known author and New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Weschler. The title?
[Originally published in February, 2020.]
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