For Mechanicsburg Sculptor, Concept Determines Material

Sean Matthews’ work is a marriage of materials. Currently, his dominant medium of choice is wood. However, over the years, the Messiah College assistant professor of art has dived into his “arsenal of objects” to produce mixed-media conceptual pieces. They fall into one of four categories that comprise his body of work.

One is dubbed “visual language” and was the theme of his most recent exhibition at Shippensburg University’s Kauffman Gallery. Titled Visual Language: Sculptures and Works on Paper, it included rudimentary wood forms and prints made from some of them.

“All of us, no matter what our profession or occupation, are attracted to primary shapes,” says Matthews. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be art. This universal appeal is what draws viewers to my work. And the more you look at it, the more you will discover.”

Germane to this point are several of Matthews’ prints. One particularly inventive “plate” is a shallow wood box into which various square and rectangular wood pieces may be fit. With only a handful of them, the artist can create hundreds of combinations and produce Mondrian-like print images.

“Brenton Good, one of my colleagues at Messiah, had always seen a connection between my sculptures and two-dimensional compositions of prints,” notes Matthews. “And, after a couple years of conversation, he finally convinced me to explore the parallels between sculpture and printmaking.”

Most of the wood pieces at the Shippensburg exhibit were refined and sanded.

“Because of their density and grain structure, oils and stains aren’t important to the overall form,” says Matthews. Honesty in material is a Constructivist principle to which he adheres. “I don’t typically make one material look like something it’s not. Wood looks like wood. Steel looks like steel. What I love about wood is that I have to slow down and respect the material for all its characteristics, one being that, if you mess up, you basically have to start again. Besides, sawdust isn’t a problem when I want to hug one of my daughters.”

The remaining three bodies of work in Matthews’ portfolio are entitled Altars and ObjectsThree Dresses and a Pair of Pants and Clay and a Base.

The first is rather self-defining. The second are pieces that reflect the composition of the artist’s family, while the latter combines ceramics with other materials. Samples of each demonstrate his exemplary devotion to and skill with mixed media.

Matthews has a collection of wood chisels, planes and other implements, but the studio behind his Mechanicsburg residence is equipped with a jig saw, band saw, drill press and other power tools to facilitate processes. He assembles all of his wood sculpture using dowels and standard wood glue, a construction method that ensures durability.

Regarding his approach to each piece, Matthews states, “The materials that I use do not determine the concept. The concept determines the materials that I will use. I do incorporate the minimalist aesthetic into my work, but much of my artistic process honors Constructivist principles. It is inspired by Modernism and has visual connections to Minimalism, Constructivism and Arte Povera. In general, my work is always true to the material with a very economical use of the elements and principles of design…simple forms in conjunction with strict craftsmanship.”

The 40-year-old Baltimore native earned a BFA from Appalachian State University (concentration in sculpture, metals and jewelry, fibers) and a MFA in sculpture from Towson University. He is currently in his fourth year as a member of the Messiah College faculty.