Matthew Sweeney builds an artistic career

Story by Carlo Wolff | Photography by Michael C. Butz

Matthew Sweeney draws large pictures of hands with a soft pencil, solo portraits that constitute what he calls a “history of the skin.” He exhibits these drawings in places such as the Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center in University Circle and American Greetings in Westlake. He also creates public murals, like one of a couple blissfully floating that he did for LAND Studio on a Gordon Square Arts District building around the corner from his shared third-floor workspace at 78th Street Studios. The hands are special, however. Sweeney draws them with such detail they bid to tell the history – and topography – of the world. While hands have preoccupied him since he became a father, Sweeney recently has shifted focus to “The Artfart Book of Arts,” a children’s book he plans to publish himself. It allots his art and words to artistic fields like animation, creating storyboards, becoming a medical illustrator or comic book illustrator. The idea is to popularize a career in the arts – and reduce the anxiety that can accompany that quest.

The 31-year-old Cleveland Institute of Art graduate is certainly busy, with a growing family, a growing reputation and his children’s book near completion. Sweeney is well into “Life After the Fire.”

“Brother” by Matthew Sweeney (2016), 30 x 44 inches, graphite on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Brother” by Matthew Sweeney (2016), 30 x 44 inches, graphite on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

Building fresh

Sweeney and his wife, Christa, moved to Lakewood after their home in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood went up in flames in September 2015. The two have been an item since they were 12. Their memorabilia – along with his art, files, computers and hard drives – were destroyed. That fire changed his life, effectively forcing him to reinvent himself.

He, Christa and his brother John had bought the building, which included two storefronts with two apartments above. He and Christa were living in one of the residences when fire broke out in a vacant building next door. It was 3 in the morning, the dog was going crazy and they shushed her, Sweeney recalls. Then Christa said she smelled something; Sweeney assumed he’d left the stove on, but when he ran into the kitchen, he says, “I could see 30-foot flames coming off our neighbor’s building.”

“By the time I ran back to the bedroom and told my wife, ‘there’s a fire,’ you could barely see in the place. I opened the apartment door and black smoke filled it immediately. I grabbed the dog; I think all I had on was pajama pants and I locked the door behind me just in case.”

Firefighters couldn’t save their home. Sweeney and Christa, who was six months pregnant at the time, got family help for a while, bought their house in Lakewood, and Sweeney began to rebuild. He also began working out of the 78th Street Studios space he shares with Peter Larson, Jon Kvassay and Simon Brubaker.

 “Red Nose” by Matthew Sweeney (2017), 16 x 20 inches, oil on wood. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Red Nose” by Matthew Sweeney (2017), 16 x 20 inches, oil on wood. Image courtesy of the artist.

After the initial shock passed, Sweeney realized losing his work and materials was one thing but losing family mementoes was another. “I don’t think there’s any trace of me before 2015,” he says ruefully.

At the same time, a clean slate meant opportunity.

“I don’t think anyone looks at their old artwork and is really excited about it,” he says, “and it was kind of nice having a fresh start, in some way.”

Still, losing sketch books dating back to elementary school, where art first spoke to him, was painful, especially since art got him through primary school in Fairview Park, high school in Strongsville and a year-and-a-half of drawing and psychology courses at Cuyahoga Community College.

Breakthroughs require work

Sweeney recalls checking out a car magazine from the library in high school and trying to draw the cover, a girl standing next to a car. He had to return the magazine before he was finished, but the image stuck in his head and he knew just how he wanted the drawing to look.

 “Gold” (2018), 22 x 30 inches, oil and 14k gold leaf, as a finished product. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Gold” (2018), 22 x 30 inches, oil and 14k gold leaf, as a finished product. Image courtesy of the artist.

“I remember drawing and drawing because I knew what it looked like and thought, ‘if I could just build off my memory,’ you know? So, I just kept on, and I’d make mistakes and I’d keep erasing and keep going, and finally I had this image,” he says. “And it clicked that it was, like, (I could create) anything I could imagine as long as I was willing to erase, refine, erase and refine. It’s like a superpower. I feel like anyone can do it. It’s just that you have to have the love to push you far enough to refine and redo.”

It’s about “whether or not you have passion deep enough to keep on trying, to keep on fixing those mistakes,” he adds.

The educational process was never that easy for him, Sweeney says. Fortunately, Dominic Scibilia, who retired in 2015 as chair of the illustration department at the Cleveland Institute of Art, put him on the artistic path. His parents invited Scibilia to the Sweeney home before Sweeney entered CIA.

“He brought his portfolio and I was, like, ‘I’m sold,’” Sweeney recalls.

Did he want to go to CIA?

“Someone told me they didn’t know if I had the work ethic to do it, and right then, I was, like, ‘All right,’” he says. The challenge motivated him, and in 2012, he earned his bachelor’s degree in fine art. Art remains an indispensable part of his life.

“If I don’t create over a certain period of time, I get depressed,” Sweeney says. “I love everything from going to the store to feeling the paper and making sure it’s perfect. If I walk into an art store, there’s a chance I walk out with clay or copper plate when I have no business doing that. The motivation is just there; I love every bit of it. Obviously, there are days where you’re, like, ‘Wow, this is going to be rough.’ But as soon as I grab the pencil and make the first stroke, I just get lost.”

His two-dimensional art is “narrative realism,” he says. It might mean telling a story or communicating an emotion “based off that story or that moment in my life.” And whether his work is graphite or the gold leaf of his more abstract hand portraits, working the image to the core, the drilling down, is key.

Zero in on the nails or the knuckles of a Sweeney hand drawing and the lines draw you in. They evoke mini-canyons so fine and deep you wish you could see them from the side; their two dimensions strain to be three.

The mural Sweeney painted for LAND studio can be found on the west-facing wall of Banter, a restaurant that specializes in gourmet house-made sausages and Quebec-style poutine at 7320 Detroit Ave., Cleveland.

The mural Sweeney painted for LAND studio can be found on the west-facing wall of Banter, a restaurant that specializes in gourmet house-made sausages and Quebec-style poutine at 7320 Detroit Ave., Cleveland.

 On hands

“I have always been interested in hands,” says Sweeney, who reserves color for his remarkably romantic and suggestive portrait work. “I can remember looking at paintings when I was younger and looking at hands and realizing how expressive they could be. Whether it’s just through color or pose, they can tell a story on their own. When we were at the old building, I started drawing this large hand, and I remember sleeping at night and thinking, ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to draw.’ And I started off with my own hand and holding objects and doing different poses. Standing back from it, I thought it made an impact, so I wanted to keep pushing it.”

He soon realized he didn’t need to hold anything or otherwise “be expressive,” he says. The hand can lay flat. Sweeney’s hands are still and palms-down.

Hands are particularly expressive because “they’re our own tools that you can’t hide. It’s like what they say about staring into someone’s eyes, you can’t hide that story. It’s the same thing with hands; I’ve done a carpenter’s hand, and immediately you can see the structure of their hand is different from someone who types.”

When he was growing up, he would visit his family’s construction-rental company toward the end of the day, when workers would come in and he could see “who was actually doing the concrete and who was in charge of the operation.”

He began with himself and his sons, then tried to find people with a story. There’s the hand of his brother, the one with tattoos on his fingers; so many stories.

The impetus for his exhibit at the Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery, which ended July 11, was a minor operation for his son, Levi, in December 2016 in which the child had to be put under anesthesia. (The Sweeneys now have two children: Levi, 2, and Roman, an infant.) Even though the risk was minuscule, Sweeney says, the procedure conjured the notion that life often is in a surgeon’s hands.

Sweeney works on a new piece, “Gold,” in his studio.

Sweeney works on a new piece, “Gold,” in his studio.

Where carpenters’ hands clearly show what they do, what a surgeon’s hands do might be harder to tell.

“It probably wouldn’t be obvious at all,” Sweeney says. “I think, as a viewer of the art, you might look at it and it may not be obvious; it doesn’t have rings on it, no tattoos. And then once you read about them, that they’re surgeon’s hands, I think that impact would be big.”

“We host approximately six exhibitions per year, many of which have a medical theme or inspiration,” says Thomas Huck, art curator for University Hospitals. “This is what attracted me to Matt’s work, along with his personal story and connection to the physicians at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.

“The other component that prompted me to invite Matt to exhibit was his beautiful style of hyper-realism, which is seldom seen in today’s contemporary art movement. His hand drawings capture each subject’s story without the likeness of a traditional portrait, leaving the viewer to interpret the mystery and intrigue of his subjects.”

One of Sweeney’s most enigmatic drawings is called “Trust.” This hand is so solid, the knuckles look like brains. At the same time, white spaces in the hand and wrist make the image liberating and ethereal. The image also suggests that, as the couple cradled by fire in Sweeney’s mural well know, hands are for holding. cv

On View

Portions of Matthew Sweeney’s series of hand portraits, “MASS,” will be on view during Third Friday, 5 to 9 p.m. Aug. 17, at this 78th Street Studios space, 1305 W. 80th St., Suite 301, Cleveland.

Lead Image: Matthew Sweeney inside his third-floor studio at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.