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Feature Mon Jul 07 2008

An Interview with Matt Maldre

Artist/designer Matt Maldre advertises his Website with the tagline, "A new idea every day" -- and he's not exaggerating. From leaving little plastic treasure chests containing messages in public places, and posting prayers on pay phones, to photography and straight-up painting and design, Maldre's pretty much a creataholic. We caught up with him to ask some questions about his many projects.

How did you become an artist?

For preschool, I went to Montessori school, where my mom taught, and the school encouraged us to explore and take the initiative to learn whatever we wanted. That's a great attitude to instill in young children. It's followed me to this day as I explore thoughts and have an insatiable curiosity.

In fourth grade, I got a "how to draw cartoons" book from those Scholastic catalogs, and got hooked on drawing cartoons; in fact, my twin brother and I even wrote our own comic books, called "The Punks." We'd Xerox them at the local drug store, then hand-color each issue and sell them for 75 cents.

When we were bored in the summer months of school, my parents always told us, "do something constructive." So we'd always be digging through our art supply closet to make some sort of project.

My dad was a photography professor at Chicago State University, and he loved helping us with our science fair projects and history projects. We'd always have the most professional-looking presentations for our projects. That was a huge influence for me becoming a designer.

In high school, I realized that I was good at translating an image into a drawing. Being a big baseball fan, the majority of my drawings were of baseball players. My high school art teacher got me go beyond the boundaries of just copying images and to experiment more. I would paint portraits, crumble them up and then Xerox them.

You liked Xerox machines, no?

Xeroxing has been a thread throughout my life. I discovered how to create conceptual art by Xeroxing. In my first design class, the professor had us working on a Xerox machine before a computer. In college, I would make copies of the "Occasional Potato," which contained interesting art and writings on art that I wanted to share with others.

What's the "spud" mean? Are you a big potato fan?

The spud stands for art that is down-to-earth. The main thrust that I really like behind the name "Spudart" is that it's something that is very grounded and approachable. You can look at it and get something out of it. Plus with my work being left out on the ground in public, it's rather fitting that I brand myself as Spudart.

You've worked for Tribune Media Services as a designer, and now as the senior web marketing strategist. What's the most exciting/fulfilling you've done at work, creativity-wise?

Working with the Brewster Rockit comic strip. We get thousands of submissions every year from comic strip artists wanting their strip to become nationally syndicated. And this one strip stood out from the rest: it's a parody on the wide universe of science fiction. Our marketing copywriter and I fell in love with the strip, and convinced the sales and editors of TMS to pick it up. When it came time to launch the strip, Dave and I knew we had to go beyond the normal sales kit of printouts of the comic strips and character sheets inside inside a folder. We created this retro-looking toy box to hold the samples along with a Brewster Rockit-branded foam rocket, character magnets, and matching info sheet. The strip ended up being the new comic strip launch in the first of half of the 2000s decade. And one of the papers that runs Brewster is the Chicago Tribune.

Do you actually produce something creative on a daily basis? Or is it "almost daily"? If daily, how do you find the time?

In terms of something tangible, I do try to produce something every day. Every weekday on my blog, I write about a different idea. Often those ideas will bleed over into an art project, like working with sticky notes. I try to post something once a day on my flickr. Lately, I've been leaving little plastic treasure chests with a note inside that says, "what is your treasure?" I try to keep a pocketful of treasure chests, so I can drop them in places on my daily commute. Another similar series I'm doing now is with tiny plastic suitcases with a note inside the reads, "Why do you work?" I leave them by office buildings downtown.

The key to producing daily is really keeping to a rhythm. People think they don't have time to make artwork, but if you carve out a little chunk of time every day and just do something, you'll find it much easier to produce. But really, it's hard to find the balance of keeping a rhythm and breaking the rhythm. I do find myself getting into slumps where I'll just think of ideas and not produce. Or I might not even think of anything, then I'm a real drag. The one constant that amazingly works to get me out of the slump is prayer.

You call your Website a "landfill." How come that word?

I just kinda casually wrote that years ago. One of my faults is that I lack focus. I tend to be all over the place with the materials I work with, with the ideas, with everything, really. So I just kinda put stuff out there, and it's like my site is the place where it gets put. Although I guess I don't like the connotation of how landfill makes it seem like it's garbage. Because I don't think of my stuff as garbage. Granted, not all ideas are super winners, but still ...

You do photography, design and illustration. How do you tend to juggle/balance the three? How do you decide if an idea works best in a particular format vs. another?

My art tends to be founded on the idea first. I'll come up with an idea and find the medium that best fits the idea. Now that being said, I find myself running into the problem where I have too many ideas that never get executed. I'm finding more of the need to just start with a particular medium and building off that. My photography start with medium first. I'll walk around the city and find interesting things to capture, which results in work that has interesting technique. But I'm finding that it needs more concept to be built into it. In the future I'm going to start incorporating illustration into my photos. It's gonna be a trip. I'm quite excited about it.

Often my projects will incorporate all three. I want to make thank you cards for CTA bus drivers, train operators, and station attendants. They do their job every day helping to get us to work. It would be nice to share thanks with them. The cards will have a nice design, maybe some design and illustration. I'd like to release a new card every month.

Do you plan on showing your art in galleries some day?

Right now, my work is shown on the sidewalks of Chicago. I like my work to appear in the everyday lives of people, and part of that may be galleries. So yeah, someday I'd like my work to be shown in galleries. But I'm also happy with the gallery of public space.

What would be your dream assignment?

Honestly, all the things I work on for myself are my dream assignments. It's the passion of discovering and learning, and then sharing that with others.

What inspired the Call to God series?

It sprang out of two things.
1) I like leaving random notes around the city for people to find.
2) Often times when I don't feel like reading on the train, a great way to pass the time is to pray.

I was sitting on the L and started to write prayers on sticky notes and leave them behind for people to find. It's always interesting to read found notes from other people. I would think it would be just as interesting to read what someone's intimate prayers to God were. At first I was sticking them around on the seat and various places. And then I saw how there are public phones on all the CTA platforms. What a perfect place to leave a sticky note with a prayer on it. It's literally like you are calling God and talking to him.

Right now I'm keeping the sticky note prayers to topical items in the news, like praying for the flooded, for the shot policeman, for individual soldiers who died in Iraq. I hope people realize when they see these notes, that they too might say a prayer as well.

About the Author:

A native of Johnstown, PA, Lauri Apple is a contender for the title, "world's most renowned bag lady," thanks to her somewhat popular (at times) website, FoundClothing. Lauri has a JD and doesn't know why, but it will take about 30 years for her to pay it off, and that worries her. Her favorite cities are Prague, Pittsburgh, Austin and Chicago. When she's not looking through people's trash, she's either painting, taking pictures, or making/thinking about making cartoons about her weird life.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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