Born in Memphis, TN in 1991, Lawrence Matthews III came from a family who encouraged him to be an artist from a young age. Being raised in a racially tense environment his experiences and interests manifested themselves in his visual art. Matthews graduated from Germantown High School in 2009. After experimenting with different styles and influences, Matthews came into his own creating art combining Post Modernist, Pop Art, and contemporary influences to tell the story of the African Descendant living in America. His work ranges from oil paintings, to collage, photography, and ready-made sculpture, to music and film. A recent recipient of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Memphis, he has shown work in multiple group exhibitions around the mid-south. He was awarded “Best of Show” in the University’s 31st Annual Juried Student Exhibition in 2014. He also was awarded the Deans Creative Achievement Award and Department of Art Creative Achievement Award in 2015. Matthews has also had many solo exhibitions spanning painting, photography, and installation.
AB: I feel like being in school with you I always saw your visual work so I feel less familiar with your music.
LM: I just finished an album last year, and I just got it mastered this summer, out in California.
AB: I saw that. Did you have someone produce it for you as well?
LM: I did all the production, it took a long time to get it right. I spent a lot of time with people who know a lot more than me and we eventually got it right. Then we were able to go out to LA and get it mastered by the same guy who did Kendrick Lamar’s albums, ScHoolboy Q, and a bunch of West Coast hip hop artists. The Kendrick Lamar thing is the crazy part because they just got those 11 Grammy nominations. That was really exciting. We had been working a long time to get the record to the right people but it is done, 9 songs. So I’ve just been fostering relationships with different people in the industry, just trying to see what I want to do. I do want to sign an Indie deal and allow that to let me go further. That’s mostly what I have been working on; music, music videos and I’ve been trying to do a little acting.
AB: Really? In what?
LM: Well, I can’t talk about that. [laughts]
ED: That’s awesome!
AB: Can you at least tell us if it’s a play or a movie?
LM: It’s a short film. It’s weird because I’m everywhere. I’m doing visual art, I’m in my music, and now I’m acting.
AB: Does it come pretty naturally to you?
LM: I used to be scared of it, I started off doing some improvisational stuff with some friends, just goofing off and it was easy. Then, once I got the screenplay for the short film, I felt like the guy I am playing was me.
ED: So once you can relate to it, it becomes easier.
LM: Yeah, if it’s a character that is similar to me, I can put myself in their shoes.
ED: So did you kind of get into that from doing your music videos, since you are in your videos?
LM: Yea, I have a video coming out called Harbor Hall, Justin Thompson from Crosstown Arts shot it and I’m in it. My face is not really in it cause I used to have terrible stage fright.
AB: I can’t imagine you being shy when talking to people.
LM: I had to work on that. I am good with one on one or one on two situations but when it is a group, I kind of shut off. Through the art I got over my stage fright. Especially through the BFA program, you have to talk to groups of people over and over again. That whole process helped me. The process of having to present my work and talk about it helped me to embrace it and made me more comfortable during my shows. I think preforming is similar to acting, except acting is easier because I get more tries.
ED: In acting it is presented to you as do this, where with art you are playing a part that is all on you.
LM: You have to be on your toes during a performance because something might go wrong. If you are already nervous and something goes wrong you will crumble, so I got over that and when I did, certain things became normal. With acting the main thing I had to get used to seeing my face.
AB: That would be weird.
LM: They might film me in an angle I don’t like and I have to just deal with it and be like ok this isn’t about me its about the character and the film. I don’t know I’ve done a lot of weird things I never thought would be possible, so I figure it might be possible. Like all of this art I never thought I could make, I used to suck really bad. I didn’t learn how to paint until 2013.
AB: Were you not an art major at the beginning?
LM: I was but to be honest I was just kind of getting by. All I could do was draw and when I got to school and saw people who could really draw I was like oh no, this ain’t for me.
ED: So what changed?
LM: I started going to exhibitions…it just took me a while to figure out how you build up anatomy in paint.
ED: So the way you feel when you are painting, do you feel the same way when you are making music? Is that a separate outlet for you?
LM: Now it’s kind of running together. I’ve been making music since I was in high school. The music was separate because I never knew that I would be a painter. I always tell people, I don’t think I’m naturally anything. I just create stuff, I don’t think I’m naturally a painter, a photographer, sculptor, or a musician. I write really well but preforming my records is difficult for me. I practice for months and months just to a have a 30 min show that’s right. The better I got at painting, the better I got at music and the better I got at music, the better I got at my overall art. For me when I make records they are pieces of art, with painting I am building layer upon layer, with music you are building layers of sound. You might start with a sample then play guitar on that, or have words over that. That’s how I started viewing it and it made both of them easier. All the art forms I try to do are easier because they are all similar.
AB: Why didn’t you study music in school?
LM: I tried and I had a nervous breakdown. I went to the music department and I told them I wanted to switch my major to music. They said so what instruments do you play. I was like I semi-play guitar. They were like no you need to play the trumpet or you know “real deal” instruments.
AB: That’s not a real deal instrument?
LM: It is but to them it wasn’t a classical instrument, It wasn’t in the form of Bach or something. So with that, I was like I’ll just learn to do it. But they said you have to try out and I was like “How the hell am I going to learn piano to that degree?” I wasn’t on that skill level yet. And they said you have to audition to get into the program and I’m just sitting there like, I’m not going to be able to go to college. I went outside and my friend was waiting on me and I just remember cussing, and I didn’t know what to do and I just stayed in the art program. But I feel like all of that was for a reason. I don’t regret any door that has been closed because the thing is I was making very experimental hip-hop, I still am, and the music I make now doesn’t have any specific genre to it, I rap, I sing, it has R&B elements, electronic elements, hip-hop elements.
AB: You don’t fit in a box.
LM: Yeah, it’s everywhere. And I wasn’t going to be able to do that in the music program.
ED: Well then it worked out.
AB: It sounds like the program is not contemporary enough; they wouldn’t have known what to do with you.
LM: Not at all.
ED: And you were able to learn that the way you approach art making is kind of the way you approach music making, instead of this very regimented way.
AB: It may have actually hurt you to study music.
LM: There’s times where I have had bands play with me and they can’t understand the way the music is formatted. I think the new stuff they can because I have purposely formatted it in an understandable, more accessible ways, but it’s still different. Whereas before the verses would be different lengths, the song would be six minutes, there was all of this stuff where I was just experimenting and being very artistic and expressive. Sometimes the vocals wouldn’t start until a minute in, the musicians I listen to that’s kind of normal stuff, I listen to Radiohead, they do stuff like that. If you listen to what’s in the books, and maybe what’s on the radio, the vocals start at seven seconds, the songs are three minutes. I was making five-minute songs on a regular basis. When I would play musicians the record so they could learn it, they would think they know it and then they would go into where the hook was supposed to be but it’s not there because I drug my verse out for another sixteen bars, so I was running into that problem where I was dealing with trained musicians who went to school and were stuck. They didn’t understand that you could do more with that. And they frowned upon certain stuff. A lot of those people are great and talented musicians, but they play that one style of music, whereas I wanted to do everything.
AB: So it helped you to be more creative, not being taught a certain way that you then had to break out of.
LM: For sure, and even with the University of Memphis Art Department, I’m thankful for them letting me do certain stuff, because I was doing paintings and sculpture in my sculpture classes because they knew what I did and even in my painting classes I was really just focused on my bodies of work. I’m sure you can attest to this, when you’re doing something and you’re doing well they say keep coasting on that. It wasn’t until I graduated that I started branching out, into photography and print-based work but in school I was painting, not to stay predictable, but you knew the style.
AB: You had a developed your own style. Which is what you’re supposed to be doing.
LM: Yeah. That’s what your supposed to be in school to do. I always felt I was less able to experiment in school once I got my style together.
AB: Because people expected it from you.
LM: But then I started getting opportunities, well this person wants you to show with them and you are supposed to do this and that, and I come up there with some crappy experimental paintings that I don’t know work yet, that’s a problem, so I always kind of stayed in that until after school. Like the BFA exhibition they gave me was all different - it was prints and photography.
AB: Oh yeah, that felt different from your previous work.
LM: That was very much on purpose. I was telling people for months I am not showing any paintings. Because I graduated in painting, I wanted to flip it, and I wanted to do it good. I wanted people to be like okay he can do what he wants. But with the music I always felt like I could do what I wanted, but with the art it took a little while, like even now I’m in this weird limbo phase where I haven’t painted something that wasn’t a commission in a minute. But I’ve been doing prints and breaking images down and flipping images in Photoshop doing all these different things just trying to figure out what the next thing that I do a hundred paintings of.
AB: I wanted to go back for a minute and talk more about your recent record. Can you talk about the individual songs and what influenced them? Is that something that you develop alone or do you work with other people?
LM: Yea, so the album is called Alero. Alero was the car that I had when I moved to Maryland. My freshman year I moved away with my girlfriend and drove that car all the way up there. I like cars, I don’t necessarily like speed, I just like cars, and I consume music the best while driving. I feel like you create memories when you drive and listen to records. Then when you hear that music it takes you right back to that moment, so that is something I have always played with in my music, that car aspect of listening. With the Alero project, it was based in the six months that I lived in Maryland before I got kicked out of school and had to move back to Memphis.
AB: Why did you get kicked out?
LM: I could not afford to live there anymore and the University would not give me any financial aid. I was twenty years old, I had no experience, I was very naive, and I’d never taken care of myself. I had only lived with my mom up until that point. I didn’t have a lot of money. My mom ended up losing her job in the recession, so she couldn’t help me at all. I was flunking out and I couldn’t focus. All I did was record. The record was really about that experience and what that did to me mentally, my relationship and what it did to both of us.
AB: This is the same partner you have now correct?
LM: Yes, we are still together, thankfully, after all that. When we were there we just started taking things out on one anther, breaking each other down. It wasn’t healthy. The record is really about that experience. There are two sides of the record. There is the Alero side and then there’s Contour. The Contour side is what I am working on now, which is the flip side of that. Contour was the name of my first car, when my girlfriend and I started dating, up until l got the Alero. I would have made Contour first but I wasn’t there yet, I was still dealing with the demons from that other experience. That’s the thing, I write all my music about personal experiences, I talk about family, I talk about friends, my relationships and that is delicate. I knew when I had the idea, it wasn’t there yet. I also went back to DC and shot a bunch of photographs, I used for the artwork of the project, so each song has its own photo. Initially, I picked colors and then I assigned the songs to the colors.
AB: In terms of visual art, in addition to painting, your other work has been moving towards photography. The show at University of Memphis recently was all photography. Can you talk about that series?
ED: Were those from old Ebony Magazines?
LM: Yea, the first ten that I did came from photos that I was taking. I would pin the magazine up and take it myself. Then I found an archive that had liquor and cigarette ads. Certain brands were marketed to African Americans, like Salem, Newport, and pretty much all the menthols. These are from 60’s and 70’s.
AB: The coloring in the ads is very interesting. How much did you edit these?
LM: I wanted to take all the ad aspects out of it. I wanted to show an exhibition of photos of black people just enjoying life and having fun. The thing that would be consistent would be the vice, cigarettes, liquor, etc. I cropped the images a lot.
ED: So when you took each image out of its context, it felt even more bizarre.
LM: The initial series was skin-lightening products, hair straightening products, cigarettes and liquor. These are supposed to be pro black magazines, but they needed to stay in print. The people who would pay them the most money for ad space are those companies.
ED: I think this is such an important thing to do as an artist, is to shed light on this.
LM: I think Eliot Perry taught me that. I was showing him my work and he said it was too direct. This show of vintage ads at the University of Memphis was the first exhibition where I figured it out.
AB: It would be interesting to talk to some of the people who were behind these magazines at the time to hear what they have to say about that.
LM: Yea some school just did a ban on all-natural black hairstyles, because they say it’s a distraction.
AB: In 2016.
LM: Yes! And this is the crazy thing, not to make it a whole race thing, but I am noticing a lot of white people don’t know about this. It’s crazy that it goes that deep and subtle. A lot of stuff is really subtle now. There’s criminality associated with how you dress. Certain articles of clothing get banned, but those articles of clothing are mostly attributed to the African American community. They demonize the article of clothing.
AB: Yea and it’s not about that.
LM: Yea and with hair, that’s kind of why I haven’t cut my hair. A lot of hair products marketed to African Americans today have sulfur in them and it straightens your hair over time. I mean you can buy skin-lightening cream right now at Wal-Mart. There are people who have been taught that their blackness is terrible and they buy the cream. If they’re lighter, they are closer to white and white is supposed to be better. When people get shot and people get riled up and angry, it’s not just because of that one incident, it’s that plus all the subtle things and I think the subtle stuff bothers me more than anything. The fact that people say oh black people need to take care of their neighborhoods, well black people can’t get business loans to start proper businesses.
AB: It’s deeper than that.
LM: It’s deeper and it’s subtle.
AB: There are so many layers to that.
LM: Yea, people don’t realize it. We believe that we have the same rights as everybody else, but we really don’t. When slavery was abolished it wasn’t worded the same way as initial law was. There is a reason black people go to jail way longer that white people for the same crime. I went to the Civil Rights Museum and watched this new documentary called . The wording of the law is basically saying that you are free in the United States unless you are a criminal, then you can be put back into slavery. “(The Thirteenth Amendment) Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It’s all about money; it’s not about race. They built poor white southern minds up to make them feel they are so much better. So many poor white people go so hard for the Republicans. It’s like you are in the same situation as this black person over here, yet they think they are better because they are white. It keeps them stuck. I went to this little Klan thing on Union, me and six other black people. They had a rally, dressed up in full confederacy gear, horses, guns, everything.
AB: What? This was in Memphis?
LM: Yea, this happens probably twice a year.
AB: What happened?
LM: They didn’t do anything. It let me know how warped their thinking was. They weren’t mean. They legitimately believe in the Confederacy. They had speeches about it. I was listening because I wanted to understand how they were thinking. I was just like wow these people are really lost. They offered us drinks and refreshments.
AB: Did you document this somehow?
LM: Yes, I haven’t put it out yet. It was the same day of the bridge. It was the craziest day of my life. I mean only 2% of cops who kill black people go to jail. If you’re Muslim and we feel like you are up to something we deport you, if you are Mexican and we feel like you are up to something we deport you. Black people can’t be deported. Where they can go is in the ground and to jail. That’s is what a lot of my shows have been about is this anti-black propaganda. When you are tying to get rid of somebody, you need the mass to not care about those people, so you project imagery and things to make people not care. I think a lot of my friends forget that we are only 11% of the United States population because we’re the majority Memphis. So changing things for us is not even a priority.