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Courtesy of Matthew Dehaemers
This sculpture, entitled Monster, was a part of artist Matthew Dehaemers’s 2014 exhibition Re-Tread, which was held at Studio Inc. in Kansas City’s Crossroads neighborhood.
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Courtesy of Matthew Dehaemers
This cabin made of loaves of bread was a part of Matthew’stemporary installation, Manna, at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
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Courtesy of Matthew Dehaemers
By T.S. Leonard
Matthew Dehaemers would like you to join him in exploring a century of family history by sitting in a giant wooden tire swing. Navigating a Way, an interactive multimedia experience, delighted patrons at Matthew’s Kansas City solo show Re-Tread last year. And it’s just the most recent entry in a body of work that turns heads with its playfulness, honesty, and kinetic energy. “For me,” Matthew says, “it’s about finding something for people to relate to—to have a relationship with.”
Long before Matthew was mounting large-scale installations in galleries, he was developing his uniquely selfless approach to visual art. “I was a shy little kid,” he says. “Art was my way of communication, and I saw it as an opportunity to help people.”
This impetus has carried him through his professional career. Between a stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer teaching art at an Arizona Navajo reservation and a series of installations in partnership with the Delaware Valley Chapter Alzheimer’s Association, Matthew has found inventive ways to blur the lines between artist and community member.
Matthew delights in the opportunity to mingle those descriptors in his public works. From a streetcar constructed of PVC tubing suspended over a street in downtown Kansas City to the steel Catalyst sculpture whose movements correspond to the arrivals and departures of Kansas City buses, his public work engages passersby with its often electric energy.
“My biggest hope, when I make pieces in a public realm, is to make something people will want to have around,” Matthew says. “I’ve always liked the challenge of getting your contractor or your engineer who’s not used to making an art piece and having to lead people like that forward into being a piece of the puzzle.”
Even when Matthew was still cutting his teeth as an artist, he was always resourceful in his explorations of this collective process. In 2003, as the artist-in-residence at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, he took interest in the historic monastery’s still-operating flour mill.
“I had the brothers bake me five hundred loaves of bread, and I reconstructed a log cabin that used to sit on the grounds,” he says. “I think they enjoyed this mirror being held up and reflecting what they’d done for the last 150 years.”
After his artist-in residence stint, Matthew took on various day jobs throughout the 2000s, finding his own time to explore artistic endeavors. It was not until 2005—when he was asked to paint a mural at his alma mater, Rockhurst High School in Kansas City—that he thought he might take a crack at being a full-time artist.
At home in Kansas City, Matthew has continued this practice of inviting the community to engage with their history through artwork. His 2005 installation Look Good, Feel Good was a meditation on the differences and commonalities of barbershop culture in black and white neighborhoods, presented in a building that had housed a two-generation, one-man barbershop.
“I’ve always been interested in helping people bring to light something culturally challenging, like racism or Alzheimer’s, and bringing about conversation in a creative way,” he says.
Matthew’s broad, socially-conscious vision has proven to spark conversation and, at least once, truly change lives. On May 22, 2011, Matthew and his wife were taking a weekend away—their first since having children—at Table Rock Lake when the storm hit. While the couple took shelter, a tornado tore west through Joplin and took 159 lives in its path.
“Part of me wanted to go do something right away,” Matthew says, “so I tried to help the way I knew how.”
Back at home, Matthew mobilized a group of his peers to visit Joplin. They were connected with six homeowners who had lost their houses in the storm and helped pick through the debris for salvageable materials. They brought the materials back and, along with ninety-eight Kansas City artists, refashioned the rubble into new, original art pieces. The collection was presented in August 2011 at the Leedy-Voulkous Art Center and auctioned off to ultimately raise more than $20,000 that served as relief money for Joplin artists affected by the tornado.
“Some of the families came to the show, and it was amazing for them to see their memories having a new life,” Matthew says. “It put smiles on the faces of some people.”
Matthew is happily returning to Joplin next summer to mount a public piece in commemoration of the five-year anniversary of the tornado. In the meantime, he’s keeping busy at home—not just with fatherhood but also with upcoming projects. He’s preparing for a show this year that will feature sculptural forms made from reclaimed urban wood, and he’s brainstorming ways in which joint workshops can be offered to teach the community how to repurpose the valuable materials.
With so many temporary installations, impermanence and renewal seem to be often on the artist’s mind.
“I’ve created temporary work that’s taken an absurd amount of time to put together, just to see it destroyed in a matter of minutes,” Matthew says. “I just resign myself to the idea that nothing lasts forever, but a memory can be passed from generation to generation.”
Matthew shouldn’t be too concerned. His outsized vision and matching generosity seem to leave a lasting impact on viewers.
“My biggest fulfilment is people who have really responded to something that doesn’t even exist anymore,” he says.