A new temporary mural in Bay View honoring the late poet, artist and political activist Carlos Cortez is a striking work of admiration from kindred Milwaukee artist Colin Matthes.
Created in conjunction with Sky High Gallery's temporary mural project, the 8-foot by 8-foot painting depicts a mustachioed Cortez flanked by two coyotes and banners celebrating his many roles, from poet and printmaker to conscientious objector and member of the Industrial Workers of the World union.
"I wanted to do an image of someone who I admire that had Milwaukee roots and someone who I felt was underrepresented or who I hadn't heard a lot about in Milwaukee," said Matthes, who also teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Matthes--whose varied and multidisciplinary works are tethered to one another with a thread of social consciousness-- admired Cortez's dedication to the struggles of the working and lower classes and a disdain for commercialism in the art world that pushed him so far as to ensure in his will that if his prints became collectible more should be made to devalue them.
"In reading about him and looking at the texts he's written and his imagery one thing that sticks out is it feels like there is a lot of compassion in everything he does," Matthes said.
Cortez was born in Milwaukee in 1923 a Mexican-Indian father and German mother. He was imprisoned for objecting to the draft in WWII as a pacifist, contributed writing and cartoons to union newspapers and came to be best known for his wood and linoleum cut prints.
"When he was in jail in northern Minnesota at night he would always hear coyotes and it became sort of a call of freedom for him," said Matthes explaining the coyotes in the mural, "One of my favorite things about having a studio in Bay View and being in Bay View sometimes is seeing and hearing coyotes especially as you get closer to the lake. So I felt like that was a really nice link."
While his work is in the collections of major museums around the world including the Museum of Modern Art in New York Cortez remains relatively uncelebrated outside of radical art circles, Matthes said.
Matthes said the mural was a refreshing change of pace after tackling two sprawling projects that included work for the public art group In: Site with a 18-by-48-foot hand painted mural, and a multi-faceted campaign for Iraq Veterans Against the War in Chicago opposing redeployment of mentally and sexually traumatized troops.
"The campaign increased my desire to make something really graphic with a specific message but it also made me want to focus on something that celebrated something a little more than 'Stop this. Or no that.' I wanted to do something celebratory about someone I admire and don't hear much about and that is how I got to Carlos Cortez," Matthes said.
Matthes addresses social and political topics in a lot of his work and is a part of the Just Seeds artists collective, a group spread throughout North America whose various campaigns, exhibitions and internet presence tackle issues like the industrial prison complex and the depletion of natural resources.
He stumbled into studying art at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he says after spending little time thinking about it growing up.
"I grew up just always doing construction work or doing electrical work. So when I started thinking that art was something that you could possibly do when I was undeclared in college I ended up doing ceramics where there is a lot of labor. It seemed to make sense with the way I was always making things," Matthes said.
He's worked across a range of media from printmaking, sculpture, drawing, painting and immersive installations that draw on his background in construction.
"It's usually pretty natural, I either create myself a certain assignment and a lot of times that's with the collective work or when you are trying to work with an organization," said Matthes about his process, "Or it becomes more open where the work I make is a combination mashing up things I am thinking about personally or experiences I've had, with trying to look out into the world and trying to participate in that."
Matthes is currently working on his next show "Fire Drill Trade Show" which he'll be showing at a gallery in Antwerp, Belgium in the spring. He's also teaming with artist Makeal Flammini, a founder of the Parachute Project pop-up gallery, to open a gallery space in Walker's Point.
A show featuring Cortez's work at the Walker's Point Center for the Arts opens April 1.