Radio Maine Episode 29

Matt Chamberlain

Artist Matt Chamberlain has always felt an urge to paint. Although he pursued his passion at the Maine College of Art (MECA) in Portland, he initially felt uncertain about how to make a living through his art. With this in mind, he picked up a “real” job as a prep cook at Portland’s venerable farm-to-table restaurant, Fore Street.  The experience, a total immersion into foodservice, set Matt on another creative path as a chef, which eventually led to his owning  a Portland-based catering business. It wasn’t until years later, when the stress of operating a food business reached a peak, that he returned to the art studio. To his surprise, there was much for him to say on the canvas, and a group of art collectors who were more than willing to hear it. Now, Matt makes his living creating art as one of the most recent additions to the Portland Art Gallery. Hear more about Matt’s story on this episode of Radio Maine with Dr. Lisa Belisle

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching Radio Maine. And today I have with me artist, Matt Chamberlain, who happens to be a fellow Mainer. Really great to have you in the studio with me today. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Matt, you have only very recently started working with the Portland Art Gallery, but you've been an artist for a long time. 

Matt Chamberlain:

I have, yes, basically my entire life.  It's taken twists and turns, but I've always made stuff. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So tell me about some of the earliest stuff that you remember making. You grew up in South Portland. 

Matt Chamberlain:

I always drew, I did a lot of comics and stuff when I was a kid. I mean, I also was obsessive. I colored the walls of my basement with black crayon because I wanted it to look like the bat cave, because I was obsessed with Batman when I was younger.  

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And how did your parents feel about that? 

Matt Chamberlain:

They were a little taken aback by it, but they've always been very supportive, so they let me keep it, but it was one of those things I did in secrecy and then they came downstairs and it was just completely covered in black crayon.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I love to hear that they were so supportive. I mean my brothers and sisters colored on the walls and I don't think my parents felt quite as supportive of their art careers in their early years. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes. I'm pretty lucky for sure. They've always supported everything I've done, which you can't say that about everyone I'm sure. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's true. So you started with the coloring on the walls and the drawing of the comics and Batman. And  did you continue to do this work when you were in high school? 

Matt Chamberlain:

No, I mean I took art all four years. It took AP art and basically it was, you know, the typical, you do your assignments sort of thing. But, you know, it was just an obsessive thing for me. I couldn't stop. So, it was one of those things where I knew that that was my future, but I didn't know how to get there. And, so I think, after high school, I just decided I was just gonna work in restaurants because it was an actual job.  But realized quickly, it was still a creative endeavor. And so everything I've ever done is either with my hands or, you know, some sort of creative form. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So when you say you realize this is what you wanted to do, but you didn't know how to get there. You mean, you didn't know how to have somebody pay you for doing something that you really enjoy doing? 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes. It didn't seem like a viable job and back then there was no social media. There wasn't even an internet when I graduated high school, which is crazy to think about. But, it was sort of like, how does this even happen? But I took four or five years off after high school and worked in restaurants and then decided to go to MECA (Maine College of Art), just give it a shot and see what happens. So I did it, I was a painting major.  Even after graduation though, I was like, I don't see this as something I can do full time, you know, and actually have a life. So I continued to work in restaurants, but I did that for 22 years up until about five years ago and I haven't looked back. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You also took a little detour to New York and Israel a few times. 

Matt Chamberlain:

I did. Yes, I moved to New York after MECA. It was like every artist does it, you know, and I wound up not working at all in art. I did some teaching down there. I was working at a place called Kidville, which is basically a country club for kids. I had Seinfeld's kid, I had, you know, Andre Agassi's kid. I just taught young kids basic art fundamentals, and I taught cooking there too, which was interesting. Teaching three-year-olds how to marinate chicken is not something that I would recommend, but I did it.  

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did they see the value in it as three-year-old? 

Matt Chamberlain:

No, not at all. It was just something, it was just like a fun, tactile thing for them to do. I don't think there are any lessons learned there, but it was fun. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you had, you had Kidville, and then you were with somebody who was from Israel. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes. And we went a couple of times, which was great. I went for about a month at a time each time and it was a very eye opening experience. I mean that whole period of my life too. I was living in Harlem, which was very different from, you know, I grew up in Maine and spent the first 27 years of my life there. And moving to Harlem is like a completely different world for sure.  And very valuable, I mean, honestly, like just being able to get out of my comfort zone and learn about other people. It was just great. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I think I can envision why Harlem might be different, but what was your experience as far as the differences? 

Matt Chamberlain:

Just the pace of life.  You know, I was used to walking out my door here in the West End (in Portland) and, you know, it's very quiet and you walk down the street and you see people you know. But I was on 125th street and Broadway and there was a train above ground and it was just a culture shock too being surrounded by cultures that I really never got to experience here. So it was wonderful. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And what about the cooking piece? You worked for a time at Fore Street? 

Matt Chamberlain:

I did, yes, that was my first real restaurant job. I think I was 20.  I had a friend who was working there and they were looking for a prep cook and I was like, okay, let me give it a shot. And I did it for two years.  It was basically like a culinary bootcamp. Like I learned everything there.  It really formed my opinion about food and just how things are done.  It was hard and it was very hard, I mean, restaurant work is probably some of the hardest work out there and you don't get paid for it either. So there's that, but,  the amount of things I learned are invaluable, I think, and working with Sam Hayward and Esau Crosby, and a couple of other people that it was just like, you can't trade that in for anything.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, that's true. And you were working at Fore Street and with Sam, it sounds like kind of earlier on. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes, it was before Portland was Portland really. I think Fore Street was really at the cusp of the start of all of this food movement in Portland. Nothing like it existed, I don't think, especially in Maine and I think even around the country, it wasn't really a thing.  You know, you're basically eating the season, you know, everything comes in every day, you know, different purveyors. It just was a mind-blowing experience to see this is what food actually is, and this is how it should be done. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

My daughter also is in food currently. And interestingly enough, she also has an art background. And it's interesting to think about the creative aspects of cooking for some of us who just think oh, there's a recipe I'm going to do my recipe. You know, it's a kind of a utilitarian thing, but for people at higher levels, there is this bringing ingredients together, it's how you present it. It's creating a whole experience for the person that's eating the food. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes. I mean, I think I treat the way I work in both fields pretty much the same. I have my mise en place even when I paint, you know, it's sort of like, just get everything ready and then go, and then, it kind of takes you where you want it to go. That's the way I cook too. I don't really follow recipes. I just sort of do everything intuitively and I think the same way with painting. It's intuitive, it's reactionary. It's all about the process. I think the only difference between food and art is the end result. It's like, you can't eat what you're painting, but it's the same for me.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Although it's interesting to have seen with social media that a lot of people are understanding food as being art and capturing it. 

Matt Chamberlain:

For sure. Yes. I think that's pretty new, within the past 20 years or so. I don't think it was always considered that it was more of a utilitarian sort of like need or necessary thing where now I think people are actually appreciating and opening their eyes. I think it makes a bridge to other cultures. You can, I mean, I think understanding people through food is really important and one of the easier ways to understand people. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So when you've traveled to other places, have you spent time trying to understand people's palates and the food choices that they're making?

Matt Chamberlain:

For sure. Yes. I mean, I'm going to Europe at the end of the month and I'm going to Madrid and Rome and Paris, and I think I'm just going to eat my way through and I'm just so excited. It's the perfect time too. It's the end of the harvest and end of the summer. So I can't wait for what that's going to bring, but yes, I think when I was in Israel, my eyes were completely opened to like just this totally different way of cooking and like just the idea of what food is for you. And it really just informed a lot of how I went forward and how I didn't in food. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about that. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Basically, after working at Fore Street, I understood ingredients are really important. But they're still not that accessible around here in terms of, you know, especially monetarily, it's expensive to buy good food, but, over there they treat food in a different way in terms of it's all about love, really it's about family and that to me is really important.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

As you were talking, I was thinking about a trip that my family and I took to Madrid while my son was in college, over there for a little bit. And I remember that there would be these enormous, legs of pigs, because they were very much into eating pigs. I mean, that was striking because obviously if you have a pig leg just kind of sitting there while everybody's chatting and having tapas and whatever, that felt a little just different than what we do. But, more interesting was just the amount of time that people would spend around the table that people would gather and they would be there forever. And it would not be just the adults going out in the evenings. It would be the children and it was multi-generational, and we don't seem to have quite that thing here. 

Matt Chamberlain:

No, I don't think so. I mean, I owned a catering company for 10 years and, we did a lot of weddings and, and one of the things I always wanted people to do is I sort of pushed them towards family style instead of doing a buffet or plated  because I felt like it's communal, you're sitting around a table with a bunch of people you may not know, and you've got all these platters in front of you and you have to sort of engage with everyone. So, that was definitely informed by my experiences, you know, going over there and just feeling like, oh, this is more of a ceremony. This is more of a, you know, it's a celebration. And obviously weddings are, so I felt like it kind of aligned with that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What was it that caused you to make that very specific choice to move into art and away from food? 

Matt Chamberlain:

I think it just honestly burnt out.  It was 22 years of doing it.  I had owned a company for 10 and we had a shop for three years, the original Miyaki building on Spring Street.  And you know, we'd do 20, 30 weddings a year. So the weekends were gone, my life was gone. It was sort of like, okay, I'm not in any debt. I think it's time to move on. I found it to be more work after a while then than pleasure. I sort of got into food because I wanted it to be fun and it just wasn't fun anymore, but I still love to cook for people. It's just now I just cook for people I love and that's sort of how it works for me. So it was an interesting, tough time for sure. Like it was my baby and I sort of decided that I needed to move on. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well also owning your own business. I mean, that is its own set of, I guess, opportunities and challenges. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes. And I think I went into it a little green and, you know, when I first started, it was just me, for the first six years or so.  I was mostly a private chef,  and that was great because you're going into people's homes and again, it's more of a celebration and like,  once it started to become more of a day-to-day operation and I've got to remember to order this, I've got to do this, I've gotta do that. Taxes, payroll, blah, blah, blah. It just got to be too much. So I decided that wasn't for me.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did you also start to see more success with regard to your art? Did you finally come to a place where you thought, oh, maybe I can make a living out of this? 

Matt Chamberlain:

It was a weird thing. So I sort of backdoored my way into that. As I finished the shop, I started painting again and it was sort of like a therapy thing for me.  But I was like, wow, these are actually pretty good. I remember how to do this. Because I didn't really get to paint when I owned a business. I just didn't have time. So going back to that was like a revelation for me. And I was like, okay,  I think I'm gonna try to do this. I had other jobs, you know, just day jobs, but it really turned into something more. And I randomly reached out to my friend, Tyler Karu, who's a designer. And I asked her if she ever needed things for staging, just for photo shoots. 

Matt Chamberlain:

And, she said, “Yes, of course.” And every time I put one in a home for a photo shoot, it would get sold to the homeowner. So I was like, okay, this actually could work. And it kind of snowballed from there and I was like, I'm just going to do it. And that's kinda how I had to live life anyway. I’m just like, I'm going to do it. Now, if I put my mind towards something, it's like, you gotta get out of the way. So that's sort of how that happened. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I know that on social media, one of our friends, Christa Stokes, she's also a big fan of yours and she's an interior designer with a wonderful visual sense. And I think that working together with interior designers and bringing kind of something beautiful into a really practical setting, I think that's a really nice relationship to have. 

Matt Chamberlain:

It is. It's interesting. Because I didn't think about it. You know, when you're in school, you think it's more about getting into galleries and doing shows and that sense of tha’s the professional way to do it. And when you think of interior design, you know, I'm a child, I'm a product of the nineties where you think about selling out and, even though that's not a thing anymore for sure, but it's one of those things where I’m  like, oh yeah, well, why wouldn't I do this? Like, I can put my work out there and I want to be in people's homes. I think that it's the same thing with visiting as a private chef. Being there and contributing to their lives I think is a great feeling for me. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about this piece behind us, for people who are listening to the podcast. Hopefully they'll actually take the time to watch so that they can see what we're referring to, but this was actually a commission that you did for someone. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes, it's been a labor of love. She asked me to do it probably about a year ago. So it's been one of those things where I started it in the middle of the pandemic and I just couldn't figure out where I needed it to go. And, eventually, I mean, this is like seven or eight layers of stuff.  It eventually came together, but I had to let it rest for a while. It was one of those things where I just like, I gotta think about something else and then come back to it. So, I think finally I'm happy with it. And it was one of those things where it's like, okay, I'm going to let this one go.  And she was happy with it, so that's always good. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So what types of things did you use in creating this?  

Matt Chamberlain:

There's multiple layers here, but generally underneath, it's always acrylics and a lot of pencils and charcoals and stuff. Then over the top of it, I used spray paint for a lot of it, to get these blocks and then I covered it in a two-part epoxy resin to get this sort of glass feeling to it as another layer. I'm all about layers. I just need depth and history to things. Then on the top, it's just like little gestures and marks. The resin allows you to do different things with paint that you can't do when it's directly on canvas or panel,  you can kind of smear it around and it makes interesting marks. So that's why I went with that, but yes, it took a while and I'm glad it's done to be honest with you, they'll be happy to hang it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And it almost has a little bit of an urban feel to it.  

Matt Chamberlain:

It does, I suppose. Yes. I never really thought about it that way.  It's kind of a different piece for me. It's a lot more geometric than usual.  A lot of my stuff is a lot more organic feeling.  And I don't know why, you know, I sort of let myself do what I'm doing, sort of blackout when I'm painting. I just kind of lose myself,  and in the process and just let it happen. And somehow this is what came out.  It definitely wasn't meant to be urban feeling, but I'm sure life experiences informed that in some back channel in my mind. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, you were saying that this was very much a part of your pandemic experience. Not that that has anything to do with being urban necessarily. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes. The pandemic was interesting. I was alone for the first five months.  And then the building I was living in sold, so I wound up having to move. So I wound up going out to Western Mass to my friend's place. They have this really old barn, and I've painted there in the past and they were kind enough to just let me stay for basically the whole summer into the fall. And I just painted and hung out and worked in the garden. And that was actually very therapeutic for sure, because being alone wasn't fun either. The first couple of weeks were fine and I'm like, oh, I don't have to talk to anybody. This is nice.  And I worked a lot and then sort of, just like everyone, you just start feeling lonely. So it was really nice to be able to go out and be with people. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Who are some of your artistic influences? 

Matt Chamberlain:

I love Rauschenberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Basquiat, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, like the romantic idea of him. He's not necessarily visually what I like, but it's just the idea as a sort of, he just kind of did what he wanted to do, and I think that is admirable. There's no pigeonholing there. I basically just love to work in ways that I don't understand where it's going to go and that sort of flux is a little intimidating, it's a little scary, but I trust myself, I trust the process and usually it comes out okay. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, it's interesting because I'm thinking about what you said about cooking where there's simultaneously a need for preparation, but also a need for flexibility of mind. And it's in, I would say painting probably as parallels. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes, for sure. I think cooking has totally informed that and helped me along the way in terms of not getting frustrated and trusting that, okay, you can fix this or, you know, the nice thing about paint too, is you can paint over it. Food, if you put too much salt, then you might be in trouble, but you can still make adjustments in food. And that, I think, has informed a lot of the way I work.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Has it been a challenge for you to move from a place of being employed by someone else to being self-employed to now being self-employed again, but having a little bit more looseness as to what the final product is?

Matt Chamberlain:

It is and it isn’t, I mean, I'm in a really lucky position. I think not many people get to do what they love.  But it's also scary and I also have to set goals and boundaries for myself. That has been a challenge for sure, because, you know, you may not feel like doing something someday, but you have to because it's the only way out. You have to do it. So, yes, it's been interesting to sort of figure out a new way of motivation and a new way of working.  You know, this past week, I've been up until four in the morning, a lot of nights, and it's been interesting. My day is sort of being in a fog, but when I get going, I can't stop. So I sort of just let it happen. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So for you, it's just really a question of kind of putting yourself in the right place saying, this is where I am, this is where I'm going to start. This is kind of where I want to end up in a bigger sense. But then once you're doing it, you're just engaged. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes. I mean, that's just the thing, it's literally just about starting,  you can sit around and think about things all day, but if you don't just start, it's never going to happen. So, you know, being in charge of that and sort of making a discipline for yourself, it's important. It's very unique and it's different than food in that aspect where it's like, you know, food, you have deadlines more than you necessarily do in making art.  People tend to give you a little more leeway when you're saying things like, I'll get it to you when it's done, but with food, you know, you have to get it done when the time has come.  

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How do you reconcile the idea of being an artist and doing what feels right to you versus what someone else might want from you? 

Matt Chamberlain:

Generally most people give me the leeway to do what I want, which is nice.  You know, if it's a commission for a specific space, then I'll go visit the space and sort of get a sense of what would feel right. And some people will say like, Tyler will ask, you know, I need something with some blues or something, but other than that, it's hard. I get free reign, which is really nice, but it's also scary too, because I'm like, I don't know if they're gonna like this. Generally, hopefully people do, but it's a gamble, I suppose.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And as you're moving toward this representation with the Portland Art Gallery, now you just get to kind of create what you're going to create. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes. It's exciting and frightening at the same time. I think I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself, which is good. I think if I didn't, I shouldn't be doing this. I was listening to your podcast with Dietlind (Vander Schaaf) and talking about imposter syndrome and that sort of thing. And it's like, that certainly creeps in, here and there. But, I am generally pretty confident, but if I was always confident, I don't think I should be doing it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Why an art gallery and why now?

Matt Chamberlain:

It's interesting because it wasn't something that I really thought about. I was doing fine without representation, but that whole side of media and there's a lot of work other than just painting, to get your stuff out there. And I felt it was the right time to like, just concentrate on the work and have someone else do the other stuff for me. When I had the catering company, I had a business partner who did a lot of the payroll and paperwork and stuff like that because, like we were talking about earlier, math is not my strong suit.  So to have someone with more knowledge than me as well, able to represent me and then put me out in the world, I was like that I can't really go wrong with that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. I think you're referring to our conversation before we got on the air about numbers and adding up. And I think I also feel this way, you know, there's some things I know that I do very well, other things that I know that I don't do very well. And so it's always good to have people to partner with that can kind of help you with those things that they know better than you. 

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes, for sure. No one can do everything and I've learned that many times, because I'm definitely someone that wants to be able to do everything and will helicopter parent, especially employees or whatever, there were times where I just had to let go. And that's one of the hardest things in the world to do. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's interesting because it seems like you have pretty high expectations for yourself and high expectations for what you produce and that might kind of bump up against this idea of having a little bit more of a freewheeling, flexible mind. I mean, there's a lot going on there. 

Matt Chamberlain:

There is. Yes, we'll see. I think it's going to be great. It's just one of those things I think will take some adjustment time and, maybe some stumbling, but I think in the long run, I think it's going to be great. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did you ever come back to teaching? Did you ever come back to sharing your knowledge? 

Matt Chamberlain:

That job was honestly like, it was just out of necessity and it just happened that I knew someone that was already working there and it was like, okay, I'll do this. And it was in two fields that I loved, sort of, but it was more of a necessity and the idea of teaching is interesting, but I don't know. I don't know if I could, to be honest with you. I don't know if I could teach adults. I think I judge myself too harshly and it would be very difficult to do. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, when I've talked to various artists, it is interesting because some artists do love to teach. It's a pretty significant part of the work that they do. Others don't do any teaching at all. And it sounds like you've dabbled in it and it just wasn't a strong pull for you, at least not at that time or right now.

Matt Chamberlain:

Yes, it could be down the road.  But yes, it's not something I'm looking at right now. I think I need to concentrate on myself at this point and just get to where I need to be, which is selfish, but we’re artists, sometimes we are that way. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, it sounds like you've spent a lot of time doing things with and for other people. So maybe it's not so much selfish as just kind of completing a piece of your existence that you haven't had the time to do that with before. Well, I'm very pleased to have had the opportunity to talk with you and also very pleased that you're coming in as an art gallery artist, knowing that it's a wonderful community and my having the opportunity to talk with people in this form but also at art gallery openings is really a pleasure, but one-on-one getting to know people is a lot of fun. 

Matt Chamberlain:

This was very nice. Thank you so much for having me. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with Portland Art Gallery artist, Matt Chamberlain, a Maine native. I encourage you to learn more about Matt on the Portland Art Gallery website and also through social media and coming up in the art gallery with some of his pieces being on display. Thank you so much for being on Radio Maine today, Matt.

Matt Chamberlain:

Thank you so much. Take care.