I am in the art world for the long game: I want to develop long and successful careers for artists I work with and have a lifetime of discovering new artists for myself. When I first started curating art galleries in Portland 10 years ago, most galleries focused on favoring local artists, and for the most part this is still a popular way to curate. This is how I learned my craft. However, in a very short period of time I realized this style of curation was limiting if you wanted to stay current, keep people interested, or challenge your audience. It’s a big planet filled with great artists. The world also provides fantastic opportunities, through an endless number of international creative venues, for artists to find work. Not only do I want the artist to be rewarded with accolades, I also want them to be rewarded financially.
I wasn’t really using the Internet back then for art searches, so I looked at actual print magazines. Yes, folks, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when you had to go to the newsstand and pick up a real live periodical. But through those magazines, I became interested in what people were doing in other cities, and not just American cities. I was interested in far-off magical places like Japan.
So I went to Tokyo. International cold calls are the hardest, it turns out. “Hey, what’s up?” “No I don’t speak Japanese, but I really like your art.” “Ok, sure. Let’s get some food and chat.” Nine hours later at six in the morning, after barrels of booze, a lot of gesturing, and a table full of delicious food, I had my first Japanese artist for a show in Portland. That trip ruined me. I was hooked; I had to get back to Japan. Hi, my name is Matt Wagner, and I am an international artist addict.
, I thought, I have my first international artist. Now what?
I didn’t have any money, I didn’t really have a reputation, but I did have a space to put on an art show.
I love the people I work with and am happy to host them in Portland. There is always one big caveat: I warn them that I am not sure who will come out to see a foreign artist, especially an unknown one. Generally, the way it has always worked in Portland is to book local artists because they will pack the gallery with their friends. True, but that's not so good for sales or for helping the artist break out of Puddletown’s orbit. The quality of the international work has coaxed Portlanders out of their comfort zones and filled the gallery on opening nights. New undiscovered artists are a great lure, pulling the curious into the boat. Nine hours, a successful art show, a table full of pizza, a lot of gesturing, too many pints of Portland craft beer, and 20 new friends later, and the international unknown artist has become an honorary “local.”
Throw off your preconceived notions about buying local, at least in the world of art. Please continue to buy Portland beer, though, because it’s the best.
I thought curation simply applied to my monthly shows. I was so wrong. Making books opened up a new world.
Import leads to export. Exporting creative Portland to Japan was more interesting to me than preaching to the choir in Portland, and ultimately it would raise the bar for local artists. I have to give Tokyo galleries credit. They answered the door when the foreign guy came knocking. They graciously welcomed my shows over the years, allowing me the opportunity to introduce American artists to Japan. Very quickly, I had a transcontinental art highway between Tokyo and Portland.
If you are an artist in it for the long haul, you need to look beyond your backyard. International exposure for local artists was my way of buying them insurance. If your local market isn’t supporting you enough, try adding a new one.
After years of importing Japanese artists to Portland and exporting local artists to Tokyo, I realized that I was not just curating art: I was curating people. I wanted to find a way to introduce more artists to a broader audience more quickly. Making books was the answer. I grew up in a house of books. My mother was an English teacher. I understood books from the view of the consumer but had no idea of the effort that goes into making books. Now I do. My respect levels are at capacity. When the power goes out, books are here. Books will outlive all of us. This thought keeps me warm at night. I thought curation simply applied to my monthly shows. I was so wrong. Making books opened up a new world.
“The tall tree catches much wind” is the Japanese proverb that the Tall Trees book series
is based on. It was originally meant as a warning not to stand out or draw attention to yourself, but these are exactly the people I seek out. Life is short, and I appreciate the ones who make the most of it. When I see another standout, I’m drawn to them.
I started asking artists from all over the globe to show with me in our fantastic mid-sized affordable luxury car known as Portland (maybe not so affordable now). Over the last 10 years, through Hellion Gallery and the “Forest for the Trees” Mural Festival that I cofounded in Portland, I have worked with artists from Japan, France, Israel, Brazil, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Peru, Italy, Spain, and more. The only hurdle was the varied languages of all the artists I was working with. So we stumbled forward in the dark, eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel, in love with the language of art. I imagine it’s like speaking in tongues in one of those bible-thumping churches. You just feel it.
The problem is that I fall in love easily. I fell madly in love with these artists and wanted to let everyone know about it. My desire to continue discovering new artists is what keeps me going, and The Tall Trees of Paris
was the answer.
I had an established formula for finding artists and making books, but I did not know if it would work in a completely unfamiliar, perhaps even hostile, environment. I only had a cursory tourist knowledge of Paris that pertained almost entirely to museums. As I approached Paris, I was outwardly confident but inwardly anxious. As I said before, I have faith in artists. It takes a brave and adventurous person to become an artist. Of course the artists of Paris would possess these qualities. Now I feel foolish for even having an inkling of worry. Again, I came calling at the doors of a gallery in another country, and again they answered. And as a result, my gallery calendar for the next couple of years now includes many French artists.
I started researching the artists of Paris in the winter of 2014. The following year would end up being a year of tragedy, both for me and for Paris. My family and I suffered a devastating loss with the passing of my mother in the spring of 2015, and Paris, as we all witnessed, suffered multiple terrorist attacks over the course of the year. Somehow these tragedies, no matter how disconnected, bound me to Paris. The Parisian attitude matched my own. You just have to keep moving forward, no matter what, no matter how fucked up everything is.
When I first arrived in Paris, I was probably not in a good place mentally to be working on a new book. As I emerged from Bréguet-Sabin station in the 11th arrondissement, layers of color and sound washed over me. So much activity on boulevard Richard-Lenoir, with people shopping at outdoor markets and groups of people sitting outside cafes smoking and drinking. My apartment was steps from the Charlie Hebdo office. The wounds were still fresh from the attacks that had occurred the January before. I sat in the apartment feeling lost for a bit. I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother. I felt as though there were two looming mountains in that tiny apartment with me. One made of grief and one made from the task of creating a new book.
My apartment overlooked a school yard. As I sat aimlessly at the kitchen table, the recess bell rang and suddenly the room was filled with the sound of screaming, laughing kids. That snapped me out of it. Once I turned on my phone and laptop, I was greeted with messages from artists. Worries faded and I was back in familiar territory, immersed in the world of artists: riding trains to studios, sitting in cafes talking with artists, picnicking with friends on Canal de l'Ourcq, attending art openings. Speaking the language of art. These things put a dent in my sadness. After days of getting to know artists, curators, and the city beyond the tourist areas, I began to forget my troubles and fall in love.
The attacks of November 13 cut deep. The people included in my book and the people who helped me along the way in Paris became a part of my family. Paris is not a war zone, and it’s a city that holds a place in my heart in the same way that Tokyo and Portland do. The January 7 and November 13 attacks are the bookends to The Tall Trees of Paris
. The book was made between the first realization of insecurity in Paris and before that realization became a way of life.
Every artist featured in any of my books has filled out a handwritten questionnaire, which is scanned and printed in the book exactly as they wrote it. The questions introduce you to the artists by asking them things about Paris: What part of the city do they live in? Where do they like to eat? Drink? Shop? What’s an average day like for them? It’s meant to get everyone comfortable with one another before you turn the page to view the artist’s portfolio.
The Paris questionnaires also capture a moment in time. The neighborhood restaurant the artist enjoyed last summer, the bar they drink in now have taken on a new context in the wake of last year’s violence. The areas of both Paris attacks are featured frequently in The Tall Trees of Paris. It’s an area where artists hang out, a neighborhood where they live. I freely admit that I am attached to these folks and care deeply about their well-being.
I never would have imagined when I first started working with artists many years ago that I would become so involved in the lives of people from outside of the United States. Growing up in Indiana, I also never imagined leaving middle-America for the West Coast. The world, my world, keeps getting smaller and smaller — or is it getting bigger? I don’t know.
At this point, I am probably only on step 648 of this long journey. I like it that way. It means there is so much more to learn. I am not sure at this point what is next. Berlin? Rio? Barcelona? Amsterdam? Who knows? The possibilities are endless. I have always operated by the seat of my pants. Whatever direction that I think will help artists is the direction that I will go. I stopped seeing the world as made up of different countries a long time ago. I see the world as new neighborhoods to explore, new neighbors to meet, and new art to discover. Art is important, but to be honest, artists are most important to me. My books are not art books; they are people books.
÷ ÷ ÷
, art director, owner, and curator of Portland’s Hellion Gallery
, is the author of The Tall Trees of Tokyo
, The Tall Trees of Portland
, and The Tall Trees of Paris
. Wagner lives and works in Portland, Oregon, and curates art exhibitions in Tokyo, San Diego, Portland, and Paris.