by Leah Draffen, photos by Candra George
SIPPING COFFEE FROM A CUP he potted and painted, Bernard Mattox’s eyes brighten as he recounts his first love—pottery. “My mother wasn’t very happy with me for quitting my studies in anthropology, but in ’75, I fell in love with the potter’s wheel. It started with an elective ceramics class at Loyola. Once bitten by the bug, I apprenticed at Big Creek Pottery School in California and took classes at Newcomb before I went to what was then University of Southwestern Louisiana for my bachelor in fine arts. I went back to New Orleans for my master’s in sculpture from the Newcomb-Tulane program.”
Following his master’s, Bernard shared his loved for pottery as an assistant professor at Newcomb. He says, “I taught there for five years and then another year and a half at Xavier University. Crazy enough, I went from teaching young adult college students to 5-year-olds at the St. Tammany Art Association. The Mudbugs program ran for 15 years.”
While born in New Orleans, Bernard has lived in the woods north of the lake since 1991. “I grew up in New Orleans until I was 10, lived in Covington during my ‘huckleberry years,’ then was home to New Orleans by 15 to eventually graduate from St. Martin’s. In 1991, I left New Orleans to live in the woods,” says Bernard. “I didn’t want to see any buildings, just trees and quiet. However, a deep well of memories, associations and visual and mental images, along with recollections of a French Catholic upbringing, followed me. All of these associations have evolved as a result of living some 30 years in a city so entrenched in mystery, decadence, spiritual archeology and architectural exotica.”
In his new home on the Bogue Falaya River, he continued to sculpt. “I primarily did large-scale architectural pieces starting out. I completed several hundreds of pieces by the late ’90s until I hit a ‘sculptural crash.’ I knew I needed to keep creating, but I could not make one more sculpture, so I went to Dixie Art Supplies and bought everything paint. But what’s interesting is that throughout all of my schooling, I never managed to take a painting class. I could technically be considered semi-self taught.”
Using parts of surrealism and abstraction, he calls on his subconscious to create his paintings. “I have people say ‘How do you do that? I don’t have enough imagination to do that.’ But yes, you do—you just have to reencounter dreams and experiences. It’s archaeology in a sense.” His graphic canvases are loaded with familiar forms that are often folded together in unusual combinations. Very elusive, Bernard’s paintings tend to attract and distract your eyes from one focus to another.
Writer Karl F. Volkmar may have said it best: “The artist holds the viewer’s interest to the point of fascination through the phenomenon of persistence of vision in which it is the eyes of the viewer which move not the individual stills that make motion pictures work…delighting in the new experience and experiencing a lingering feeling of loss, only to have the process recur repeatedly, one becomes drawn a palimpsest of memories.”
“My paintings are not limited in the interpretation. They are whatever one sees in them, whatever one’s own experiences bring forth,” says Bernard. What comes to focus first may change for the viewer. What seems commanding at one look slips behind other elements in another glance. It is the complexity of the presentation that allows the art to be appreciated in varying ways over time.
Bernard’s art is sometimes subtle, while other times bright and dense. His collage work often incorporates objects from the woods surrounding his home or someone’s junk pile. A favorite is his Katrina sculpture that began with a found branch after Katrina that evoked the form of a dancing woman. “The branch was cut off a tree that fell during Katrina. All I did was carve a foot, add another arm from a chair that got crushed by a tree and attach it to this platform I had.” The woman is complete with a hurricane-esque tornado headdress.
She is perched beautifully in a corner of Bernard’s studio. His studio is beneath his “tree house” that he moved into a little over three years ago. While not an actual tree house, the main living floor is leveled with the tree branches. “I closed in the bottom for my studio when I moved here to get away from the flooding at my old cottage.” However, the flooding followed Bernard with three feet of water in March while he was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a show. “I’m glad I did not put sheetrock in yet.”
The humble space is lined with his large-scale canvases, and sculptures are atop every surface. With two rooms, one is home to his potter’s wheel and the other to his painting. And where does Bernard choose to paint in his studio? On the floor, barefoot and in his “painting clothes.”
“I’m a mess when I work,” says Bernard. However, the results are far from a mess. That’s 40 years of discipline.
“I, of course, have that fear, like many artists, that one day I will have nothing left to paint or sculpt, but I believe that working everyday exercises my imagination. Whether that’s analyzing dreams or digging up memories.”
Bernard also uses his studio to teach private pottery lessons and to work with permanently brain damaged patients of Hammond’s Neuro Restorative. “It has been so great working with them. They come once a week to my studio where we paint, do pottery or go on field trips. They all lead such difficult lives, but they never complain. It’s something to learn from.” Bernard also learns at St. Joseph Abbey where he has taken theology and philosophy classes for several years. Much of Bernard’s inspiration comes from these classes.
His first love has come full circle this year with a show at Carol Robinson Gallery that will include paintings and sculptures. “I have named the show Resurfacing, which has a double meaning to me. There’s of course resurfacing the fire clay and finishing it with oil paint, but also the resurfacing of my sculptures as a whole. I do not title individual works, but bodies of work. The show is a great example of that.”
More information can be found at carolrobinsongallery.com or 895-6130. Bernard’s works can also be viewed at the Christwood Community Center’s new Cognitive Care Center in Covington and Hooks-Epstein Galleries in Houston, Texas.