Dealing with trauma

Matte Refic is not your everyday kind of multimedia artist, he stands out because of his passion working on sensitive and taboo topics and teaching art to prisoners. His job is a particularly challenging one, yet extremely rewarding, having influenced him as a person on multiple levels. We were lucky enough to get an interview with him and give a glance at the insides of his world.

What material do you choose to work with in art?

Personally I am a multi media artist, I use many types of paints, found objects, clay, video, light, and my body. As a teacher in the prison system we use whatever materials we can have access to. Mostly we can draw with graphite and colored pencils, pastels are very popular among the inmates, and in controlled environments we use acrylic paints.

“Despair” is mixed media  305cm X 245cm

How do you feel working with prisoners has affected your view as an artist?

Having the opportunity to work with inmates at so many levels of security has taught me so much not only about the ways in which we as humans create, but the ways in which we as humans live and respond to environments. My primary classes are held within the control unit setting where the inmates are mostly in 23 hours of daily isolation. Gaining understanding of what solitary confinement does to individuals has very much inspired my practice to take on new forms of deeper focus and concentration. I see the ways in which the inmates use creativity to cope with day to day life and also how creative processes are used to enhance the daily experiences. Resourcefulness exists on levels unseen by civilian populations and this level of creative problems solving has very much influenced my art making process. Using non traditional mediums like trash as art making materials is an example, or making my own paint sprayers and brushes.

What kind of themes do you try to address through your work?

In my current practice I work to address dealing with trauma. Through my work as a street artist and now as a teacher and resident artist in the prison system I have had many experiences with much of the neglect, pain, and suffering which goes on in society. Through creative practices my work focuses on taking these often time taboo or avoided topics and bringing them to light through paintings, drawings, performance, poetry and video. This is also the basis of my teachings, essentially taking dark things and turning them into light things, from negative to positive through creative processes.

What do you feel is the most difficult and what the most rewarding thing in teaching art to prisoners?

Working with incarcerated populations can be very difficult for me because I lead with my heart, the process of making art from an emotional place makes all of us very vulnerable. Learning of the experiences of being in so much isolation and also of the trauma inflicted through these experiences both in the acts of violence on the outside and also the violence on the inside can be very emotional. So often my heart just breaks and I am brought to tears learning of these truths and seeing it first hand. This is also what is most rewarding, getting to give the gift of art and love to individuals who get almost no love is truly transformative for everyone who is involved in that process. Through working with individuals the government has deemed the worst of the worst I have learned the true powers of love, I have learned unconditional forgiveness, tolerance, and an immense amount about psychology. I have truly learned more about myself than any other time or experience because I realize we are all humans and with trauma and circumstances we could all walk down these dark paths. We must all consider ourselves fortunate if we have never been cornered in such a way and learn to love and forgive one another. This is how the cycle of trauma will stop.

What are the most important characteristics an artist must display?

Art is used to express ideas and emotions. I see a lot of work which is created with the intent to generate a sense of awe or to exchange for money, I see this work both inside and outside of the prison. I think the work of an artist is to teach and to encourage thinking about topics and to encourage introspection. Having a regular art practice and finishing the work are also important aspects of being an artist.

What are you working on right now?

Currently I am working on a body of work which expresses the traumas which am learning about in prison and more importantly my own life and often how those two things mirror each other. I am very interested in the neglected and shunned parts of society: physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Much of the work I do is about going to these spaces and extorting elements and placing them in public view in an effort to bring education, healing, and social change. I also am currently making what we call in-cell programming for the inmates which are booklets that teach self expression and technical art skills.