"Beloved Cacti," on display at Philadelphia International Airport. (all photos courtesy of the artist)
Artist Matty Geez is surrounded by cacti.
He has a few in the apartment he shares in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood with husband Erwin and cats Panda and Uma. About 15 live in his North Philly art studio.
And then there are the dozens of flamboyantly colored, towering cacti he creates in that studio -- super-charged soft sculptures that are now on display at Philadelphia International Airport through the end of the month.
Display from "Beloved Cacti," at Philadelphia International Airport.
Made of painted foam over skeletons of chicken wire or cardboard, Geez's fantastical succulents show "the interplays between soft and sharp, approachable and guarded, and masculine and feminine. These blend together and challenge the binary of stereotypical gender identities," according to a bio by Philadelphia Magic Gardens Gallery.
They're also wildly inventive homages to his love of 1980s and '90s science fiction set design.
Geez currently has three large cactus clusters installed at the Airport (Terminal A-West, in case you're traveling through), along with 18 smaller suspended cacti in two cases with handmade fringe backdrop. "Most of the work was created specifically for this project," Geez says, "although one large cactus cluster was originally created to be used for my installation in the Lancaster Amtrak station in 2018 in partnership with Lancaster Public Art."
How did someone with a BFA in Illustration (PCA&D, '14), and training through Mural Arts Philadelphia, end up garnering an international audience of travelers for his sculpture through the airport's public arts exhibitions program?
Tell us a little about your time at PCA&D. Were there events, or classes, or even assignments that really struck you and changed the trajectory of your art?
MG: I started at PCA&D in 2008 and ended up declaring as an Illustration major during my sophomore year (2009-2010.) I un-enrolled in the spring of 2011 to figure out my overall direction. I graduated in 2014 after taking some time off, and kept my major but focused more on fine arts-driven courses with the help of former Dean of Students Pam Richardson. She was an absolute sweetheart and really wanted to see me succeed, so she helped me take courses that were more my speed after rediscovering the direction I wanted to continue in to finish the undergrad program at PCA&D.
Did you always know you wanted to go to art school? What was the catalyst that really made art your focus?
MG: I've always wanted to go to art school. I grew up in a home where my father was a tradesman and my mother a teacher. The rule was that I had to pick up a trade or go to college, and art has always been my passion. Sure, the media has changed over time, but I've always been a creative person and couldn't see myself taking any other path.
What are these cactus sculptures made of?
MG: I call them soft sculptures. They all have chicken wire or cardboard skeletons that are wrapped with cut and carved upholstery project foam. I use hot glue, spray paint, pom-poms, and craft foam for details and finishing touches.
Your BFA is in Illustration, yet you've created these fantastical cacti that are 3D and even beyond mixed media -- how did this transition evolve? How does illustration inform projects like this one?
MG: That's a good question - I never let myself feel limited or discouraged to try new things. In my illustration program, I pushed to incorporate screen printing into my senior thesis (aside from electives, this was only available to fine art students at the time) and I've kept on pushing my boundaries and comfort level since graduating in 2014.
Illustration taught me to be exact with my mark making and to focus on the craftsmanship of my drawing and line work. This translates into the perfectionist mentality that I hold when constructing my three-dimensional work.
You exhibited in the public art space of Lancaster's Amtrak station a while back, and those pieces sort of look like early-generation of what's on display in Philly. Are they part of the same body of work?
MG: One of the three large clusters was repurposed from Lancaster's Amtrak station to the PHL Airport Installation. I'm always finding new ways to push the colors and construction of my sculptures while working in my studio, as well as ways to simplify and evolve my aesthetic. I would consider these pieces a continuation of my current body of work.
What draws you to the exuberant colors and organic forms that are so prevalent in all of your work?
MG: As an illustrator, I loved using black lines to make things feel complete. After years of that practice, I decided to stay away from the use of black in my work as much as possible. Aside from that, as a queer maker, I think it is important to be loud and provocative in the work you create. Bright patterning and busy aesthetics are calming and refreshing to me and I try to play with the idea of "oversaturated" to see how far I can push a color palette or pattern. I feel like it also helps to make my work feel more inviting and approachable.
Do you have any words of wisdom for PCA&D students who are drawn to the world of public art?
MG: Go to as many events as you can and be present. Getting involved in local group shows and collaborating with other artists is what helped me gain the opportunities I've been privileged to receive. It's a lot of work and can feel overwhelming at times, but never stop making art and sharing it. If meet someone who's involved in the public art world, ask them as many questions as you can and see if there are any opportunities opening up.
Geez is creating a new body of work for a solo exhibition, "You Never Lived in the Desert," at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens Gallery in September. You can follow along with the process on Instagram at @anordinarydaze.