From School to Studio: Matt Hutton
Drawing inspiration from the American Midwest and Japanese functionality, artist and MECA professor Matt Hutton finds himself at a pivotal moment
I was taught to angle knives away from myself, to peel beets and whittle sticks with strokes that push outward from the body. But when artist Matt Hutton approaches a piece of wood he does something different: he pulls the blade of the hand planer toward himself. “Unlike Western tools, which generally operate on the push method, Japanese tools tend to operate on the pull,” explains Hutton. “There’s this interesting centering that happens when you’re drawing the tool toward yourself, in a Zen sense. It’s safer and more controlled. But also you feel it more.”
In his studio, located behind his house on the outskirts of Portland, Hutton has hand planes from the United States and some from Japan. The ones made in the USA—made in Maine, in fact, by a company in Warren called Lie-Nielsen Toolworks— have polished, rounded handles and curved bronze blocks. They are beautiful in an old-fashioned way, elegant and precise. In contrast, the Japanese wood-carving tools look blocky and unwieldy. They’re heavy to hold and much larger, with dangerous-looking blades that jut from the bottom of each wooden tool. They are not graceful nor are they delicate. Yetwatching Hutton handle them, hearing him speak about these tools, I realize that they have a certain power. They are heavy from being soaked in oil and designed to require a little extra work from the artist. “They move; they twist as you use them,” says Hutton. “And you need to maintain them. You become closer to your tools. They become—they are—a crucial part of your work.”
With these tools, Hutton creates pieces of furniture that straddle the line between home goods and fine art. His studio, named Studio 24b, is an architectural feat, a marvel of balance and proportion. Built by Hutton and designed by his brother- in-law Lee Moreau and his wife, Ana Miljacki, the structure was inspired by Japanese buildings and their moveable walls. Like the tools Hutton bought while he was studying abroad in Japan, the studio has a quiet elegance. It isn’t perfectly symmetrical, but none of Hutton’s work is. “My aesthetic tends toward the geometric, toward asymmetry and round edges. I rarely make something square,” he admits. “People and furniture—they’re both usually made symmetrical. There’s a reason for that. But I like changing it up. I also like making things that are subtly beautiful. Something that is interesting but doesn’t strike you as complicated from the first glance.”
And then he says something that perfectly summarizes his art: “I like making quiet work.”
In his everyday life, Hutton isn’t particularly quiet. A self- described workaholic, he’s constantly busy. Working as a professor at Maine College of Art, he interacts with students on a daily basis. “They’re very much a part of my work and life,” he says. At home, he’s a father of two young children—Forest, five, and Emma, nine—who share their own, smaller studio located right next to his. Hutton frequently collaborates with other artists, including his wife, Erin. At school, he teaches in a workshop he built himself (alongside four students) and in a department he developed. “The past decade has been insane,” he says. In the past 10 years, Hutton turned the woodworking and furniture department at MECA into a formally accredited program. He bought and renovated a home in Portland and built a spacious studio behind it. He also hit several major landmarks in his personal life. Now on the cusp of 40, Hutton was recently shortlisted for the American Craft Council’s Emerging Voices Award, an honor that has brought his work an unprecedented amount of attention.
While some might find this amount of forward momentum dizzying, Hutton has found a way to make it work for him. “If I don’t spend enough time in my studio I know it very quickly,” he says. “I get irritable. Being in the studio is powerful; it’s a release of energy that happens in no other way that I have found.” He reflects for a moment before adding, “That’s an interesting thing to know about yourself.”
This introspection is typical of Hutton. Over the years, he has interrogated his motivations and his psyche, a process that has resulted in a well-defined aesthetic that draws inspiration from his Midwest heritage, Japanese minimalism, and an enduring interest in functionality. His furniture never feels too precious. Artful though it may be, it’s intended to be used. In 2015 Hutton finished his first cohesive “line” of furniture, which is available for purchase through his website. In this small-but-focused collection, Hutton repeatedly references the rural American landscape. “I call them my Crop Circles,” he says, gesturing toward the three intersecting circles that make up his coffee tables. This piece has been scored with grooves that mimic the movement of a compass, whirling lightly around a center point. “I wanted to break up the large surface of the table, so I went back to my original drawings. I scanned these sketches and programmed the router to mimic the weight of my hand, like a pen stroke,” he explains.
Other work calls to mind the dilapidated farmhouses and decaying billboards of abandoned farms, particularly a group of headboards that he titled Vestigial Landmarks (available both online and through special order). “I look at the way things are built. I’m interested in the understructure of things and how we can see the understructure as they fall apart,” he says. Much of his work uses slat work covering an interior structure—a formula that is familiar to carpenters and architects. “I am interested in what is strong about a building, what lasts and what does not,” he says. “There’s also a strong link between rural Maine and the rural Midwest. Its landscape is a little different, but there are similarities in the buildings and in the people.”
When asked if he could ever leave Maine, Hutton becomes pensive. “I’ve built a life here,” he says, and it’s true. From the third floor at MECA to the small backyard studio he created for his kids, Hutton has carved and shaped and erected a series of spaces where he feels at home. He has spent the past decade working to create a strong frame for his life, putting in place the essential elements for a strong, sustainable career. Now, looking forward, he sees only more opportunity for artistic growth. “I am at a pivotal moment in my life. I feel as though I have a lot in place—I can make decisions about what to do with myself and my work.” He adds, “I’m not sure what’s next. But now, I am free to decide.”