A Poet Among Visual Artists

Matt in Class

By Mark Flanigan
Photo by Hailey Bollinger

Matt Hart sits for an interview with CityBeat in the small café at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where he currently serves as associate professor in creative writing and the chair of liberal arts, and from where he will soon embark to Ann Arbor, Mich. for a poetry reading later this evening.

It will mark his 34th such engagement in the two months since the simultaneous release of his two newest poetry collections, Radiant Action (H_NGM_N Books) and Radiant Companion (Monster House Press), the former comprised of one 130-page serial poem. Previously, Hart has published six collections of poetry.

If it all seems like a lot, it is also part of his larger point — his books and their poems are bursting at the seams with vitality. “Your aesthetic is really just the ways that your values are manifested in your work and the choices that you made to get them there,” Hart says. “So, here is one of the things that I value: I value inclusion over exclusion, in the extreme.”

Visibly tired, his hands nonetheless begin to punctuate each sentence by pounding on the table as he continues. “(That) is why I want to try to say everything in every single poem,” he says. “I want the poem to be as big as the world. That value of inclusion comes through in the writing — it’s not that I refuse to edit or rewrite, because I do — but that I want every poem to be as much as it can be and activate possibilities. I am deploying language into the world, rather than employing it to do something in particular.”

Hart’s route to poetry and teaching has been circuitous. Born in 1969 in Evansville, Ind., he grew up there and in the nearby Ohio River town of Newburgh, Ind., until he left to attend Muncie’s Ball State University, where he studied philosophy as an undergrad. Immediately afterward, he went into the master’s program at Ohio University, where he chose to study the 20th-century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

He didn’t finish his master’s then, but in hindsight learned a crucial lesson from his studies. “Wittgenstein talked about the possibility of language, what it can and can’t do. It’s where I feel I learned that poetry doesn’t have to be true, it only has to be real; poetry doesn’t have to prove anything.”

Before finding poetry as an outlet, Hart had been singing and playing in Punk Rock bands, with some genuine success. Yet, it wasn’t until he took a poetry workshop in the hope that it would make him a better lyricist that his trajectory changed when he witnessed an elder student read aloud “Feeling Fucked Up,” by the late American contemporary poet Etheridge Knight.

Hart quotes the beginning from memory:

“Lord she’s gone done left me done

    packed / up and split

and I with no way to make her

come back and everywhere the world is bare

bright bone white   crystal sand glistens

dope death dead dying and jiving drove

her away made her take her laughter

    and her smiles and her softness and her midnight sighs—”

“I remember thinking, ‘You can do that in a poem?’ ” Hart says. “You can make a big noise with just your voice and your body? The next day I sat down and tried to write a poem for the first time without a prompt, and I’ve pretty much been doing that every day for 30 years. That was a conversion experience.

“I had been playing in bands since I was 15, but I was changed,” he adds. “That’s why I believe in the power of art to connect us, to challenge us, in really generative ways. I was changed in a moment.”

In 1999, six years after moving to Cincinnati and — with Eric Appleby — starting his own publication Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking and Light Industrial Safety, Hart went to the MFA Program for Writers at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College’s, in part because he didn’t feel as if he was a legitimate poet without studying the technical aspects of poetry.

He remembers thinking, “If I go to graduate school in poetry and they tell me that I’m not good, I will quit.”

“And I am so grateful that nobody ever did that,” he says.

Teaching at the Art Academy, Hart communicates an overriding sense of compassion, but one coupled with discernment; more than anything, there was excitement, life and engagement, reminiscent of his recent poems.

In a post-interview email, Hart explains the importance of his class to the Art Academy’s curriculum. “We’re trying to get students to do something wildly unpredictable in accordance with their vision,” he says. “But to do that they have to be able to grasp their vision. Articulating it helps give it shape, makes it a thing to be pushed, expanded, exploded. Articulation provides parameters that one can work with or against, and all art is made via this method.”

There’s an overriding, ultimately contagious, exuberance and passion to all of Hart’s work, whether it’s in his teaching, his writing or just in the way he sits in the Art Academy’s café, preparing for a trip to Ann Arbor.

When asked if he ever finds himself self-conscious about that fact, he pounds on the table and says, “I refuse to live in the darkness of this time. I want for people so badly to have the things that they need. I want us to love each other. I want to be a believer, you know? I don’t have a particular faith, in a religious sense, but I do believe in the human spirit and I am going to write that as hard as I can.” ©

Excerpt from Matt Hart’s serial poem “Radiant Action”

I’m wondering about heaven (as a metaphor,

of course, since I don’t believe in heaven,

but I’d like to) and hoping that someday someone will

recognize themselves in this, and it will be as if

a great blast of electric light came into

whatever darkness they possess, and

     as a result

they will be spurred to their own furtherance,

their own thoughts, the discovery

    of their own

sources of energy, their own new works

with beginnings and endings, entwined

    and entwining,

revealing better than I ever will the history

of this life, what it means to be awkward

in awe,

to be human in our time, to love one another

with perfect abandon, with total resolve,

descriptions of descriptions of waves forever

breaking into each other

Father, Son Artists Paint CVG Airport


Staff Report
The River City News
A father and son duo are bringing the walls to life at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).
Two post-modern pop murals will be completed next Wednesday for travelers to enjoy thanks to a partnership between CVG and Covington-based creative firm BLDG.
Kevin T. Kelly and Jack Kelly have been working on the art at the airport. Kevin, 56, is a graduate of the Art Academy of Cincinnati and worked in New York City as a studio assistant for pop artist Tom Wesselmann for six years. His son, Jack, 23, graduated from Columbus College of Art & Design and lives in Cincinnati where he works as a freelance commercial artist.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to showcase true performance artists and their pop art to our passengers,” said Candace McGraw, chief executive officer, CVG. “We’re excited for this partnership and to see the end result that will adorn our Customs area in Concourse B to welcome guests to the region.”

Kevin T. Kelly
Kelly’s work is decidedly “Neo-Pop” or “Post-Pop”. Infused with a postmodern sensibility, contemporaneous subject matter, and executed in what the artist refers to as a “hyper-chromatic” palette, the paintings are not only redolent of contemporary issues and politics, but excel as studies in formal definition, composition and color. Allowing for open-ended lines of query and interpretation without the burdensome weight of didactic pretense, Kelly chooses to establish a dialogue with the viewer vis-à-vis the painted image rather than wag his finger sanctimoniously from an ivory tower like so much “Activist Art” does today. The work has been described as: “Roy Lichtenstein meets Dennis
Hopper on Steroids.” It’s a wry, complex admixture of sardonic social commentary, the six o’clock news and the Sunday funnies.
He currently lives and works in the Greater Cincinnati area. His paintings have appeared on the cover of New American Paintings in 2000 and 2003. His work is featured in numerous public and private collections both in the United States and abroad, including Breitling S.A., The Kinsey Institute and Procter and Gamble. In addition to having taught as an adjunct professor at The Art Academy of Cincinnati and the Baker-Hunt Foundation in Covington, KY, he has also written critical review for Cincinnati CityBeat, Dialogue magazine, New Art Examiner and AEQAI.

Jack Kelly
Jack Kelly, born in New York City in 1993, recently graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design with his B.F.A in Illustration and a minor in Fine Art. He has recently moved back to the Greater Cincinnati area where he has been working as a freelance commercial artist.
Jack’s work bridges the gap between many diverse media ranging from motion graphics, to pattern and textile design, to illustrative graphic posters and apparel design. His visual style incorporates the fundamental skills of draftsmanship, strong composition and graphic reduction with an emphasis on utilizing limited palettes. His working methodology has developed from his interest in commercial illustration and traditional printmaking techniques such as silkscreen and intaglio.

Interview with Chris Sickels


Watching his grandfather amble around the family farm hunting for bent nails is a memory that’s clung to Chris Sickels.

This regular quest was motivated not by safety or cleanliness but thrift. He was going to use them again. Bent nails. Something most would drop into the category of useless garbage before tossing them into the trash. But after the long day’s work was “done”, the nails would be pulled from his pocket and placed in an anvil for straightening. Chris recalls he’d also perfected a technique for effectively driving them post-anvil that involved spitting on the hammer’s head and rubbing it on his pants to ensure a clean strike.

This inclination to see the possibilities in that which is worn and weary also inhabited Chris’ father. As a dairy farmer living on the edge of success and survival, he had the ability to look at cows that were thin and/or ill and devise a plan to restore them to health. He does the same and more with horses today.

All of this recycling, hard work and perseverance was not lost on Chris. Though it’s been over 20 years since he left that small farm in Indiana for the big city of Cincinnati to attend the AAC, he finds himself on his own quest to reshape reclaimed items. His motivation is a mix of  thriftiness, a willingness to try and fail combined with a courageous creativity that allows him to envision and build extraordinary worlds with everyday items. And though he’s back living in another small Indiana town with his wife and four kids, memories from his time at the Art Academy have not only clung to him but played a part in reshaping him as well.

Chris remembers entering his freshman year with an insecurity that sprung from his rural upbringing and what he thought would be his limited art education. But he soon realized that Terri Martin, who was his sole art teacher through both middle and high school, had more than equipped him. Her attention and dedication even set him ahead of the curve. She also went well beyond the obligatory classroom instruction when she helped him put his portfolio together for reviews and drove him to different art schools including the AAC where he ultimately enrolled after accepting a helpful scholarship. And though he was thoroughly versed in the inner workings of farm life including the birthing process of its animal residents, he was unaware of all the options and opportunities that lay before him artistically.

As he listened to and learned from his fellow students and dedicated professors, Chris began to see how the seeds they were planting in his already fertile mind were beginning to take root and produce strange but wonderful fruit. Susan Curtis, an adjunct professor from England, took him under her wing and pushed him out of the nest at the same time. Their trip to the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County opened his eyes to new forms and styles of illustrating he wasn’t aware of. She also “locked” him in a room with two VHS tapes with compilations of stop motion animation work by the Quay brothers. Former marine and then AAC student, Sean Wallace, brought him to a magazine stand to show him illustrations of C.F. Payne in Rolling Stone. Checking out the shows of avant-garde puppeteers Mark Fox and Anthony Luensman and experimenting with his own drew out of him the desire to push beyond the two dimensions of illustration and painting into a three dimensional universe with nearly  infinite directions.

These experiences and more were opening up borders, allowing Chris to explore and travel without ever leaving Cincinnati. This spirit of exploration is something Chris sees as unique and profoundly helpful about his time at the AAC.

“That’s what the Art Academy afforded me. You could take stone carving, woodworking, etching, printing making and oil painting. You could be a communication design major but you could still go weld. I was hungry to see all that.”

He didn’t know how it would apply to what he wanted to do down the road but he was grateful for the exposure. AAC’s intentional cross-pollination was highlighted when he spent a semester at another well-known art school for an exchange program of sorts.

“I went there to study scientific illustration but I remember trying to use their photography department but you couldn’t go shoot your flat work because you weren’t a photography student. I remember trying to make frames but I couldn’t use the wood shop because I wasn’t an industrial design major.”

The farm boy from Indiana had been given a passport with no travel restrictions and he had no intention of giving that up.

In the years after graduating in 1996, Chris has added more stamps to that passport as he’s ventured into projects ranging from magazine covers, children’s books, short videos, and sculptures which coaxe you from the real into the surreal (visit www.rednosestudio.com). The AAC honored him with the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010.

Currently, Chris is busy making new memories with his family as he strives to stay open to all the ways they can inform his work and shape his heart. Combined with those from the farm and the AAC, these new memories are bound to birth creations which cling to those privileged to enjoy his work.

He’s still pushing. Still exploring. Trying and failing.

Always hunting for the next, bent nail.


President’s Reception for the Helm’s Trust


It was an evening of recognition and celebration at the Presidents Reception on Friday, September 25th when 50 friends of the Art Academy gathered for refreshments, camaraderie and a chance to mingle with some of our student, faculty and alumnae artists. Remarks were shared by Dick Friedman, Chairman of the AAC Board of Trustees; John Sullivan, AAC President; Len Weakley Jr. Director of the The William G. and Mary Jane Helms Charitable Foundation. Derek Alderfer and Katelyn Wolary, both recipients of a Helms Trust Award, talked about their art and their student experience at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Derek Alderfer is a freelance illustrator from Fairfield, OH who graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati’s BFA program in 2015. He considers himself an aspiring children’s book illustrator who works as a painter using mostly traditional media. “I was so humbled to have gotten 2nd place in 2015′s Helms Trust Award competition. I’d never entered my work in a show that granted awards, especially against my own friends and peers. I very fondly look back on having hung my work next to theirs, and winning among some of them. In the end I was proud of everyone who entered. The judge’s decision showed me that my newest work was truly unique and worth pursuing, and since then I’ve continued pushing myself to make my best work.”

Katelyn Wolary commented, “It’s an honorable award, with a history of great artists and work selected.  I’m very happy to be in my school’s collection, and feel very grateful for the opportunities I’ve received so far in my time at AAC.  I have reinvested the award money back into my education, which is a great feeling!”