Although he grew up in New Jersey, it seemed inevitable that Richard Mathews should end up an artist in Rhode Island.
Mathews’ great grandfather, Gustav Manz, was a celebrated jewelry designer and manufacturer in New York in the early 1900s. He did designs for the Gorham Silver Company in Providence, among other manufacturers, at the time when individual craftsmen were being replaced by mass production in jewelry and designers were left off the labels of companies like Shreve Crump and Lowe, Tiffany’s and other high-end dealers that featured Manz’s work. Mathews family summered in Shelter Harbor, which was an arts-oriented colony for musicians from larger urban areas like New York.
So, it’s no surprise that Mathews was always interested in art. In fact, Mathews’ mother, born Anne “Dede” Rathjen and the granddaughter of Manz, wrote “a brief but informative biography of Manz” when she was nine years old before she became an artist herself. Those artist genes continued in Mathews when he came to Rhode Island himself, where he endeared himself to the other students more as a crackerjack ballplayer than an aspiring artist. He pitched for the URI team that went all the way to the Yankee Conference Championship in the early 1970s but it was art that kept him focused, at least until the idea of making a living as an artist gave way to the practical need to make a living.
“I grew up around art,” Mathews said. “My kids are also very interested in the arts but, as a practical matter, I have insisted that they get an education that prepares them for other things. My daughter is a great actress and has done some excellent work at Brown but not as a drama major. I know how few people, even very talented people, can make a good living that way.”
Mathews was more practical about his prospects as a professional baseball player. In spite of the championship season as a pitcher, he knew that was not going to bring him fame and fortune.
“I had a pretty good idea of how good I was,” he said. “My father played some in the minors and I knew what my limitations were. I was aware that I didn’t have ‘the wheels’ to become a professional baseball player.”
He had much more confidence as an artist and left URI with a bachelor of fine arts degree and headed for New York City According to his upcoming show’s press release, he “immersed himself in painting, drank gallons of coffee, ate donuts and pizza at the neighborhood luncheonette, and impressed enough people to secure a two-person exhibit at the Soho Center for Visual Arts.”
But it really wasn’t that simple. Mathews was savvy enough to realize that self-promotion was essential for success in the New York of the late 1970s and early 1980s and he was good enough at that to gain some recognition.
“The ‘billiard paintings’ were somewhat successful and I began to get a reputation. I was a bit cocky and went into the Leo Castillo gallery [an early supporter of Andy Warhol] and introduced myself,” said Mathews. “I think now he was probably thinking more about how I got in to see him than he was about what I was doing. But I did make some solid connections. I also learned that some of those connections were not necessarily income. ‘You would do well to be represented in that collection,’ one of them told me but he didn’t tell me that you pretty much gave the paintings away.”
Mathews didn’t take the New York art world by storm, which is why you are learning about him here and not in news stories about record-breaking art auction sales, but he did manage to hang in there, doing baseball subjects well, which generated fees but not much in the way of wider recognition.
“I did some portraits of baseball stars,” he said, without much enthusiasm, “like Tommy John and Reggie Jackson but I sent them out and got a check.”
He actually did better than he suggests and there are some collectors who seriously prize his sports works and have held onto them. He did manage to sell some of his larger non-sports paintings, some of which and they ended up in corporate collections, like Mobil Oil and one of which is now in the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn.
“Finally,” Mathews says, “I ran out of money and had to find a more consistent way to support myself and my art.”
He and his brother began to renovate a brownstone on 84th Street. They later formed a small construction company and for the better part of the 80s, he worked as a contractor all the while painting in his spare time. He married and had two children. His wife Deborah is originally from North Providence and Mathews used to summer in Shelter Harbor as a kid and they always thought they would move back to Rhode Island someday. “We wanted our children to be able to run out the back door and have a yard to play in,” Mathews says.
“Today they live in South Kingstown in a secluded and rural sub-division where box turtles wander safely across the road and birds of all kinds sing blithely in the trees,” is how the show’s press release describes it. “Their children are grown and out of the house. Deborah works as the director of the URI Center for Human Services. Mathews continues to work as a contractor with a specialty in high-end tile. He also continues to paint.”
“‘I always have something cooking,” Mathews says. ‘I don’t always pursue an outlet for the art, but I like the studio. I like being in that place. The marketing is the hard part.’
“Although he occasionally experiments with abstraction, for the most part, Mathews’ paintings are bold, large-scale portrayals of ordinary life – pool balls, musical instruments, toll stations and portraits of the people around him. “My work is pretty self-explanatory,” Mathews says. “People take what they are going to take from it. I never want to force my ideas on someone. Paintings should stand on their own.”
Right now, according to Mathews, a lot of those painting are sitting in his studio and he thinks it’s time that other people saw them.
“With the kids grown [Lili and Max] and college out of the way, it’s time for me to start focusing on art again and it doesn’t do any good in my basement,” said Mathews, as the confidence starts streaming back. “I know there’s a lot of good stuff I’ve done down there and I think people should see it.”
“A Few of My Favorite Things: Paintings by Richard Mathews,” January 19 through April 4, 2012 at the North Kingstown branch of BankRI. The branch is located at 1140 Ten Rod Road in North Kingstown. Hours are Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, contact www.bankri.com or call 456-5015, ext 1330.