INTERVIEW: The Balancing Act of The Illustrious and Industrious Matt Neff

If you are not yet aware of a Philadelphia-based printmaker/painter/professor extraordinaire by the name of Matt Neff, allow me to introduce you. His work in silkscreening and letterpress is arresting – simultaneously thought-provoking and humorous in spirit. His personal energy appears boundless (How else could one manage a printshop and teach silkscreening, intaglio, relief, and letterpress to throngs of clutter-prone collegiates?). And his crazy journey from painting in Indiana to professorship at The University of Pennsylvania is undoubtedly worth retelling. So without further ado…

Who are you and where do you come from?
My name is Matt Neff, and I come from Indiana.

How did you end up in Philadelphia?
I went to undergrad at Indiana University for a BFA in Painting and a BA in Art History. I married my wife, Allison, 3 weeks after I graduated. We met in class. I was married when I was 22!

Ahh! I’m 22!
Yeah! Can you imagine getting married!? We were crazy, so we just packed up a truck and moved here on a whim. I’d never been here before. We talked a landlord into renting to us since we had no credit, and I started finding random jobs.

What are some of the more ridiculous jobs you’ve held?
I used to work at The Book Trader, shelving books for 12 hours a day, which was actually sort of cool. I read a lot. Although I didn’t make much money, every week I got free books!

After a year, I applied to grad school at Penn and Tyler. I got into Penn and started school again.

How did you segway into teaching?
Basically right as I was graduating, they asked me to start teaching.

Letterpress prints from the Paine’s Park Portfolio

Were you doing printmaking or painting during that time?
Mostly painting, but also a lot of printing on paintings and stenciling. I worked in the printshop and did a lot of physical work, renovating things. The day after I accepted the teaching position, I got a call that Penn was planning to shut down the printmaking department. They gave me a deal: I had one year to get enrollment up and start a letterpress studio. Within a year I got enrollments up, started the letterpress, and it’s been crazy ever since!

How do you balance your personal work with the responsibilites of teaching?
It’s a lot! I’ve been trying to do so since I started this whole thing. For the first year I taught I didn’t make any work of my own, which was tough. I would work 60-70 hours a week, go home, and think, “Don’t talk to me about art!” I’m getting better at it, and I also don’t sleep that much. I get up early to make work at about 5 in the morning.

Letterpress print from the EIDOPHUSICON series

Do you have time for “hobbies”?
Oh man, what is a hobby? I dunno! Well, I’ve been gardening. I have dogs and housemates who try to be part of a community. I try to connect with people one-on-one to talk about other things as much as I can. Lately I’ve been working with a lot of graphic novel/comic book artists, like a new project with Charles Burns for example, which is a lot different from what I normally do.

Sugar Chandeliers – double-take!

Big Sugar Chandelier – Silkscreen print with varnish and granulated sugar

What are your thoughts on the blurring of bounds between painting/printmaking/design?
When I was just painting in a rigid program, it felt really limiting. Once I got into this printmaking world, a lot of the people were very chill and open. Printmaking, to me at least, is about the collaging of ideas and techniques. Printmaking has always been a necessary tool to graphic designers – the history of design and of printmaking are linked with the use of silkscreening and offset techniques for production, as well as the idea of multiples.

So our generation…this whole “DIY” thing? These catch-phrases are weird. This “DIY” thing even goes back to the 70s and punk rock, so silkscreening has always had that edge to it. Painting straddles that high/low art bound, but printmaking has always been swinging. It could be a very low-brow communal guerilla art. Painting often has this one-person-in-a-studio romantic perception. So a lot of this crossover between painting and print is in technique.

from the Bird series – Silkscreen print

from the Bird series – Silkscreen print

Did you make the right choice moving to Philly?
Yeah! Things worked out! We decided early on that we were going to stay here and commit to the city and things that were happening no matter what. Once I committed mentally, things started to happen. The communities of people here are great. I enjoy being able to connect.

What is exciting you right now in your work or future plans?
I’m excited to make some new work myself – sculpture and processional pieces involving actual people that are also incorporated into the creation of prints. I am excited for Philagrafika 2010! I think that’s gonna be rockin’! I’m excited for subversive projects in Philadelphia in the next two years. Real honest, rootsy, undergound things that don’t have to be publicized in Art in America or Artforum. Just people doing things that they want to do.

from the Bird series – Silkscreen print

Letterpress print with varnish and loose graphite – for the visit of Art Spiegelman

Give me a recommendation or piece of advice.
Take risks. And put yourself out there. I always take on more than I can handle, but the healthy part of that is realizing when I’m overloaded and bringing people in to help me. So risk everything, and people will notice. This is a hard business to be honest in. People want you to lie, cheat…but if you can take risks while being honest, that’s awesome!

…and how do you take your eggs?
Over medium…or the food cart egg sandwiches! They’re so good. We call them Crack Sandwiches, and I guess it’s a little dicey to get it from a food card, being a vegetarian.

Pallbearer etching – new work on mythologies

A portfolio website for Matt Neff is currently in the works. However, I highly recommend a stroll on over to his Etsy shop, with new silkscreened apparel offerings for POST (Philadelphia Open Studio Tours), as well as the internet home of The Common Press, the letterpress studio built with love and sweat at The University of Pennsylvania.

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