Matt Semke is a brilliant animation and digital artist who lives in Minneapolis. When I stumbled upon his website www.catswilleatyou.com, I knew I had to chat with him. It didn’t take long either. We had a very cool chat. Check it out …
“… There are so many artists who are great … and even many more who aren't that great, but still continue to do it anyway. Most of us didn't choose to be artists because we thought it was going to be lucrative …”
MICHAEL: Hey Matt, First of all, I must tell readers that I stumbled upon your website just moments ago, emailed you and here we are, chatting already. Record time! I can't believe what I'm seeing on your website. We'll get into that, but first, why have you called your site, "Cats Will Eat You?”
MATT: A graphics professor I had in college, 13-ish years ago, was telling us a story about how a woman had died alone in her apartment and when she was discovered several days later, her cats had begun to eat her decomposing body.
MICHAEL: Wow, I think I’m sorry I asked.
MATT: Apparently, this is what cats do. I found it to be fascinating and pretty analogous to many things in life. It inspired one of my very first (and very crude) oil paintings. I purchased the URL at that same time. For the first couple years, Cats Will Eat You was sporadically updated. I would post a few pieces of art every week. It was a mess and updating it was a chore.
At the end of 2006, I learned how to use a CMS (Content Management System) and this allowed me to start posting new work on a daily basis. I haven't missed a day since. I haven't figured out how to prove it, but I believe I've got the longest running streak of self-published daily art on the internet. There's quite a few artists doing daily work now, but I haven't found anyone who has had a daily site going as long as mine.
MICHAEL: Cool. What's the drive behind producing art daily? Doesn't this subconsciously make some people think that masterpieces can be produced in a single day?
MATT: I like the deadline. It ensures that I'm going to produce. The process of making something is more important than the end result. Without the deadline, there are lots of excuses and obstacles in the way of process.
MICHAEL: You’re talking with a writer. Believe me, I get it.
MATT: I feel that I should also clarify that every piece I post isn't always created in a day. While most of them are created in the final hour of each day, I'm usually slowly chipping away at larger projects also. Knowing that I have to make something each day allows me to be very free and experimental with the process. Larger projects are great in their own way, but a lot of times the end result is envisioned way before you get to it, and then it's a lot of repetitious craft and hard work to get there. Daily works tend to remain free and creative from start to finish.
MICHAEL: Cool. Are you creating masterpieces every day?
MATT: I'm not concerned with people thinking a "masterpiece" could be created in a day or not. I certainly do believe that a masterpiece can be created in a day, but I'm sure I fall far short of that most of the time. I'm very comfortable with that. I've had some awful posts. However, most of my best work has been made this way or at least the ideas that went into my best work were been born this way.
MICHAEL: Your work has a very art-schoolish, handmade vibe ... even your digital and animation works. It's cool. Do you do this intentionally or is this merely my take on it?
MATT: I don't think that's just your take. I prefer everything to have a human touch feeling to it, especially now that I do almost all digital work. You're probably picking up on a mix of that and actual lack of craft. Sometimes I just miss on proportions that I'm trying to get down. I am conscious of my style though and my intention is that my body of work has a common vocabulary.
MICHAEL: Common vocabulary. Intriguing. It does indeed look like all of your drawings, paintings, etc., could actually be digital or subjected to animation. What is it about digital work and repetition? Repetitive movement always seems to be big in digital, animated works.
MATT: There's something incredibly pleasing to me about endless animated loops and repeating forms in general. It's parallel to my approach in creating art and it's mesmerizing to watch a second expand into a larger space.
MICHAEL: Judging by your website, you've prolifically created this world where it looks as if anything could be art. This really challenges and expands definitions that most people have when it comes to contemporary art. What do you think about this?
MATT: Hmm, I think you might be getting something out of my art that I don't. Or maybe I need you to elaborate on this question so that I understand it better. As much as I'd like to challenge and expand the definition of contemporary art, I think my work falls short of this.
Hasn't contemporary art been at a stage where anything can be art for a while now?
MICHAEL: That’s true.
MATT: As an additional follow up to my non-answer, whenever I get the opportunity to perform, art would be the only place where I feel like I'm challenging the contemporary art definition.
For example, my performance at the Minnesota State Fair
Here I created many "masterpieces" and traded them for specific state fair food items and destroyed the paintings that didn't trade.
This kind of goes back to my motivation for producing daily work. I'm setting up a scenario where process is more important and interesting than the art itself. I'm also definitely willing to question the real value of the end products.
MICHAEL: I totally understand what you're saying. However, if the process is more important than the finished product for which you're questioning its real value, aren't you giving already skeptical people reasons to not only not buy art, but to dismiss it altogether?
MATT: Well, hypocritically, I'd love to make money from my art. Currently I work a regular job. I'd also love it if the general public was interested in traditional art forms like painting and sculpture, but (for the most part) they aren't. There are so many artists who are great at these things and even many more who aren't that great, but still continue to do it anyway. Most of us didn't choose to be artists because we thought it was going to be lucrative.
People have every right to be skeptical and dismissive of things that no longer interest them. The landscape has changed. I think the general public needs a little bit more from artists. Artists, collectors and galleries that are setting and keeping art prices high are not going to win over skeptical people. I would argue that stunts like mine create more interest in art or hopefully further the discussion about … “What is art?”
People will value and remember art if they have a stronger connection to it. For example: the two dudes who traded me a walleye and a seltzer water at the state fair. I guarantee you that they have a stronger connection to that piece of art than if they had paid a thousand dollars for it. They're part of the process and part of the completion of the work now. Now they're artists!
There are lots of opportunities for artists to create interactive moments and expand interest in art. It might devalue traditional art forms or make people dismiss traditional art, but that is something that's happening anyway.
MICHAEL: Interesting. Aren't you in Minneapolis? I've never visited, but it strikes me as one of the stronger art cities in our nation. It seems to be a progressive place or at least it has that image. No?
MATT: Yes. The city itself is progressive. You should visit. There are amazing museums, galleries, artists, art festivals, live music, theaters, puppets, underground stuff, nature, breweries, bikes, etc. You're making me rethink my last answer now. I'm living in a bubble where there is art abundance. As a homebody, I can never keep up with all of it.
MICHAEL: Many if not most artists create far more work than they'll ever sell. What do you make of this?
MATT: Well, I'm well aware that I'm sitting on some paintings that will never sell. I also feel like that's part of the job we signed up for. I like to think it's like having a savings account at a bank that has terrible hours.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
MATT: A few times a year they are open, and my balance continues to drop. I moved house a couple years ago and I had to throw dozens of paintings away, for space. Side note: Most of the paintings were rescued by dumpster divers and my wife even found some of them at a garage sale THE DAY AFTER I threw them out. Five dollars.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha! I wish I had been there. I always tell artists, “Don’t throw out your work. Give it to me!”
MATT: That’s another reason for my current focus in digital work. Again, I'll fall back on “the process.” I'm comfortable with failing over and over and enjoying the process of pushing myself. I see progress when I look back at my piles of unsold art.
MICHAEL: Wow, I've never heard an artist say that. Cool. How do you see people consuming digital art like yours? Does it come and go within minutes on Snap Chat or should it be streaming on a loop on someone's TV set? Or is it mainly for installations in museums? I love digital art, but even I'm still figuring out how to bring it into my own life.
MATT: Admittedly, I don't think about that enough. I've just been blindly throwing stuff up on the popular social media sites. It seems to work. The audience continues to build, and people who are really interested reach out to me. But most of it comes and goes quickly.
This question is a bit of an eye opener to me too. Outside of the live interactive events, I tend to go back to just creating with my head down. There's much more I should do on a daily basis to allow people to be a part of my process. It's just a tough balancing act, and my desire to focus on the creation usually wins out.
MICHAEL: I like the idea of AC digital picture frames or boxes that could play works like yours when turned on. Let's work on that. I would love to get some of your work in that way. Anyway ... when you look at today's contemporary art world and art markets, do you feel connected to them or separate from them? Do you understand what's going on with them?
MATT: I'm separate from the market side of things. My basic understanding is that it's highly manipulated by collectors and galleries, but I don't know how. I've only sold a handful pieces to “art collectors,” but the vast majority of my sales have been to people who just loved the work.
MICHAEL: Note to readers: If the people who “just loved the work” comeback for more, they’re art collectors. Okay Matt, please continue…
MATT: I haven't really pushed sales in several years. When I moved here, I was suddenly surrounded by many artists producing better work and I felt I had to focus on improving. I'm just starting to feel more confidence in the work and I've make a New Year’s pact to launch a sales site this year. I'll have to have some digital frames in there for you.
I used to run sales through my website, but with the huge inventory and a bit of international interest, it got too complicated for me to manage myself. Plus, there was no easy way for me to change prices across the board. It was also messy when I had a gallery show and they needed to take a cut too, and my prices on the site were only reflecting what I wanted to make. All of my deals now are one-off personal interactions.
This is probably why so many artists don't make it right? Should I spend time trying to connect myself to the art market?
MICHAEL: That's a question only you can answer, but it couldn’t hurt. Finally Matt, when you look at all of the work you've produced thus far, would you say your body of work has a message? What do you want your work to say long after you're gone and it's still here in some form or fashion?
MATT: I don't consciously have a running message through the body of work. When I do take a look back, there are a few themes that emerge: How flawed that human perception is, along with how we choose to spend our time, the struggle to keep an open mind, seeing ourselves as separate from and in-charge of nature, the desire to see the full picture and finding infinity in a moment.
I usually don't have a thought in my head about what I'm going to draw. It reveals itself or sometimes they feel a bit psychic/foreshadowing and I don't understand what I've drawn until I see it days later.
Right now it's 10pm. Our kids were up early today, and I should go straight to bed. I'm going to spend the next couple hours making. I haven't the slightest clue where to start.
This might sound strange, but I'm really concerned that after I'm gone someone would come across my work and think that I was lazy. I want the work to encourage perseverance.
I'm also planning to develop some artificial intelligence that can continue to work in my style after I'm gone. I've started on it anyway.
I'm curious what you think of the body so far?
MICHAEL: I think it’s fantastic. Love it. Before I let you go, why do you think you want artificial intelligence to continue your work after you’re gone?
MATT: Mainly, I just want to keep the streak going. It is also interesting to break down how I approach a blank page. It's a look at my own “rules” and I think it helps me see the patterns I get stuck in and maybe I can discover how to break out of them and reinvigorate my style. But, mainly it's about keeping the streak.
MICHAEL: Very cool. Thanks for chatting Matt. Great.
MATT: Thanks for reaching out Michael. It has been interesting attempting to talk some of this stuff out. I'd probably have different answers for half of these on a different day, but this was a lot of fun for me.
Check out Matt Semke at www.catswilleatyou.com.