I first met Matthew Shelton in the bottom of a swimming pool.
It was a program — an unusual and innovative one sponsored by a group promoting site-specific arts events — in which musicians performed on the floor of the empty Ziegler Pool in Over-the-Rhine. Shelton, with his deep resonant voice and wry, smart songs, made an immediate impression playing guitar in the pool’s deep end. He towered above — or, rather, below — his surroundings.
That was in 2009. Not long afterward, I discovered he was having an art show at Aisle, a gallery in the West End. There, he had a display of his lightboxes — intricately patterned, colorfully illuminated, often-geometric designs emerging from a dark box. They had an op-art effect, but cut deeper emotionally. There was a mysterious quality to their beauty, a meditative effect in their meticulousness. The boxes beckoned one forward … and inward, psychologically.
Shelton was there at the gallery making music, too — this time with an electric mbira, an African wooden instrument (sometimes called a thumb piano) in which metal keys have been attached to a board.
At the time, he had been slowly developing a following here for his art and music since graduating from the Art Academy in 1999. And he’d been involved over the years in Cincinnati with all sorts of offbeat projects, including a painting/drawing series called Women and Kitties and a recording with his chamber music group Picnic of a song by Fraser & Debolt, an obscure Canadian Folk duo of the late 1960s/early 1970s.
But not too long after the Aisle show, Shelton moved to Chicago to try to forge a higher-profile career than Cincinnati seemed to afford.
He’s been there a couple years now but is back through Saturday for a bevy of art and musical activities at Rohs Street Café, 245 W. McMillan St., in Clifton Heights.
Artwise, he’ll have a show of about 20 lightboxes as well as other older work — the result of clearing out a Northside studio he has been maintaining since he left. “It’s as close to a retrospective as I can muster,” said Shelton, 38, by phone from Chicago.
The show will be up through Saturday, culminating with a 6 p.m. closing-night party where he’ll be opening for the Cincinnati band Happy Maladies, themselves celebrating a record release. On Thursday, he’ll do an instrumental set on mbira, with Dan Dorff on drums and Brent Olds on bass. Meanwhile, on Friday at 9 p.m. the Cincinnati Film Festival will screen a movie, The Wonderland Express, for which his band Me Or the Moon provided the soundtrack.
So it’s a busy weekend in Cincinnati for Shelton. But then, he explained, Chicago has been busy, too — although a challenge. “There are a lot more opportunities,” he said, “but also lot more competition. But there’s also a bigger audience, so it should balance out … soon.”
Last year, he supported himself for several months as a street performer playing mbira. Right now, he has a job in a concrete-supply warehouse, which provides him with studio space and materials. His lightboxes need that space … and time and patience.
To create one, he draws a pattern and uses its outline to poke holes in mirror board, a kind of art-paper cardstock that has shiny, reflective foil. He pierces it with a small hand tool, then attaches thin pieces of see-through light gels — the kind colored-plastic material used on theater stage lights — to the back. The mirror board, with its light gel backing, is then placed in a shadow box with compact fluorescent bulbs inside to light up the patterns from behind.
Shelton had his biggest lightbox show to date at Chicago’s downtown Harold Washington Library.
“It was the best opportunity I’ve ever had — a guaranteed audience of thousands of people,” he said. “People who worked there told me they’d never seen a response like that.” The library exhibit also featured photos of Shelton at work, which was also insightful. “I’m always trying to get across the handmade aspect of it,” he said of his work.
He has a lot of activities, true, but stresses the importance of his visual art.
“Within the lightboxes, two kinds of work are emerging — heavily geometry-based patterns and then more visionary work that uses more organic forms,” he said. “I’m equally drawn to both. Ultimately I want it to be spiritually satisfying for people looking at them. I’m hoping to inspire meditation. Symmetry and geometric designs historically have been applied to that goal.”
Follow all of Shelton’s activities at www.flexyourlovemuscles.com.
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