Milwaukee artist Colin Matthes (right) leads a drawing workshop at Arts+Literature Laboratory. Also pictured: Marin Laufenberg, Simone Doing and Angela Richardson (from left).
The exercise begins with the disclosure of an obsession. Ten strangers, seated around folding tables arranged in a square, are asked to reveal something that’s been consuming their thoughts lately, whether fleeting or an idée fixe.
“In light of recent events, I’ve been reading a lot about cockroaches,” says 28-year-old Rhea Ewing, alluding to the outcome of the presidential election. “When times are good, they form these egalitarian communities. And they can survive almost anything.”
Compulsively checking the news on Twitter. A primal urge to connect with nature. Fretting over how to get a picky turtle to eat. Brainstorming ways to get your partner to stop snoring. These are just a few things on the minds of the people gathered for a workshop on “Essential Knowledge Shared Visualizations,” led by Milwaukee artist Colin Matthes.
Matthes, one of the artists featured in the Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, has developed an unusual project aimed at sharing what he calls “essential knowledge.” Part drawing, part instruction manual, Matthes creates step-by-step illustrated guides for survival scenarios — real and imagined.
“It’s a graphic communication project and an archive of unique bits of knowledge that people have,” Matthes tells his students. “I hope it makes you want to draw — and think about drawing differently.”
The workshop, held Dec. 6 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, a gallery and performance space on Madison’s east side, was conceived as a way to connect an established gallery artist with the community where his work is on display, says Max Puchalsky, a Laboratory curator. “The point of this is to engage with the concept behind Colin’s work.”
Matthes’ idea for Essential Knowledge came when he was living in the Burren region of Ireland, home to vast, bleak, rolling hills of exposed limestone. He walked an hour each day to his job as an artist-in-residence at Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan. As he trekked through the remote hills, he thought about how he would survive if he lived out in the wilderness.
“I made sketches of things I could learn how to do — how to make water drinkable, how to kill an animal and prepare it for food,” Matthes says. “As time went by, a year or two, I kept making sketches. It became the thing that sort of stuck.”
When he moved back to the U.S., his obsession with survival continued, but his focus shifted with his return to an urban environment. He imagined how to make boats from the ruins of an empty gas station, how to clear buildings in the event of urban warfare. Before his daughter, now 2, was born, he mapped out baby-related scenarios, like packing a hospital “go bag” and fashioning an emergency diaper. He also made a drawing on how to survive a black bear encounter before taking his baby camping. “It became a way to do research, and also a way of sharing experiences,” he says. “And a way of coping with anxiety.”
In the workshop, Matthes asks participants to share their essential knowledge — something personal that only they can teach. “The goal for today is to rethink drawing and how it conveys information,” he tells the group. “And a little bit of humor helps as well.” Working with pen and ink (ditching erasers to encourage decisive drawing), the amateur artists illustrate personalized survival guides for scenarios in their own lives. Matthes digitizes the drawings with plans to compile them into a book, which he promises to send to every contributor.
“It’s amazing to have contemporary artists who are engaged in community-based work,” Puchalsky says. “Because most of the time you learn about art in an academic context, reading about dead white men.”
Fashioning emergency diapers: You will need one clean (hopefully) dish towel, one clean (hopefully) sock, one roll of duct tape
Hotwiring a car: Generally speaking, the older the car, the easier it is to hotwire. Pre-2004 cars are best
Clearing a building in urban warfare: Grenades, aka your best friend
Making a boat from the ruins of a gas station: If you need an anchor, the cash register can be taken for this purpose
Landing a plane in an emergency: This one you will probably fuck up