Based in Ithaca, New York, Matthew Wheeler is a self-taught illustrator and painter. An interview with the artist follows:
When did you first begin drawing?
I was 17 when my best friend – my beloved horse — and I were in a serious accident. I was in a coma for a week and a half. And when I woke up from it, art was the only way I could express myself. It was through my art that I began communicating to my family and friends.
Had you any interest in art before your accident?
No! My passion was horses. I became interested in horses when I was about 12. We were on a family outing at Red Hawk Ranch in Trumansburg, just outside Ithaca. Within a few years, I learned calf-roping, bareback bronco riding, and I began teaching horseback riding and leading trail rides. And at the time of my accident, I was training with world-famous champions to expand my abilities. I was determined to be the best.
Can you tell us something about the experience of drawing after your brain injury? What did it initially feel like? What inspired you?
I felt totally detached from what I was doing. I felt like I was someone else watching my hands draw as I filled up notebook after notebook. What inspired me? What was already there in my mind. I simply translated what I saw in my brain into lines, symbols and shapes. And when I learned something new – like using colored pencils – I felt like I’d done it before.
Have you any favorite media? Tools that you prefer to work with?
My favorite is a particular Bic ballpoint pen that the company no longer makes.
What percentage of your time is devoted to art these days?
Most of it. Even when I sleep, I dream about art.
Have you any preferred setting?
No. I can draw anywhere. I especially love listening to Pink Floyd in the background.
Any favorite artists?
Salvador Dali. No doubt!
Are there any particular cultures or movements that have influenced you?
I’ve been influenced by Surrealism and by Egyptian and Native American cultures.
Are there any other creative activities that engage you these days?
I’m working on building a rocket with aluminum, wood, fiberglass and cardboard.
How does your family feel about your life as an artist?
Everyone is supportive and encouraging. I remember soon after my accident, my parents propping me up at a desk so that I can draw. And they’ve been supportive ever since.
Besides your rebirth as an artist, what are some of the other changes that you’ve experienced since your brain injury?
All of my senses feel heightened, yet nothing seems quite real. I think and feel in images. I feel more connected to the spiritual world. And although I don’t subscribe to any religious dogma, I read the Bible every day. I have difficulty keeping track of time, and I can sit in one place for up to three days on end – without sleeping. I also have to be reminded to eat. The horse stole my life as I knew it, but it also gave me a future…as an artist.
1 Self-Portrait, Oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″
2 Doc, Pen and ink on paper, 9″ x 12″
3 Emanation’s Web, Pen and ink on paper, 12″ x 14″
4 The Beekeeper, Pen and ink on paper, 6″ x 8″
5 Solace, Watercolor, colored pencil, pen and ink on paper, 6.5 x 8.5
Interview conducted by Bonnie Astor and edited by Lois Stavsky; all images courtesy of the artist