Craig Matis melds art and music at Sean Christopher Gallery

The Cleveland artist's 'Songbooks and X-Ray Collages' exhibition is on display at Sean Christopher Gallery through Aug. 20

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Self-Portrait," a collage of X-rays and other material, by Craig Matis.

Years ago, when Cleveland artist Craig Matis was living in Los Angeles, he found a bunch of X-rays in a trash can at his apartment complex. “I thought, ‘These are cool. Where else am I going to get these? … I could do something with this,” said Matis, who dug them out of the trash. 

The artist’s instincts proved correct. Matis kept the X-rays for years, and after moving to Cleveland in the early 1980s, he began making three-dimensional collages with the material, often adding elements that transform the X-rays into something else entirely.

In one collage titled “Streetwalker,” Matis added eyes, nose and a mouth to a pair of lungs. “You kind of have to adjust your mind to the forms and what they're shaping, rather than saying, ‘Oh, these are X-rays,’” Matis said. “You can't look at it medically.” 

In another collage titled “Self-Portrait,” which also incorporates segments from a painting, Matis uses the X-rays to comment on himself. “The X-rays are internal. They're inside the body, so that's the internal part of myself, my inner life,” he said.  

The pieces are part of “Craig Matis: Songbooks and X-Ray Collages,” an exhibition on display at Sean Christopher Gallery through Aug. 20, with an artist reception on Aug. 7.  

The “Songbooks” portion of the show dovetails with Matis’ other passion: music. For decades, Matis has led the Cleveland band Uzizi. “The way I do music is eclectic. Every song is done differently and has a different feel to it,” he said. “I listen to a lot of music from all over the world, which has influenced me since I was a child and ever since I started the band in the early ’80s.” 

Matis has never kept visual arts and music entirely separate. In the early days of Uzizi, he made slides that he projected during performances, and about 15 years ago, Matis began creating songbooks to accompany the music. “I try to do each book differently, with a different technique and different materials,” he said. “The song is written first, and then I try to figure out how I want to embellish it with the visuals.” 

A panel from the songbook "Tightrope: Walk the Line" by Craig Matis

The most involved songbook at Sean Christopher Gallery is titled “Tightrope: Walk the Line,” a 17-panel series that complements Matis' song “Tightrope,” which plays on speakers while visitors view the art. The imagery in the series is loosely derived from old circus posters, but Matis uses the theme to draw parallels to another often-marginalized group. 

"A friend of mine and his wife started this family support group for the trans community in Cleveland. … He invited me to come to a meeting on the West Side, and I did. I was fascinated by the mixture of people and their stories, and I thought to myself, 'As an artist, what can I do with this material? How can I express these stories?’” Matis said. “I'm not trans, but I felt like I was becoming an advocate for it.”