Culture Shock: Conjuring Wonder

Paper Engineer Matt Shlian Brings New Work To Tamarind's Wonder Cabinet

Maggie Grimason
6 min read
Conjuring Wonder
Matthew Shlian, 2013. (Scott Soderberg)
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When Matt Shlian picks up the phone and we start chatting he’s a dozen feet in the air, gluing together the pieces of his latest work, a large installation on the mighty front wall of the Tamarind Institute (2500 Central Ave. SE). In Shlian’s work a million little pieces converge to massive effect. Having pursued many courses of study in the arts, what Shlian finally hit upon was giving prints dimension. Summarizing the intricacy of Shlian’s work that way doesn’t quite do it justice—here form, geometry, light and shadow are pulled to the forefront in repeating folds that create maze work for the eye.

Shlian—who has collaborated with six master printers during residencies at the Tamarind previously—is the first recipient of the Frederick Hammersley Artist Residency, and has worked with current master printer Valpuri Remling on the large installation in question. Shlian’s work produced during this extended residency will be shown as part of Tamarind’s
Wonder Cabinet event. This expansive look at where the arts and sciences converge runs from Friday, April 20, to Sunday, April 22, and includes an artist talk with Shlian on Saturday at 1:30pm and many more events—including a talk from author Lawrence Weschler and conversations wherein Radiolab’s own Robert Krulwich moderates. To find a full event program visit

Shlian climbed down from the lift for a short conversation about his work and to get a broader view of the work in progress. “You look at this thing from two inches away for so long and seeing it all come together is the exciting part,” he began. “The not knowing is what propels it forward.”

What are you hoping to create in this piece?

Valpuri [Remling] and I drove to Santa Fe once, and just seeing the light and seeing the sky, I was really inspired and I thought, you know what, when you work in paper you can get reams in one color, but what I really wanted … was a ream of paper that slowly had a gradient to it, that started out really light and got deeper. Tamarind could totally do that on an offset press. I also knew I wanted to have this repeating tile shape. It’s really basic, but the grid is a series of octagons. The way that octagons tile is that there’s a little square between them. So I knew I would have two different shapes to play with and create a form with. It’s creating this wave pattern between these two shapes.

What is the importance of events like this—that serve as the bridge between arts and sciences?

That intersection is crucial. To see these disciplines as disparate things is a disservice to both science and art. I think there is an interconnection that is there that we don’t talk about. Think about the Renaissance—they were dissecting bodies and drawing them at the same time. There was a connection. … If you’re in the sciences and you’re trying to show something, visualization is key. If you can’t show someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you what it is you’re trying to do, it’s not going to work. Artists need to work with scientists and scientists need artists. As an artist I’m inspired by the sciences. It gives me lots of ideas for patterns or for forms.

You’ve worked with many scientists, so you achieve that interdisciplinary aim.

There is a quote I gave in a talk. It was this guy Victor Weisskopf who taught at MIT; he was a physicist. He wrote this essay, … where he said that when we teach science we must begin by asking questions, not giving answers, because in that way we contribute to the joy of insight. … Science is the opposite of knowledge; science is curiosity.

What attracted you to geometry and paper?

I’ve always been more drawn to geometric forms and patterns. I’m working on a book right now, and I went through all these drawings I did as a kid. Looking at drawings I did when I was 6, it’s all these pattern forms, all these geometric designs that I’m trying to figure out space and form. I guess I’ve always done it. … Once I got to paper and I tried every medium—it just made sense. It was a way to execute the ideas I had in my head quickly and I liked that paper wasn’t precious. … If you mess it up, just recycle it, get another piece.

When you’re making—are you thinking or is your mind blank?

I have Crohn’s disease, so a lot of my life is trying to manage being sick. For me drawing is meditative; working with paper is meditative, so it lets me balance out other parts of my life. Like, if I’m away from the studio for too many days, I get really antsy. If it’s going great, it’s more blank. There’s this saying—that when you’re working in the studio, you hear all of the voices of all your mentors, the critics, the teachers. When the work gets good, they all go away, and then when the work gets really great, you leave. I forget who said it. … When you lose the sense of time, that’s the best. And that’s what the work demands now.

I love that, that the discipline of making returns something to you, and probably the viewer, too.

I was interviewed once about what makes a great piece of art. And I thought about it, and I figured that a great piece of art teaches us, or shows us something that we didn’t already know, and now we can’t imagine not knowing. Or it connects to some part of you, and you’ve had this thought or idea, but now here it is made palpable, and you relate to it. It makes you feel, I don’t know, less alone. You feel that connection to someone from a different place.

Is that your highest aspiration for your work?

If you can take anybody out of whatever they’re in. … I’ve done a piece in a children’s hospital. I’m in them a lot, they can be kind of depressing. So I did this motorized piece and went back at one point to fix it. When I was there, this guy came up to me, and he told me that it was his daughter’s favorite piece in the hospital. She was there getting chemo and they would get the therapy, and then they’d walk over and look at it. I told him that I made it, and he hugged me. Art has that power to take people out of whatever they’re dealing with. It can open eyes. There’s a power to it beyond the utilitarian side of things. As a society, we neglect those parts of ourselves. If I can conjure that sense of wonder, I’m happy for that.
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