My American Family: A Collection of Contemporary Family Portraits

The My American Family series by Southern California artist Grace Matthews personifies her experience of the unbounded nature of family love, and her recognition of that love as a requisite ingredient of life. In this grouping of quilted paintings, Matthews honors those she loves with large-scale, vividly hued, full-length portraits conceived in an unpretentious style that merges element of Pop and vernacular art. Bold, reductive figural forms, expressionistic brushwork, and stark frontality mark her portrayals, which include, among others, the unexpected depiction of her dog Zoe, staring solemnly at the viewer. The checker lime border and dazzling pink background (accented with psychedelic square-patterned piping that recalls 1960s textile designs) amplifies the Pop Art quality of the artist’s drawing style, which features heavy outlines and a visual shorthand of repeated shapes and lines that assert the dog’s form. At the same time, the flamboyancy of the background palette is offset by the muted colors and cheerless disposition of Zoe.
Inspired in part by the writings of feminist art theorist Whitney Chadwick, Matthews is currently working with a colleague on a project that she calls “The Whole Fandamily.” It will include paintings such as Zoe and Brad, and will embody what Chadwick describes as the act of “making images out of the experience of one’s life.”
The portrayal of Brad is not unlike that of Zoe. The figure’s pose is perfectly parallel to the picture plane; his stance is made rigid by the heavy black outline that delineates him; and his expression is stern, almost angry. He clasps his hands in front of him as if to stem the flow of blood that drips down the front of his bright blue slacks. Matthews deploys the image of dripping blood in a manner that recalls the celebrated 1967 painting by Faith Ringgold (with whom Matthews studied and later worked)- The Flag is Bleeding. In Ringgold’s picture, an African-American man is portrayed holding his hand to his heart as blood seeps through his finger and down the front of his clothing. Matthews has adopted a corresponding hieroglyph to signify human suffering; and once again, she employs vibrant colors and playful patterns to refute this very signification.
Like Ringgold, Matthews exploits paradox and contradiction-painting and quilting, joyous colors and somber themes, vernacular figural style and adroit quilting techniques-to create her “family album.” She derives her subject matter, to paraphrase her words, from the loving kinships that color her life. She paints about “family, friends, relationships, beauty, memories, love and pain” and about her life’s milestone moments-marriage, divorce, birth, and death. Her goal as an artist is twofold: to “understand and to elevate” her life experiences and those with whom she shared them by immortalizing them on canvas: and to render her images in such a way as to make the universal-part of a shared human experience. Matthews’ endeavors beyond the creation of her work are equally venerable. After graduating with honors from UCSD, Matthews became, for two years, president of the Women’s Caucus for Art in San Diego, and she continues to work with this group to provide exhibition opportunities for women. Matthews is also vice president and secretary of the Anyone Can Fly Foundation, which offers grants to artists, teachers, and scholars whose works advance public awareness of African-American artists. Written by Lisa Farrington for the Voices in Cloth Catalog


American Family #1: Brad
Quilted Painting
Acrylic on canvas
77 x 45 inches
© Grace Matthews 2002

American Family #2: Shelly
Quilted painting
acrylic on canvas
75 x 44.5 inches
© Grace Matthews 2002

American Family #4: Rudy
67” x 59
Acrylic on canvas, hand quilted
© Grace Matthews 2003

American Family #6: Grace
72 “ x 47.5”
Acrylic on canvas, hand quilted

Studies and studio photos of the work in progress.

Sue, 2009

My sister Sue and I in my San Diego studio working on studies for her portrait.

Sue's painted quilt is finished! June 2009

This is a portrait of my sister, Sue who loves to garden. Sue came to San Diego to pose for this work.