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Looking into the art of Spudart with Matt Maldre

Spudart is a public art project in Chicago that consists of a variety of objects, some of which are purchased from Oriental Trading and placed into the public arena. These objects are treated as a form of “public art” and once noticed by a passer by, open a window of possibilities, situational phenomenon, experience, reflection and thought. Spudart is a progressive artistic project by Matt Maldre who creates probably some of the most non-intrusive, non-defacing, hyper-curious yet completely obvious forms of public art.

We met for a really long time. The conversation below is edited for clarity and length.

Nicolette Caldwell: I was reading about how you said your goal with your art is to motivate people or instigate thoughts. I can see this especially with the sticky notes?

Spudart: That is one of my biggest mediums, the sticky note. It’s so weird. Someone the other day asked me what medium do you work in and it is like oh my gosh, medium? I don’t know if I have a medium anymore (laughs.) One of the bigger projects is the “I Like” notes. It is funny because just as I was crossing the bridge I was thinking about that and I was like, wow that is actually where I came up with the “I Like” thing because I was coming up the Chicago river and I really liked the reflection of the light on the water and I thought I should just leave a little sticky note that says, “I like the reflection of the light on the water.” Actually, it wasn’t even a sticky note, it was just a scrap of paper and I just left it on the handrail. And so I just kind of started leaving more “I Like” notes around on things. So it is sort of like me communicating in the public area.

Spudart, Sitcky Note. "I like how leaves crawl up next to trees." (Image courtesy of Matt Maldre)

NC: What was your first foray with these types of projects?

SA: The first one that I did consistently is the treasure chest.

NC: Did you make them?

SA: No, they are those tooth saver things where kids put their teeth in and save for the tooth fairy. In fact …

(Brings out the bag of goodies to show an example of one)

NC: I’ve never seen these before! It really says, “tooth saver!”

(Matt brings out the miniature treasure chest)

SA: So normally kids would put their teeth in there but instead I write a little note and leave it for people to find. I’ve been doing since about 2003.

NC: I never found one!

SA: The funny thing about these is that there’s a weird curiosity because when people see this, number one it’s fun, it’s cute, okay so it grabs your attention and number two when you realize it is a tooth saver you’re like ew do I even want to pick this up to begin with, is it going to have someone’s tooth inside, gross. So it kind of limits the audience down a lot and to who will actually be open to engaging with it. So when you actually open it up you’re like, oh there a note inside. And the thing I like about what happens is when you take this out and you read it and it says, “What is your treasure?” still in your other hand is this empty treasure chest. So now this is kind of the void or the emptiness and your thoughts are what the treasure is.

NC: Where did you come up with that idea?

SA: I don’t know! (Laughs)

Spudart, "What's Your Treasure?" (Image courtesy of Matt Maldre)

NC: So one day you just thought out of the blue that this would be a good idea?

SA: Oh you know what it is? Okay a lot of the stuff in here (stuff in his orange bag) tends to be stuff from little novelties. There is this site, Oriental Trading, here’s King Kong for instance. And I love looking through this website for ideas. And so you know, I really do just like King Kong but then one day I thought, you know, it would be really fun to put this tiny figurine of King Kong climbing up buildings. So sometimes I’ll do thoughtful stuff and some things are just for fun and kicks. For a while I was getting too serious and everything I did had to have meaning and as an artist I feel the need to have that balance between the two. Sometimes I just like the pure aesthetic value of it.

NC: I feel the same way about a lot of public art I see – I like the thoughtfulness of it and sometimes it is nice to see something that is just visually appeasing to the eye. It just makes me feel good about the space that I am in at that moment. You know?

SA: Yeah. And so to get to your question about how it actually all started, I guess it really all stemmed from when I was commuting to a design job I had gotten right after college and I was working out in Glen Ellen and I lived at my parents on the South Side in Beverly so there was a long commute and I would commute taking the Metra in and then I would take another Metra out to Glen Ellen. So the time between the two trains would be really long and I would hang out at the station in this food court area. And one of the things that really struck me after going to school is the lack of communication between people when they are commuting and how quiet people are. Especially because I took the school bus in grade school and high school and kid are just bouncing around and everything and I am an introvert so I am not exactly going up to strangers and talking with them all the time but still that was an observation I made, that people don’t really interact with one another. So I am sitting there in the food court area and I just thought it would be kind of fun to write these letters and leave them on the table so people think that somebody actually wrote that letter.

So that was the first “leaving in public thing” but ever before that in school on dollar bills I would write something but I cannot remember what it was anymore! Technically people think when you write on a dollar bill people think you destroy it. It was sort of like the “Where’s George Project.” It is something that comes across to you in the every day. The very question asking, “Where is George?” prompts people to want to find out what it is about and actually investigate and look into it and dig into the site to come to see the history of where it has been. To me that is fascinating!

NC: Have you ever gotten any responses?

SA: I never stick around to see if people pick it up or look at it. People that ask me that always find it perplexing. And I am purposely doing it to communicate with people so wouldn’t you think that I would want to know? I think there is a certain element of shyness. But I also find satisfaction in and of it nearly knowing that it is possibly doing something. Sometimes the moments where it has happened has been really cool. I left little bouncy balls with a paper clip sticking out of it and it said, “have a ball today” and I lined a whole bunch of them up on the ledge of this bridge and I was taking pictures as I was putting them up. So then I was trying to get the far away shot and I noticed people going and taking them as I was across the street and it was neat to see peoples reactions.

Spudart, Have a Ball of a Day. "Have a ball today on the MIchigan Avenue bridge" (Image courtesy of Matt Maldre)

Once I’ve left one of the treasure chests across the seat from me on the el and this kid picked it up and was like, “mom what does this say?” and the mom said, “what is your treasure?” The nice part is that it can actually developed into a discussion but in this case they were like oh well … that is neat and they actually left it back on the seat with the note inside. I was kind of hoping they would keep it because that is part of the aspect that I like, when they keep the objects that I leave behind. There is something really powerful when you hold it in your hand. If I have a pen in my hand, I am more apt to think. If I have a camera in my hand I am more apt to take pictures. Whatever is in your hand at that moment really influences what your thoughts are and there is something really interesting about that.

NC: So back to choosing the objects, I am really curious to know why you decided to go that route opposed to more common styles of street art like wheat pasting and stencils?

SA: First off, I want to be able to communicate stuff to the public and make them consider things and have something to give them a thought for the day. Finding different vehicles to be able to have creative expression and the different methods to do that with. For me it is a very quick way of doing it because I can just get it boom knock it out and do a bunch of pieces. It enables me to do the range of projects that I do by having them be quick whippy little things.

NC: When did you first decide why you wanted to do that?

SA: This might not be very popular in the art world but I am a Christian. So a lot of it stems from my worldview of how I approach my life spiritually and the big picture of things. I am definitely not bible track handing out verses because it is pointless, I don’t want that and people are turned off by that. For me personally, I have such a love for our world, for what it is and how amazing it is and I want to be able to share that with people. Like the “I like” notes. You can look at anything and find anything amazing. Anything. It depends on how you perceive it and approach it so I want people to approach things and see things in a new light. So then there is the treasure chest project, which is to really consider the bigger picture of what you are doing, what is your purpose and what you are really doing here and to consider that. For me, that is a big aspect for how I live my life and I find great value in that. I am not just a person who makes physical objects – there is a great meaning behind everything that I do. How do I put this with out being off putting? But really I feel like God is at work in everything that happens, EVERYTHING.

NC: I get it. So you were questioning and thinking about these things and that is when you came up with this idea to instigate some of these experiences for other people?

SA: Yeah, because I think about these things all the time. How do we relate to things and what is the meaning behind these things? And so these are the kinds of things I want other people to consider. I think what it also is or what it comes down to is being able to have a joy for things and being able to actually see that.

Spudart, Million Dollar Project. (Image courtesy of Matt Maldre)

NC: And the aggressive nature of commuting (being downtown with all these people not even able to give a person passing by eye contact) – it is like an infection we all succumb to; we are all guilty of it. Sometimes it is really hard to be around others in public, it is draining. I can see how your projects might lend a hand in breaking up that tension.

SA: Art on Track is fantastic for that as well – it makes you view that train in a different way and it helps you to re-engage yourself with the train. I bet you now that anyone who has ridden that has a different experience of riding the train. It is just those little things of how you can better connect with something and because of that I think people have a different experience of riding on trains.

NC: I know I do. So I have one more question for you. Say one day you want to leave this all behind and decide you don’t want to do it anymore, what would you want your legacy to be?

SA: Our legacy has to be something consumable for people to have and it can’t be overly complex. Often as artists we get caught into the trap that all of our sketchbooks are going to be analyzed by museums so I am going to keep all my sketchbooks and maybe one day be famous. And the reality is that isn’t going to happen so you have to keep things as sort of digestible things and there aren’t going to be people that are going to get totally in-depth to everything I do it. There are things about my life that I want people to remember but as far as the artwork itself, I don’t really desire to have a legacy, with that.

NC: That is interesting, so maybe you leave a legacy without really even thinking about it though. Whether it be a thought or a behavior, maybe what you leave behind (in a way) pushes people to the next point and instead you are leaving a tiny legacy each time.

SA: And if the goal in life is to learn and grow as a person and to be happy in order to get happiness you just have to be thankful really and to continue being thankful – the happiness comes as a byproduct of that.

For more information about Spudart go to www.spudart.org.

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