Mathew Simms

'The Little World of Mathew Simms' opens as Despard Gallery this week. In Artist Profile 54, Lucy Hawthorne visited Simms to discuss 'bonny fat cows,' talking rabbits, and the work of looking.

It’s a studio visit like no other. I pull over on a dirt road just outside Westbury in Northern Tasmania and do a U-turn before reading the instructions again: ‘After the willow trees, then across the creek.’ On my second attempt to find Simms’ camp – his home and studio – I spot the artist waving from the side of the road. He’s tall and lanky with long grey hair, and his beard is decoratively tied in a knot. His clothes are handmade, as are his chunky wooden clogs.

Simms’s camp occupies a sliver of land divided by an old railway line in the bucolic Meander Valley. This rich environment is reflected in the artist’s paintings, which often feature people and farm animals in a landscape of rolling hills and winding paths. His camp is surrounded by willows, gorse, hawthorns and blackberries that are kept in check by his beloved Awassi milking sheep – Bella, Petal, and Little Girl. The larger trees are used to create his dolls, chairs and boards for painting, and so his surrounding environment is both art material and subject.

Simms has a remarkably domestic set-up under a tarp. There are stained wooden chests of drawers, chairs, storage chests, and table upon table, all tightly arranged on a bed of straw. As Simms pulls out his most recent creations, the sheep settle down under the shade of the tarp, sensing they’re no longer the centre of attention. Simms arranges his dolls and paintings with care. A few dolls sit on the chair, while others are perched next to the paintings upon the tower of tables. Lastly, he pulls out his Hungarian bagpipes. He plays facing the dolls, as if they’re the audience. His creations are so perfectly of this place, of this time, of this situation, that at this moment it’s hard to imagine the dolls or paintings being displayed any other way, particularly in isolation within an indoor gallery space.

The painted faces of the dolls are near identical to Simms’ red-cheeked portraits of women. The women are plump with shy smiles, and often accompanied by animated sheep or other farm animals. But Simms’ sheep and women aren’t based on anyone in particular. He explains that the characters are simply from his imagination.

His dolls wear old-fashioned clothing that he sews himself. The carved features are roughly hewn, as is the sewing, but the painted faces are soft and lovingly created. He notes that when he started making dolls, they were ‘cruder’, with stumps representing hands. While the limbs have evolved, they are still approximations of a human form, with more attention paid to the mechanics of the articulated legs than refining the feet. However, it’s this rawness and mark of the maker that makes these dolls so special.

Simms seems keener to talk about his clog-making than his dolls. It’s a recent obsession, so much so that he ordered a special tool from Japan to hollow out the interiors. ‘No one wants to buy them though’, he says, genuinely puzzled. I spot at least a dozen pairs within the shelter. Simms is driven by the desire to constantly learn new and often self-taught skills, as well as a love of experimenting with form and materials. He insists that we need to experience discomfort, try new things – a philosophy he calls ‘the edge’.

‘If you lean forward’, he says, slowly leaning forward until he dramatically catches himself, ‘you’ll take a step.’ That’s why he recently moved from the relative comfort of an old Deloraine schoolhouse to the open-air camp. The philosophy is also reflected in his constantly changing interests – from furniture, to paintings, dolls and now clogs. ‘Making is like a trip’, he notes. ‘But I don’t want to get too high. Simms is no outsider. He says that he won’t ‘go to a gallery to look at art’, but he briefly attended art school in Launceston in his twenties. He is critical of the comparison of his work to Impressionist painting. ‘I’m the opposite of the Impressionists. They are light and sky’, he argues, instead aligning himself with the imaginary landscapes of Marc Chagall.

You can see the influence of Chagall in Simms’ paintings. They are more grounded than Chagall’s colourful and mystical world, but there’s a similar meeting of people, sheep and goats, who at times seem to float mid-air. They have a shared fairytale quality, of folk art narrative and storytelling, of curved female figures painted with soft feathery brushstrokes.

Simms started painting as a means of illustrating his stories about a boy named Mackle Pickle, who lives in a world of ‘bonny fat cows’ and talking rabbits. When asked about the source of the stories, he launches comfortably into the story of this country boy as if it were a real-life anecdote. Again, while they are clearly fiction, they’re set in the world he knows: an area of rural Tasmania that is often compared to the English countryside.

Simms’ paintings are romanticised interpretations of rural living. They mostly depict women, because to the artist, women ‘represent homeliness, tenderness, intimacy.’ The figures in the paintings are plump and happy with large breasts and often low-cut dresses. People and animals gather outdoors as if in a dance, surrounded by rich green hills and rough approximations of protective trees. There are no fences to separate the humans from the animals. In All of them going along (2019), two women walk aside a pair of sheep, gazing affectionately at their animal friends. The soft curves of the women are echoed in the stance of the sheep, the gently winding road, and the rolling hills in the background. The subjects in Two Women (2019) are painted in a more refined manner. They smile coyly, their gazes directed slightly off-frame, while a lone sheep trotting alongside looks up affectionately at the women. The animal’s behaviour seems more like that of a domestic pet than farm animal – not unlike Simms’ own sheep. However, with one of the women wearing an off-the-shoulder dress, it’s more arcadian fantasy than domestic farming scene.

The paintings are small – partly because he paints on a solid wood backing that he cuts himself, but also because he likes to paint them in a day. He notes, ‘Most of the work is not putting paint on. Most of it is looking. I don’t want something to look slick.’ The wood grain, the knots, and the rough surface are allowed to shine. The significance of scale is reflected in the title of his exhibition: ‘The Little World of Mathew Simms’. ‘Not small’, he emphasises, as in ‘small-minded’. He seems anxious to avoid being categorised, saying as I leave, ‘This isn’t about a person living in a tent. And this isn’t about a person who owns sheep. It’s about living free. Being true is being free’.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2021.

The Little World of Mathew Simms
5-27 May, 2021
Despard Gallery, Hobart


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