“Scout Envy,” oil on canvas, 8”x8”. LEFT: “Schuyler and the Flying Dutchman,” oil on canvas, 8”x8”.
“Scout Envy,” oil on canvas, 8”x8”. LEFT: “Schuyler and the Flying Dutchman,” oil on canvas, 8”x8”.

Terry Matlen tells her story through a series of small paintings at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.

On opening day of her painting exhibit at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, Terry Matlen was thrilled that about a third of her 21 paintings sold and will be distributed when the exhibit ends on June 1.

In the meantime, she hopes there will be more interested buyers because she established the autobiographical exhibit to relate to viewers and help them recognize their own ways of life and how they reached those ways.

The key in the development of her display, RAW – A Journey Through Her Wild Imagination, Childhood and Symbolism, consists mainly of  small story paintings with most in the size of about 8 inches by 8 inches.

“This show unfolded as I was working on it,” Matlen said. “I have a lot of artifacts and vintage items in my studio, and I’d grab one of them and paint.

“I start with one object and think what will make this painting work with a story but also artistic elements such as composition, texture, light and dark so things just happened.

“I saw themes emerge which begin with my early childhood. The beginning of my show is a painting of me as a young girl looking pretty unhappy because there have been traumas.”

Those traumas reach from a misdiagnosed appendicitis to the death of her father. Then there are feelings expressed about being a tomboyish sister among brothers.

“One of the paintings shows me as a pouting little girl in a dance outfit standing next to my brother in what I thought was a very cool Cub Scout uniform,” she said.  “He got to do things that I thought were interesting.”

The artist wants viewers to be aware that she inserts humorous elements in her artistry as well because she wants to provide what she considers necessary laughter.

The show builds with different symbols as Matlen is very interested in symbols, dreams and fantasies while working as an online social worker who has written two books, The Queen of Distraction: How Women With ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus and Get More Done as well as Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD: Beyond Piles, Palms and Post-its.

“I think small canvases can really draw a punch because they invite the viewer to come closer,” said Matlen, who also did one large painting at the request of the art center. “Viewers pull into these images and bring their own experiences

“My goal is not only to express my own feelings and history but to let viewers bring their experiences into what they’re seeing. When you get close, you can see little tiny details you might not see standing 10 feet back.”

Terry Matlen in her studio
Terry Matlen in her studio Nick Hagen/APA Photo

Matlen, who grew up in Detroit and Huntington Woods and now lives in Birmingham, attributes her interest in art to a teacher at Berkley High School. The teacher gave each student a small piece of cardboard and told them to make a small hole and then look at surroundings through that hole.

“That was the beginning of me learning how to see and how artists would see,” Matlen said. “The next assignment was to paint what we saw. I started taking more and more classes from her, and she believed in me and encouraged me to continue.”

Matlen thought she would become an art teacher and studied for that at Wayne State University. At one point, she realized artistic teaching would not be for her and moved on to working in her stepfather’s jewelry store.

Later, there was a return to studying painting at Wayne followed by attendance at the Art Students League of New York. With recognition that she could not earn a living with art, she returned to Wayne and became a clinical social worker.

Married to physician Jerry Matlen and the mother of two daughters, Terry notes that her religious activities are with the Friendship Circle as she helps assert opportunities for a daughter with special needs. Matlen is very proud that this daughter has taken up a similar interest in art and has projects displayed.

“I’ve been very involved in the art community in Metro Detroit so I’ve been showing my paintings in group shows,” Matlen said. “I always was doing some kind of art in a home studio.

“When my kids were little, I was making painted furniture for children that sold in boutique shops. For this show, I had to pull through a body of paintings in a short period of time. I was painting about three hours a day, usually at night. I’m a night person.”

RAW – A Journey Through Her Wild Imagination, Childhood and Symbolism runs through June 1 at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, 1516 S. Cranbrook Road, Birmingham. (248) 644-0866. bbartcenter.org.

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