I’m rushing to make it to the coffee shop in time for our meeting because even though the building is a stone’s throw from my house, Wadsworth is backed up this morning and I can’t seem to break away from the RTD bus in front of me. I arrive breathlessly and scan the interior. Immediately I know her even though I’ve never seen her face. It’s our artist in residence Ryan Ann Mathews looking poised, professional, and ready for our interview. Ryan’s straight brown hair is parted dead center and it cascades down to the mid-point of her back. Her face bears a look that is both youthful and confident, professional and fun all at once. I pull myself together and we get down to business.
I should first point out that Ryan Ann Mathews has just been awarded a distinction of the highest honor. As of February 2014 she becomes the first ever 40 West Arts District, Artist in Residence, a position that carries with it both benefits and responsibilities. Without going into overwhelming detail, Ryan will both live and work at the newly finished Lamar Station Crossing, a gorgeous state-of-the art apartment complex featuring a community resource center, fitness room, playground, and resident/studio space. Oh and did I mention that it’s 100 feet from the Lamar Light Rail Station, making it the first transit-oriented community in the city?
In return the Artist in Residence agrees to hold monthly classes and demonstrations, and to maintain an active presence at 40W throughout the year, including submissions to gallery exhibitions, art and cultural advocacy, and volunteer work. It’s kinda a big deal.
I ask Ryan how she came to art in the first place.
“I was not always an artist. I started painting when I was about sixteen years old,” she explains to me. “I found my mom’s old easel in the garage and started using it.” Ryan fell in love with the artistic process and even though a talent for swimming and an accompanying scholarship almost lured her away, she found herself returning again and again to art. “The whole time I was painting I thought, I want to go to college for art. So I kind of just looked into it. So many people were like, that’s not possible, you know. You can’t afford it. You’re not going to get in. So many things. I just filled out the financial aid anyway. I said to myself, I’m going. I just packed my bags.”
Ryan’s resilience and determination weave so naturally though our conversation that it’s hard to believe that this young woman was ever on a different path. However Ryan confides to me that in second grade she was diagnosed with a learning disability. She expresses that she “couldn’t do math at the pace the school wanted.” She worked with a tutor but still experienced the pain and frustration of falling behind. Ryan did graduate but even then a disability coordinator wrote the following statement in her file:
“Ryan Mathews will apply to a community college appropriate for her learning level and take classes pertaining to her disability, maybe someday planning to graduate with an associates degree.”
This sense of finality didn’t settle well with Ryan and she refused to accept the coordinator’s words. “I’m not going to do that,” she tells me unequivocally regarding this period in her life. Instead Ryan moved back in with her mom, took a few months off to swim and paint, and then plowed full speed ahead gaining acceptance to Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design where she is now wrapping up her senior year.
Ryan contemplates how this history ties into her artwork.
“I focus on social justice topics within my artwork, everything from bullying to racism, [and] everything in-between. [In my demos for 40W] I want to bring awareness to community standpoints, social justice, and [the idea of] being overpowered. I want to explain how visual representations bring meaning, symbolic meaning, and how you can execute that in your art to get the viewer to respond emotionally. And if the viewer looks at this what are they going to say? What are they going to feel? What do you want from the viewer?”
For her next big project, Ryan plans to run the Colfax Marathon and to translate her physical and emotional experiences to art. She envisions large-scale oil paintings that tell a story about the different neighborhoods and people that all come together to take part in this single event.
When I asked Ryan how she felt about her Artist in Residence award she had this response. “I’m still coming down from all the excitement. I still can’t believe that I got it. This is one of the biggest opportunities that I’ve ever been given.”
Please join me in welcoming Ryan Ann Mathews as the 40W Arts District Artist in Residence for 2014. Don’t forget to take a look at the website below for a link to information, pictures, and video about Lamar Station Crossing.
Lamar Station Crossing
Art by Ryan Ann Mathews