The Indie Memphis Film Festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In the first of a three-part series covering the event, themed "Giving When the Living Gets Tough", we feature local artist Lawrence Matthews who has three projects showing at this year's festival.
I was still laughing long after our interview wrapped. His sense of humor is one of his most appealing attributes but don’t let Lawrence Matthews’ penchant for finding the funny in just about anything fool you: he is as equally resolute in his determination to make a difference as an artist, for artists, in his hometown of Memphis. He uses his art to speak about matters that are often prone to silence and to give a voice to those who may not have the capacity to speak up for themselves. While it hasn’t always been easy to accept the calling placed on his heart and to carry the burdens that come along with it, Matthews now understands why he kept “getting sucked back in” every time he tried to leave Memphis for good.
In this year’s Indie Memphis Film Festival, Matthews has written, directed and/or is featured in three projects: Harbor Hall, Take Control of Me and Myles. He also recently released his first album, Alero by Don Lifted, and tomorrow will celebrate the successful run of his art exhibit (alongside Felicia Wheeler and Matthew Thomas) Maintaining Place/Making Space at the Orange Mound Gallery. Yes, his plate right now is overflowing, as is his gratitude for it all, yet Matthews remembers it wasn’t that long ago he felt like a “fish out of water” because the city’s culture didn’t mesh with his art- or at least the expectations of what art should be from an artist who looked like him. The rejections were endless and the pain of those collective “no’s” was unrelenting. But he would learn all of that pain had a purpose.
Matthews shares that even in the worst of it all there was no room for pity because he was always in the company of someone who pushed him past the discomfort of disappointment; someone who saw what he did not yet see. “My parents did what they had to do so I could pursue my dreams. My aunt listened to everything I had to say. Friends made it very hard for me to quit, even when I wanted to. When I was younger I couldn’t see anything that’s here now, or see it coming.” His evolution as an artist continued at a near perfect pace alongside that of the revolution beginning to take place within Memphis’ arts community. Soon enough, the many archived creations he had waiting on a “yes” found their way into prominent spaces such as the David Lusk Gallery. When the doors opened figuratively and literally, he was ready: Matthews was one of the first featured artists at Crosstown Arts. Because even amidst the never-ending “no’s” that began back in 2008 he continued working on his craft, an example of faith defined: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. What he’d hoped for was now, finally, being seen.
Since those doors opened, some have closed; it is the artist’s life. The pain isn’t any less upsetting but Matthews now understands its purpose: it has moved him into a life of giving. He doesn’t expend energy wondering why his work may not be considered “trendy” enough at any given moment. He chooses instead to use it in helping young artists in our communities, including at the Carpenter Art Garden where he is a volunteer.
“A switch happened after my grandmother’s death [in 2012]. A focus from just doing to consciously creating.” So he creates, no matter what, and he tries to live his life from a place of consciousness, no matter what. Even on days when disappointment hits his spirit hardest, Matthews looks around him and sees hope: “I fight these battles so others won’t have to. My concern is for the younger [artists] who are more talented than me, that they won’t get ahead. I want to be a fixture in [their] community.”
In every rejection, behind every closed door, and in the aftermath of losing one of the most important people in his life, Matthews found peace in giving when his living got tough.
Photo by Lawrence Matthews