Early last Friday morning, fiber artist Jean Matzke went out for a stroll in downtown St. Paul with her boxer, Maya, just like she did every morning. As she crossed the street near her condo in Lowertown Artist Lofts, she was struck and killed by a passing garbage truck. The strange, sad nature of the tragic accident has grabbed a number of headlines; but not enough has been published, thus far, about the woman, herself.
Matzke was a fixture in the local art and fine craft scene — in addition to her distinguished career as an artist, she ran a gallery in St. Cloud for years and years before moving to the Twin Cities in the early 2000s. Her distinctive artwork was shown regularly at the Grand Hand Gallery and Textile Center; she was a stalwart of the seasonal St. Paul Art Crawl scene and a lifelong booster of her fellow artists’ work. In the wake of her sudden death, artists from all over the state are struggling to make sense of her loss.
One of Matzke’s friends and Lowertown Lofts neighbors, filmmaker Deborah Wallwork, offers her own tribute to Jean below.
It’s our deepest fear — that your life could be over in an instant. One day you are talking and laughing with a friend in the elevator, about to take your dog for a walk; and then, the next minute, you are gone, kaput, finished.
Lowertown artist Jean Matzke was killed a week ago, struck by truck at the intersection of 5th and Sibley, close to Mears Park. There’s a memorial there, one of those ad hoc folk shrines — roses and sunflowers, photographs and news stories, all bound to a lamp post. That Jean died instantly is maybe a blessing; but it also left a hole in many lives. Here was someone who held many threads in her hands; an individual who gladly took on many roles and made many connections in the circles of her community.
Jean was, first of all, a bright smile you encountered at the Textile Center, the WARM meetings, the St. Paul Art Crawl. A can-do person, she was enthusiasm incarnate, someone who’d jump in to help out, who took up others’ ideas and ran with them. Never one to complain, she embraced life and its challenges with a little twinkle of humor, in way that was both admirable and charmingly self-deprecating.
Being so warm, upbeat, engaging, she was, naturally, a light to others. A wonderful artist in her own right; she was also loved for being one who served. She ran a gallery in St. Cloud for many years, and she continued to be a resource for many artists and students from outstate who came to the Cities. After she moved to St. Paul, into Lowertown Lofts Artist Coop, in addition to showing her own work, during the Art Crawl, she organized a “theme wall,” where she curated and hung a show of other members’ work.
That was Jean, always looking around to see what she could do.
I loved her work the second I saw it. It’s deeply personal, and yet, intellectual. She was thinking, through her art, about the life she led–about being a woman, a mother, a passionate reader. Her art took the thread of her life and worked it intensely into the fabric of the world around her. Interested in the figure, in the combinations of text and image, she put her ideas in a medium that is rich with feminine history — is there a woman out there who doesn’t lust after fabric? And yet, somehow, hers is a medium that still hangs in the halls of art history under the rubric of “craft.” Jean made art: pieces that are serious, thoughtful, playful, and expressionistic.
Stubbornly independent, full of energy and optimism and physical stamina — at 70, Jean was vital, as antsy and eager as a young teenager. At a gathering which friends recently held in her memory, there were many stories about Jean climbing up 14-foot ladders, hauling great boxes of exhibit materials to and fro in her capacious van, refusing all offers for help. She walked at least five miles a day; on the day of the accident, she was probably on her way back to Lowertown from her ritual route around the St. Paul Cathedral, arriving back home as the sun rose above the buildings at five in the morning.
We couldn’t keep up with her.
I’ve been thinking about Jean and thinking about threads–about how so many stitches, in embroidery, are circles. Each stitch is like a tiny brush stroke, in each one you have to travel into something and then find your way out.
I’m thinking now about how there’s always two sides to a cloth, the one you see, which is realized, an image created through meticulous and demanding labor; and then there’s other side, the one that is a tangle of knots and cut ends.
Paul Klee defined drawing as “taking a line for a walk”; it’s a phrase that fits if you think about embroidery as the complex elaborations of a thread.
One of Jean’s recent pieces is about tangles. Another one is about the fear of losing one’s memory–a different kind of tangling, so I’m told.
In Greek mythology, three ancient crones weave the threads of Destiny. Clotho spins the Thread of Life, Lachesis allots the length of the tether, and Atropos positions her scissors over the loom for the final snip. One by one the threads are cut in this life, almost unnoticeably. And sooner or later the garment or quilt or weaving is freed from that endless spool.
We in the arts community were all devastated by the suddenness of this loss. At the Lowertown Lofts, we held a remembrance ceremony. We all brought candles and lit them, one from another, told stories, and brought them together into a brilliant shrine of many points of light. Someone sang a Tibetan prayer, and another person did a releasing of the spirit. Improvisationally, as artists, we knew we needed to turn this tragedy, to tuck in the threads, tie up the loose ends.
Jean didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Her thread was precipitously cut. But the embroidery of her life, her work, goes on.