After a long career as an actor, Gerald Matthews found a new calling in sculpture.
written by Catie Joyce-Bulay | photography by Talia Jean Galvin
Walking down Walla Walla’s Main Street on a Saturday afternoon, you may notice a curious sandwich board sign pointing upstairs to the Museum of Un-Natural History. Your interest piqued, you may climb the old wooden stairs above Tallman Pharmacy, open an unassuming door and walk into Gerald Matthews’ surreal imagination.
The first sculpture to greet you is part-mannequin, part- animal-skeleton and holds a parasol. A whirring sound draws you around the corner to the main room, where a little spinning Ferris wheel entitled “ The Last of the Great Superpowers” towers over a chorus of cymbal-clanging toy monkeys, smiling with bloodshot eyes. Matthews opened the Dadaist gallery in 2001 after deciding he didn’t want to take his work back home at the end of a show at a local winery. What is Dada? “Well, that’s its great secret, of course,” Matthews said. “ There is no definition of Dada. It was a rebellious movement in the 1920s to show disdain for art in general as it was done then, and to create without any rules and regulations.” This proved to be the ideal style for Matthews, whose background is in performance. “I thought, this is perfect for me because I don’t have to draw or paint, I can just make what I want.
I don’t have to explain it to anybody, and here I am explaining it to somebody,” he said, as we sat beside a glowing replace in his home on a quiet side street near Whitman College. Matthews’ parrot, Lou Lou, whistled approval in the background. You’ll find the 87-year-old at the museum each Saturday, perched on a tall chair, wearing a green visor, a copy of The New York Times or Walla Walla Union Bulletin in hand. He blends seamlessly into the eclectic sculptures, which mix natural elements with plastic, pop culture references with ancient history, political statements with play.
He enjoys watching the reactions of visitors, appreciating the negative as much as the positive. “ The negative ones mostly are played out in physical activity,” he said. “ They come in, they walk around and then they get out. Either they don’t like it or they don’t understand it. I find a lot of people are shy in a museum. They’re afraid they won’t know what’s going on— including big fancy museums in New York.”
Matthews spent most of his career in New York, meaning he’s very familiar with the museums there. During one of many parties he hosted in his apartment across the street from the American Museum of Natural History, someone suggested there should be a museum of unnatural history, and the name stuck with him. The most recent piece he created was a representation of Donald Trump out of a puffer fish wearing a blond wig. “ The face looks just like him, all pooched out,” he said. “I guess you could say that my nightclub career is what inspired me to make derogatory remarks about politicians and my satirical outlook on virtually everything from religion to politics.”
Before he became a visual artist in his retirement, Matthews spent his life on the stage in theaters, nightclubs and in front of television cameras. He was the voice of numerous cartoon characters and commercials, most famously as Golden Crisp Cereal’s Sugar Bear. Matthews played the singing Bing Crosby- wannabe for forty years. When he and his fifth wife, Pat Stanley, a Tony Award-winning Broadway actress, retired to Walla Walla in 1989, they brought little furniture with them. Matthews, who grew up woodworking with his father in Texas, created a woodshop in his basement to make their furniture. He then sold pieces to people from around the country, and this eventually developed into his art. Matthews’ pieces invite contemplation along with a chuckle or even a belly laugh. “Often the inspiration comes from finding something fun or funny,” he said. “I think the first pieces I made were things that started from found pieces of wood that I got on the campus, kind of snarly things and funny in some way. They reminded me of something, so I started giving them names, titles. I sort of followed that routine ever since.” Doll heads and bones are Matthews’ favorite materials. People bring him bones and he scours eBay. “It’s very easy to order a whole box of doll heads, for instance, and just go from there.”