Asheville Art Talk: Matt Tommey, not A typical basketmaker

GATHERING MATERIAL: Matt Tommey cuts limbs and branches outside his River Oaks Studio in the River Arts District. Photo by Thomas Calder

On a February day in 2009, Matt Tommey — a sculptural basketry artist whose studio is based in the River Arts District — woke from a dream at 3:09 a.m. The words from his sleep continued in his head:

“Raise up an army
Raise up an army
Raise up an army
Just like Joel”

The next day, the same chant awoke Tommey at the same time. He sat up in bed and opened his Bible to Joel 3:09. As he read the scripture, his life’s purpose seemed suddenly clear: He would raise an army, like Joel. Not a typical army of soldiers, but one of artists.

Tommey grew up in Columbus, Ga. He spent his childhood roaming the woods, making things out of sticks and stones. Each Thanksgiving, his mother would ask him to gather decorations for the center of the table. “I’d bring back nests, branches, river rocks [and] berries,” he recalls. Every summer, Tommey worked at his church’s youth camp. He ran the Craft Shack. At home, however, things were falling apart. His parents divorced, his relationship with his father strained, several deaths occurred in the family and Tommey himself was the victim of sexual abuse. “I was what you would call wounded by the time I graduated [from] high school,” he says, “Trying to hold it all together.”

He spent the next two years studying religion at Young Harris College before transferring to the University of Georgia. It was there that Tommey met his future wife, as well as his future calling. The latter came in the form of a book, Bernard Verdet-Fierz’s Willow Basketry.

SCULPTORAL ART BASKET: ​Tommey's works range from individual sculptures to a gathering of baskets, seen here.
SCULPTURAL ART BASKET: ​Tommey’s works range from individual sculptures to a gathering of baskets, seen here.

The only problem was that Tommey lacked actual willow. But there was plenty of kudzu. With the patterns from the book in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, Tommey began removing kudzu vines from the nearby campus trees. “My friends thought I’d lost it,” he says.

Basketry became the new constant in Tommey’s life. Church remained an integral part, as well. But so too did the hurt from his adolescences. “At that point, most of what I based my life on was through a wounded lens of self-protection,” he says. It was a view that Tommey spent years working to change.

Part of that process involved putting aside his art, in order to focus on a career in marketing. “For years my life was a performance,” he says. “I was fulfilling the American idea that you get out there, make money, retire and then do what you want to do.”

But then the 3 a.m. chants began and, after that second night, Tommey began sharing his vision with family and friends. He wanted to create a place where artists could learn their true calling in order to grow.

Two months later, he found an ad in the paper for a Christian Art Gallery. Tommey drove there that day. The building manager, Patricia Reeds, had an ongoing agreement with the property owner — she could basically do with the building whatever she liked. When Tommey arrived, he told Reeds about his dream. To his surprise, Reeds cried. She’d had a similar dream 14 years earlier.

Two weeks later, Tommey was invited back to the gallery. When he arrived, Reeds handed him a key to the building. The deal she had with the building’s owner now extended to Tommey. By June of 2009, he added six new studios and a gallery, inviting fellow local artists to join The Worship Studio.

In 2010, Tommey and his family relocated to Asheville. An affiliated congregation needed a worship pastor and offered Tommey the position. For two years he continued his work with the church, but gradually cut back his hours in order to return to his art. In June of 2012 he opened the River Oaks Studio at Riverview Station.

“I’m all one big mess of kudzu,” he says. “A husband, a father, a speaker, a teacher, an artist and a father to other artists!” Whereas most view kudzu as nothing more than an invasive nuisance, Tommey continues to weave it into beautifully constructed, ornate basket sculptures, incorporating wasps nests, grapevines and laurel branches into the design. In addition to basketry, he leads group sessions and offers talks aimed to help struggling artists see the beauty in not only their works, but their lives. “It’s a mindset game,” Tommey says. “It’s important to constantly reinforce to yourself, who you are.”

River Oaks Studio is located at 191 Lyman Street in the River Arts District. You can learn more about Tommy’s works and process by visiting matttommey.com

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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