Painter captures Richmond Symphony
For the past few months, a special visitor has attended the Richmond Symphony’s rehearsals in the Dominion Energy Center for the Arts.
Situated in front of his easel, local artist Matt Lively, 50, has been painting images of one of Richmond’s celebrated artistic institutions.
Lively began attending rehearsals after Amy Burhman, the Symphony’s assistant director for marketing and sales, contacted him about a potential artistic collaboration. Together they tossed around ideas of how to best celebrate Richmond’s vibrant arts community.
During that conversation, Lively mentioned he had once painted symphony rehearsals while traveling in Colorado, and they decided he would do the same in Richmond, with the goal of selling the paintings at a pop-up show.
The collaboration has fostered excitement and creativity on both sides. “It’s remarkably fun,” Lively said in an interview with Fifty Plus.
The musicians feel the same way. “It’s a really interesting way of connecting what an orchestra is like into a whole other medium,” said Lacey Huszcza, executive director of the Richmond Symphony. “And it’s fun for the orchestra…they don’t often get to be the feature of paintings.”
Where music meets canvas
Many of us are used to seeing symphony musicians in a formal, buttoned-up setting, but Lively’s paintings of rehearsals provide an intimate view into the musicians’ creative process.
In one painting, we see the musicians from behind, focused on the conductor, whose energy pulsates through the painting. At least one coat hangs on the back of a chair, and bags are scattered across the floor.
Another scene, framed from above and behind the musicians, is itself a symphony of color and shape — the bright yellow floor punctuated by rectangular music stands and figures of musicians sinking into their chairs.
“The orchestra is an immense thing, and it can be overwhelming,” Huszcza said. “Lively can capture these little bits, these little personal pieces of what’s going on, in ways that it’s really hard to do in any other capacity.”
Throughout the project, Lively has observed parallels between his artistic process and that of the musicians. Both, for instance, make spontaneous changes during the creative process.
“The labor comes in when [the musicians] have to make adjustments that the conductor wants to happen, and they get out of their comfort level enough to make something [different], to interpret the music in a new way,” Lively said. “And I’m doing the same thing in painting.”
Unlike the paintings Lively creates in the studio, which are planned and developed on his time, the eight paintings he has created on the fly during rehearsals reflect what he hears and sees taking place in the moment.
“When you’re there [in rehearsals], it’s like sensory overload with the music that’s playing,” Lively said.
“What I’m hearing makes a slight difference in probably every brushstroke I make.”
Lively’s work is affected not only by the music he hears but also the rhythm of the rehearsals themselves. The musicians often start and stop, and Lively follows their lead, painting only when the musicians are playing.
“I get interrupted with a stop, and then my thoughts kind of calm down,” Lively said. “And then [the musicians] go right back to it, so I have to go right back into it.”
Those pauses both lend an energy to his painting and foster a sense of freedom for the artist, he explained. Compared to studio work, painting something as it is happening — whether in nature or at an orchestra rehearsal — is a “performative” act, Lively said.
“You don’t think. You just react to what’s happening, and there’s little concern about what it will look like in the end,” he said.
The making of an artist
Lively decided to become an artist in elementary school when he first saw the movie Star Wars in the theater. “Five minutes into that movie, I wanted to do whatever it was they were doing,” he said.
Soon after, his mother gave him a book about moviemaking, and he read that filmmakers sometimes hire artists to paint background sets.
“I thought, all right, I can draw, so I’ll do that,” Lively said. “That will be the way I’ll get into moviemaking.”
His mom then brought home more books, this time about artists Frank Frazetta and Francis Bacon. “They were probably in alphabetical order by first name,” Lively joked.
Lively went on to major in sculpture at VCU. A rarity, perhaps, for living out his childhood dream, Lively has worked as a painter, sculptor, multimedia artist, teacher and independent film art director.
Working on a variety of projects keeps Lively engaged. “I get bored if I’m doing something for a minute longer than three hours,” he joked. “I have to shift gears, and I’ll shift from painting to sculpture.”
Painting on the spot is not new to Lively. He often paints en plein air (outdoors) and even teaches classes, aptly called “Painting Outside with Matt Lively,” for people who want to learn how to paint in nature.
Lively’s classes and collaboration with the symphony make up only a fraction of his work. He may be best known for his paintings, particularly his murals and trademark “beecycle” images.
His murals can be found at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Children’s Hospital of Richmond, the Dominion Energy headquarters, Hobnob in Lakeside, and Olde Town Petersburg, among other places.
Lively also creates sculpture for public spaces. He is currently working on a piece for Fulton Hill, and he has created public art installations throughout the city with artist Tim Harper as part of the collaborative Lively/Harper.
One such project at Richmond’s Binford Middle School is not only a sculpture but also a functional rain-harvesting system.
Sculptures, larger show planned
Lively originally planned to sell his rehearsal paintings at a small pop-up show.
The more time he spends with the musicians, however, the more inspired Lively has become to develop paintings of the musicians in the studio and perhaps even create related sculptural works.
He hopes to prepare a larger show for the fall and plans to donate part of the proceeds to the Symphony.
“I’m fascinated with what [the musicians] are doing. It’s like magic to me,” Lively said. “But at the end of the rehearsal, they come over to look at what I did, and they are looking at it like it’s a magic trick.”
To see more paintings Matt Lively has created at Richmond Symphony rehearsals, visit his Instagram and Facebook accounts, @mattlively. You can learn more about the artist at mattlively.com and more about the symphony at richmondsymphony.com.