By Erin Teruya ’93 Kinney
Last September, Matthew James ’00 found himself a continent away from his hometown of Honolulu and his artist studio in Brooklyn, New York. He was in Berlin, alongside an astrophysicist with the European Space Agency, speaking at a conference of scientists about the convergence of pop culture and planetary sciences.
James ended up at the conference after selling a painting in Copenhagen and serendipitously meeting a friend in Den Haag, with whom he had done a previous gallery showing in New York. One thing led to another, and James found himself fabricating a prototype of a moon habitat. Then came the offer to bring his artistic perspective to scientists.
“You never know who you are going to come into contact with, and the things that are going to turn up from contacts that you create over the years,” James said. “Time and time again, it’s sort of the way that it’s played out for me. You just maintain those relationships over the years, work hard and diligently, and produce things that are interesting. And sometimes you have to change directions.”
During his nearly 20-year career as an artist, James has had a number of these swerves and sways. Nudged on by opportunity and hard work, he has created paintings, sculptures, large-scale set props, and most recently, published a magazine. His work continues to be exhibited internationally, reaching Italy, Iceland, Miami, Manila, New York, Honolulu and Paris. A 21-foot resin painting was commissioned for SALT in Kaka’ako, facing Ala Moana Boulevard.
“You want to be able to express ideas and move people, and so you have to explore the different venues that you can do that with. And that’s always been the challenge,” he said. “I’ve always been a person that likes to do a lot of things, explore a lot of venues. By doing that, it really opens a lot of interesting doorways.”
At 19, James was living in San Francisco after a short, post-high school stop at the University of Oregon, bussing tables and working two jobs, when the older brother of a Punahou classmate commissioned him to create eight paintings. The purchase affirmed James’ desire to go all in as an artist. After a move to New York and a degree from Pratt Institute, James began working as a fabricator for other artists, anonymously creating pieces that were being noticed by The New York Times and Sculpture Magazine.
The economic downturn in 2008 forced another change in course. James spent a month doing an artist residency in Vermont that allowed him to develop the painting style he now uses and to create on a larger scale. Leveraging a connection with a building owner that allowed him large space for an exhibit, James and his wife, Claire, invested their savings into a big show in New York City. “I ended up selling a good number of the pieces, but I also ended up getting more calls, which led to getting commissions for the big pieces,” he said.
James’ paintings are now found in commercial spaces, at Solaire Resort and Casino in the Philippines, law firms, corporate lobbies and in private collections, including those of Punahou alumni.
From the financial assistance he received while a student at Punahou to his first commission from a fellow alumnus, Punahou opened doors and propelled him forward. “I wasn’t a very good student at Punahou,” he said. “The people in the art department didn’t give me good grades, but they gave me the space to do the projects that I wanted to do.”
Joyce “Ma” Finley. Mark Mitsuda ’88. Nancy Montgomery. Peter Hansen ’84. These were James’ early influences. “I think there are a lot of things in my history when looking back, you realize they made a difference,” he said. “You never know what it is that is around you right at that moment that is going to be changing the way that your life goes.”