The Nature of Colonized Space

Artist, professor and ultrarunner Luke Matjas heads straight into the tension between the environment and civilization.

By Emily Dodi

Photo by Jonathan Chu

Luke Matjas in his classroom at CSUCI.


roust had a madeleine. Artist Luke Matjas had dinosaur books.

In Proust’s famous work Remembrance of Things Past, a taste of a madeleine cookie triggers a flood of memories. For Matjas, the same thing happened when, after moving away for college, his parents brought him the box of books that he had adored as a child.

Seeing them again brought back a wash of emotion. “Those books and images were so familiar,” Matjas remembers. “I loved them as a kid.” Matjas says that seeing the box again was his “madeleine moment.” They continue to be a source of inspiration to this day.

There’s something about the past — the long ago and faraway past — that has always intrigued Matjas, who is also a professor and the chair of the art program at California State University, Channel Islands, as well as a graphic designer. “Thirty-five years ago, I was a clueless kid, digging holes in the badlands of Orange County, Southern California’s suburban outback,” he once wrote. “This was the primeval world of the 1970s.” Meanwhile, a huge housing development was going up all around him. Human encroachment and the interfacing of mankind and nature, which he calls the “nature of colonized space,” became an integral theme in his art. It is that push and pull between contrasts, like nature and man, solitude and community, order and chaos, that resonates in his work to this day.

The Great Rock Mass Is Called the Earth, Matjas’ solo exhibition at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard in 2016, featured digital prints of California wildlife existing in landscapes not altogether au naturel. They are ablaze in color and rich in detail, and although there isn’t a human to be found, mankind’s footprint is all over the place. Discarded items — oil cans, traffic cones, a trashed recliner — vie for space with the animals, plants, rocks and the air itself. The contrast between the natural and the man-made is clear, but so is a sense of fun. “I like to use humor,” says Matjas, who calls his style representational. “I use recognizable things,” he adds. “I don’t like to do obtuse work. I want to bring people along for the ride.”

The next stop on the ride will be an exhibition at the McNish Gallery at Oxnard College in November, featuring drawings and digital media work. As of now, the working title is Conversations With My Spirit Animals. Underlying much of the art is a theme of renewal, influenced by recent wildfires and their aftermath. The ability of animals to connect with a changing environment figures strongly in the pieces, too, whether the change was caused by fire or the housing crisis. For instance, Matjas is contemplating creating a piece inspired by a news story about coyotes who lived in a house that had been foreclosed. Matjas envisions drawing a connection between the “house coyotes” and a group of coyotes he later saw in the wild. “It would be a tribute to them.”

He continues to gather inspiration from nature and books, including old science textbooks, as well as from unlikely places. “I get as much inspiration from Home Depot,” Matjas says, referring to the store’s vast inventory of “objects [used] to contain nature.”

A Home Depot run might spark his imagination, but it is a completely different kind of run that really fuels his creativity. Matjas is an ultrarunner, which means he runs long distances. Very long distances.

“[Ultrarunning] is life-changing,” he explains. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” He participates in ultra marathons, including a recent 100-mile one that spanned the entire length of the San Gabriel Mountains. The course stretched from Wrightwood to Alta Dena, with 19,000 feet in ascent and 23,000 feet in descent, mostly on trails.

“That was a wild experience,” he recalls. “There are 200 people [running the course] but you are alone a lot. To be immersed out there is like [being on] a modern-day spirit quest. You’re by yourself for miles and miles.” Perhaps it’s that solitude that made him realize how much we all rely on others. “I’ll be on mile 74 and I’ll see my family.” (His family often greets him at points along the course.) “I’m so grateful to them.” He can’t stop to talk but their support means the world to him. “I’ll say ‘See you in eight hours,’ and run back into the night.”

He adds, “It’s weird when you’re moving all the time. It’s very meditative. I’ll see an odd tree and think, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ Before you know it you’re thinking about it for an hour.”

He doesn’t wear headphones while he runs to better immerse himself in nature. “It’s primal to listen,” he says. Running is a feast for the eyes, too. Natural beauty is in abundance and there are plenty of interesting man-made things to be found, like a Domino’s Pizza name tag and a box of drill bits. Both objects found their way into his work, and the handwriting on the box inspired a typeface that Matjas created for the exhibit.

One “find” might stand out above all others. “I was going up a canyon and I saw an animal about 30 yards away. It was small but catlike. Then I saw a long tail. It was a juvenile mountain lion.” The animal jumped into the bushes, but Matjas could see the cat’s green eyes watching him as he ran past. It was a thrilling moment for Matjas, who admits to being obsessed with mountain lions. (His work “Study of Landscape Connectivity in Urban Island Environments (P-18)” is an ode to a mountain lion.)

From that suburban kid who dug in the dirt to the artist who unearths inspiration anywhere, Matjas says that he hopes his work will spark our imagination. One can imagine Matjas running through the California wilderness, a man in motion. How perfect that his artwork makes us stop in our tracks.

“Study of Landscape Connectivity in Urban Island Environments (P-18),” digital/analong drawing, archival print, 84 in. x 48 in., 2015.


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