When art professor Charles Matteson retired from the State University of New York at Cobleskill, he left behind a weighty reminder of his 29 years on campus.
More than a decade ago, Matteson designed the eight-ton marker made of natural Adirondack granite that’s the signpost at the entrance to the college.
For nearly three decades, while teaching art history and studio design classes, Matteson was also the director of the college’s Grosvenor Gallery. Situated on the second floor of the Old Gym Building, it’s an unusual art space, a former basketball court with a shiny wooden floor measuring 1,200 square feet.
After Matteson’s departure in December, the gallery, which was launched more than 45 years ago, was closed as part of a construction project.
“The college is still deciding how to best use the space in the future,” says Scott Silversten, director of communications at SUNY Cobleskill.
Matteson, who goes by “Chuck,” grew up in western New York’s Niagara County.
In high school, an athletic scholarship sent him to Alfred University, where he majored in biology and had his first exposure to art and art students. Graduate study in microbiology followed at Ohio’s Bowling Green University.
In the 1970s, he switched from science to art and moved to Schoharie County, where he built one of the first walk-in, wood-fired kilns in the area.
Matteson chatted with the Gazette by phone from his home near the Otsego County village of Cherry Valley, where he lives with his wife, Eva Fognell, curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art at the Fenimore Art Museum.
For more images of Charles Matteson's sculptures, click here
Art isn’t Matteson’s only passion. He has been interested in music since he was young. For two decades, he was a drummer and singer with The Rubber Band, which played all over New York state. “We kind of introduced Cajun-zydeco to the area in the late ’80s, early ’90s, our own version of it,” Matteson says. These days, he often plays percussion as part of a duo at the Black Cat Cafe & Bakery in Sharon Springs.
Q: When did you start teaching at SUNY Cobleskill?
A: I started there in 1982. I came to Schoharie County in 1972 as a working artist. I ran a studio down in Jefferson, New York, for about 10 years or so. I got involved with developing the Schoharie County Arts Council. I was the first director in the late ’70s, and I actually started their exhibition program. [The Schoharie County Arts Council, founded in 1977, is now called the Tri-County Arts Council.]
Q: How did Grosvenor Gallery get started?
A: John Grosvenor started the gallery, and as near as I can figure, he started it in the mid-’60s. I was actually the second director. John was a faculty member, a very creative fellow. He just passed away a few years ago, in his early 90s.
Q: The gallery was once a basketball court. Is it a good art space?
A: It’s a wonderful space to do shows in. It has all of that ceiling space and really generous square footage. It was a very interesting space to deal with.
Q: How many exhibits did you mount during your years running the gallery?
A: I figured I did over 160 exhibits by professional artists . . . over 250 artists. Probably 35 or 40 student shows . . . some faculty work. One of the things I enjoyed was working with and meeting all of these artists. Many were from the Capital District, a lot of them from the rural areas of Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie counties, which are loaded with talent. A lot of them I remember and I’m still in touch with. And a number of them, I remember that it was their first show. They were young artists, just getting started.
Q: Is Grosvenor a regional gallery?
A: To describe it as a regional gallery is accurate . . . primarily New York state artists. And over the years, we had artists from a wide geographic distribution. I had a show by an artist from Puerto Rico. We had artists from Canada. I met a photographer when I was traveling in Guatemala from California, and we ended up doing a show of his photography from Central America.
Q: What were some of your most memorable shows?
A: The content of the shows ran the gamut, from quilts and folk art to installation. We did a number of shows that focused on environmental issues early on. An exhibit entitled “Focus on Schoharie Creek.” Another one with artist Cynthia Marsh from Oneonta, a wonderful exhibit which she called “The Sixth Extinction.” It was about very contemporary issues of global warming and climate change. There were some themes that we kept revisiting; certainly nature and rural life. So there were photography shows that focused on wildlife, there were drawing exhibits that focused on nature, and the landscape, of course. Lots of painting shows that dealt with those issues. The other thing I really enjoyed was collaborations. Over the years, I collaborated with so many different institutions, not just SUNY institutions, but with Union College, Hartwick College, Rochester Institute of Technology. I collaborated with the Sculpture Space in Utica, Gallery 53 in Cooperstown.
Q: Did you do exhibits that reflected what the students were doing on campus?
A: That was one of the things I definitely tried to pay attention to. We did a show, a group exhibit, called “Food is Art, Art is Food.” In that show, I involved our culinary program. We had this wonderful display of works by professional artists, and then we featured a work by our culinary students that we all ate and enjoyed. I remember another show, we did an exhibit of floral prints, color lithographs, and then I paired that up with flower displays from the floral design class. Things like that were really rewarding. It brought people out, it got students involved.
Q: Did you have exhibits in all media?
A: We did. We hung sculpture from the rafters. We had installations that used every inch of floor space.
Q: How was the gallery connected to the community when you were director?
A: It was really a regional cultural center. We could seat about 75 people. More often than not, we would just pack that space. It would be students, faculty, community. I think that an important role of a college within a community is to fill that cultural function and to be a focal point for it. And to be on the leading edge of it. And in a small, rural county, sometimes you are the only voice. Certainly when I first started there, that was the case. At one point, we actually had some real money. We put together a faculty committee and we started a whole cultural series in the gallery, which of course featured not only the exhibition that was in the space, but we had a foreign film series, we had music ensemble concerts, we had lectures with scholars and people from outside the area. That was in the late ’90s. And then the money was gone. You can’t run these programs anywhere without administrative support. There are just too many hurdles.
Q: As a college with a focus on agricultural and technical studies, what was your role as gallery director?
A: Well, you know, I felt a little like a missionary. And I had no qualms about saying that to people in a fun sort of way. That part of what I was doing was bringing these ideas to students that really had never considered them before. This is a whole aspect of life that reflects who we are. And so many of them responded. It just used to amaze me.
Q: Tell me about your sculpture at the entrance to the college.
A: The entry marker? That was a fun piece. Again, really, the only reason that it’s there is because of the support of a college president, Dr. Ken Wing. He saw an idea that I had. It wasn’t a road sign. It wasn’t a commercial sign. And he said: “Let’s do this.” And I was really excited. Again, it took a while, because of funding issues. And there’s a bas relief, which I actually made before I came to the college. That’s on the wall of Van Wagenen Library . . . a ceramic piece, an outdoor work, about 20 feet high.
Q: What kind of sculpture are you working on now?
A: I’m working with saplings, maple saplings, and doing these constructions that go outside. I’m looking at one right one now that’s a cross between a radio tower and a drilling rig. Maple saplings, wrapped aluminum, parts that move. I do a lot of work outside when the weather is nice. One adapts oneself to the circumstances. So, as the situation changes, the work changes. I don’t have access to a bronze foundry, so I don’t cast bronze anymore. I’m doing something else which is equally interesting. It’s a stimulating kind of a thing that challenges and pushes your work in different directions. My work has been primarily in sculpture. I’ve enjoyed working in so many kinds of media.