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D.C. couple put hearts to canvas at their wedding turned gallery show

Everyone says that D.C. artists Dana Ellyn and Matt Sesow are perfect for each other, but no one thought they'd get married. They decided to do it when they realized they could craft an art show full of paintings about their impending nuptials.

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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The story of Matt and Dana starts on a summer evening next to an airfield outside of Lincoln, Neb., during a game of Spud. Eight-year-old Matt has the ball. He throws it up in the air. He calls his own number, just to be rebellious. He runs onto the airfield, laughing, and wakes up in a hospital missing most of his left arm.

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They tell him what happened. A biplane had cut its engine, landed silently and struck Matt, its propeller snagging his arm. They said the crack of blade hitting bone was so loud that one neighbor heard it inside her house, in the shower.

Dana was not present for this. It was 1975 and she was 4 and in New York. Matt would not meet her for another 26 years, after he stopped having nightmares about getting hit by something in the dark, after she fell in love with D.C. and majored in art at George Washington University, after he moved to Gaithersburg to work for IBM as a program tester, after she got married to a nice Jewish guy and had a nice Jewish wedding and bought a nice house in Rockville, after he met a crazy-cool chick named Carol who lived in a group house in Mount Pleasant, after Dana became a graphic artist at a big law firm, after Matt and Carol eloped to the Solomon Islands with the Peace Corps, after Dana said "I want a divorce," after Carol said "I want a divorce" -- only then did they meet.

It was at his art show in Cleveland Park in 2001. She saw a man who was living her dream, who left his salaried job and flourished as a full-time painter. He saw a lovely woman who was smart and funny and normal and chill and, therefore, dangerous to his art.

* * *

There are 2,116 visual arts professionals in the District, but no way to tell how many are full-time painters who make their living by selling their artwork. The city's arterati suspect that number is small. Dana Ellyn, 38, and Matt Sesow, 43, are two of them. The occupation field on their tax returns says "artist."

They are not, however, starving. Unless it's for attention. (They both admit to that. To live comfortably as an artist, you have to promote yourself.) He bought his Adams Morgan apartment with saved money and IBM stock in the '90s. She has already paid off the mortgage on a downtown condo that was subsidized for artists. They sell paintings through their Web sites and Facebook pages and are well known among collectors of local art.

They are Washington painters through and through. He watches al-Jazeera and "Democracy Now." She exults in living next to the Portrait Gallery. They rendezvous and shop at Whole Foods because it's halfway between their places. Every July they make a painting a day based on the news. She studied art. He's self-taught. They get drunk in Adams Morgan, or in their studios as they paint. They're vegetarians.

Everyone says they're perfect for each other, but no one thought they'd get married. They decided to do it when they realized they could craft a show called "Till Death Do Us Part." They'd paint about their impending nuptials, hang the art in a gallery, have a ceremony at the opening, invite the public, maybe cast themselves as a power couple in the D.C. art world -- hopefully modeled on the harmonious De Koonings rather than tempestuous Frida and Diego. Hopefully.

* * *

In Matt's sixth-floor corner studio on Columbia Road, everything is streaked with paint (his iPod, the furniture, the bathtub). The room smells of clear-coat shellac. Two hundred paintings are stacked, shelved or hung within the 600 square feet, which is eerily lit by spider-bulbed floor lamps.

He doesn't look like a former Homecoming King or football star. He's tall and clings to his punk-rockiness, blaring hardcore music and drinking iced coffee out of a pickle jar as he paints. Tucked into the corners of his pieces are teacup-like symbols he calls "trauma cups," touchstones for the accident, a reminder of pain and disability, of what could have been.


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