When Washington artist Matt Sesow was 8, he was playing a game called spud in a Nebraska field near his home.
As he tossed a ball into the air and called out a number, Sesow never noticed that a propeller airplane was landing silently nearby, engines off. One propeller sliced off his left arm.
That pivotal moment changed Sesow’s life, but not in ways anyone could have predicted. Doctors were able to reattach part of the boy’s arm, but he lost circulation in his hand and it had to be amputated. He was left with an arm that ended just past the bend of his elbow.
“When I was hit by the plane, I always tell people, there was a guardian angel there,” Sesow says in a new documentary, “Join Hands,” about the artist and his work. “But was it to protect me or to push me in front of the plane?”
Few people would give a guardian angel credit for a traumatic event, but few people are artists like Matt Sesow.
Sesow, 49, showed promise early on. He taught himself computer programming at 14. After college, which he attended with a scholarship from the Mensa Foundation, he landed a job at IBM and moved to Washington. But for years, he would have nightmares about being hit by the plane.
In 1994, he started painting. “Then I stopped having nightmares,” he says.
Sesow is possibly one of the District’s most prolific artists, producing about 100 paintings a year. He also has an expanding following both in this country and abroad, with a recent show in Barcelona.
Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum is planning a one-man exhibition of Sesow’s work in May. Titled “Matt Sesow: Shock and Awe,” the show is “a great way to show him in full glory,” says museum founder and Director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger. “There’s so much energy in some of his work,” she says. “And where he got that sense of color – you can’t get that in school.”
One thing that makes him popular among young collectors, many of whom have never bought art before, is his affordable prices.
“People will say to me, ‘I saw that work online,’ ” he says. He’ll tell them, “You can have it for 40 bucks.” He prefers to sell a piece himself either from Facebook, where his personal page has topped off at 5,000 friends — his fan page is approaching that number — or on other social media. He also organizes visits to his studio.
No painting on his website costs more than $800. Sesow says that galleries hate him because his prices are so low. “Galleries and agents always want me to raise prices,” he says, “but my path is a healing path.”
Sesow is self-taught and his work is primitive, inspired partly by the New York graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s full of bright primary colors, slashes of angry faces and packed with iconography that reflects the state of his psyche at the moment, including a “trauma cup” that contains anger and hurt, a scary-looking rabbit, a bull, stars and often a slash of a mouth with jagged white teeth.
The work is a surprising contrast with this soft-spoken, Nebraska-nice artist. One key to his psyche, though, is his nearly obsessive need to paint. In his cluttered studio on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, Sesow lives like a monk – a very messy monk. The kitchen of his tiny condo no longer holds a refrigerator or stove. When he’s hungry, he’ll heat up some frozen spinach and quinoa on a hot plate.
In the corner is a bunk bed where he sleeps – his wife, artist Dana Ellyn, hasn’t stayed overnight in his apartment in 14 years, she says.
“Join Hands” captures Sesow and Ellyn talking about their unconventional life together. When he first met her, he says, he worried that Ellyn (a perpetually smiling vegan whose art is less primitive and less angry) would soften his art. Instead, he says she has given him more focus. The couple did a project called “31 Days in July” together, to mark the beginning of the Iraq War. For 10 years, both artists did one painting a day in the month of July, based on something in that day’s news.
The two maintain their own apartments, with separate studios, partly because both bought property at an opportune time. But they also like living and working apart and getting together three or four times a week. When he paints, Sesow says, he “can go to a very unhappy, dark place.”
Over the years, Sesow has expanded his reach. He was initially reluctant to do art on commission. Now he does, but his subjects might not necessarily see themselves in the finished works.
D.C. artist Brendan Smith, for instance, says that he had posted a picture on Facebook of himself and his first-born son in a baby carrier. Before he knew it, Sesow told him he had painted the photo.
“It’s a crazy picture,” Smith says. “Soren [his son] has giant white teeth and crazy eyes. Most parents would not want their kids depicted this way, but I loved it.” In fact, Smith commissioned another painting from Sesow, of his second son, Ewan.
“Very few people have such a personal style, and it’s authentic, based on his experience,” D.C. artist Scott Brooks says.
About that experience: Sesow admits he’s never seen the first eight minutes of “Join Hands,” where he talks about that day in 1974. Filmmaker Leslye Abbey says she managed to film the first time he talked openly about the accident. Sesow starts to cry when he recalls what that event must have been like for his family.
Like the guardian angel that may have pushed Sesow in front of the airplane on that fateful day, another angel plays a role in Sesow’s saga.
Just after the accident and heavily dosed with morphine, the boy had a hospital visitor. This angel told him he had a choice to make: Die now and go to heaven, he says, or “fight and have an interesting life. I said, ‘Oh, I want to have an interesting life.’ ”
Bruno is a freelance writer.
“Join Hands” is available on Amazon.com and for sale in the gift shop of the Visionary Art Museum. .