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Soldotna woman creates rare, natural lacquer art

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2010

Even when she's 5,000 miles away from Alaska, Kathy Matta still creates paintings about the Last Frontier with a 7,000-year-old art form.

Kathy Matta's lacquer-based artwork is on display at Kaladi Brothers Coffee's location across from the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna.

Matta, a native of New Jersey, splits time between Soldotna and China to create paintings with the sap of the lacquer tree.

Known as "lacquer art," this ancient medium was used for pottery and for protective, adhesive and aesthetic purposes.

"Most of what I do has to do with Alaska," Matta said.

Most of her work about the state centers on fish, the salmon that are the delicious livelihood of the Kenai Peninsula.

"I like the story of the salmon, their struggle up the river. People's lives are kind of like that," she said.

Her series of lacquer work, titled "Fish Tails from the Crypt" is on display at Kaladi Brothers Coffee on the Sterling Highway for the month of October.

"I actually paint with the sap of the tree," she said. "They have to cut the tree like a rubber tree and get the sap and then it's processed."

When the lacquer is processed it can be dyed with different minerals that make it vivid and colorful.

Lacquer is indigenous to Asia. Because the raw material is an allergen related to poison ivy and considered a hazardous material it's not allowed into the U.S. That's why Matta goes to China for five to six months a year to create art with the sap, then return to the U.S. with the dry, finished art.

It also is better to work the material in China's climate, she said.

"It doesn't actually dry as well here because Alaska is a little too cold and a little too dry," she said. "You need really high humidity for the lacquer to dry."

The drying part is also time consuming and can take weeks to months, depending on the piece.

"There's painting involved. The difference is it has to be put on layer by layer, each layer has to dry before you put another layer. Then there's also inlaying of duck shells, mother of pearl, gold leaf, silver leaf," Matta explained. "It's layer and layer and then it has to be polished down after it dries. The polishing is like the paining. It takes forever to polish."

She said she uses different grains of sand paper to polish the works.

"It's not easy," Matta said. "I like the finished product, it's so unique and to feel it it's so smooth."

"It's a living medium. The lacquer paintings will change as they get older, they get brighter," she added.

On the walls of the small, modern caf are framed portraits that look like they should be from primitive times, hence the name about being from the crypt.

"It looks like something pulled out of a tomb," Matta said about her work.

Depictions of salmon are painted with layers of lacquer on a canvas of hemp.

The bodies of the fish are detailed with the lacquer and in some pieces finely decorated with eggshells, gold and silver leaf.

The other salmon in her Kaladi's exhibit were created with "bodiless lacquer," basically sculptures made of lacquer and hemp instead of fiberglass. The results are smooth, three dimensional fish decorated with various designs. One looks like it has a wood-grain pattern, while another one is carved with brilliant autumn leaves that conjure printed fish scales.

"It's very unique. It's not something that everybody is going to be able to do," said Brian Erwin, owner of Frames and Things in Soldotna, which has some of Matta's work for sale and on display.

Because the works are all originals, they are appropriately priced and a few collectors seek them out, he said.

"It becomes more important in that respect when they understand the style of art that it is," Erwin said.

Matta said she began her journey into lacquer art through tai chi when she was going to art school in New Jersey.

"I had a neighbor that was doing tai chi and he wanted me to teach him English. So he taught me tai chi I taught him English," she said.

When she traveled to China for a tai chi competition that is when she first became interested in lacquer art.

"When I saw the lacquer art I really wanted to learn," she said. So Matta applied to study it and it took seven years for her to be accepted.

And the rest is history, written in lacquer on hemp on the walls of Kaladi's.

Matta credits one of her teachers, Zheng Kexiong, for teaching her to be less rigid with her use of lacquer, a technique that is seen in her latest pieces displayed at the coffee shop.

She said her salmon icons in her "Fish Tails form the Crypt" series are supposed to represent something deep and from the earth. "Symbols that are worshipped," she said.

The art of using lacquer is "slowly dying," Matta said.

Most artists in China want to use synthetic lacquer or cashew lacquer, which is quick drying and does not have the same effect.

Her work is alive, however. And through the ages and across continents her pieces are speaking for themselves to a whole new and different generation.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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