Alex is an artist, educator, photographer, and welder focused on community-building and mentorship. We had the pleasure of working with Alex this past year as part of our Ma'am Made market. In lieu of in-person gatherings, we decided to check back in and see what she's been up to this year!
Where are you from and how did you find your way to Richmond?
I was born in Omaha, Nebraska and grew up in rural agricultural communities in Nebraska and Iowa before going away to college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Between undergrad and grad school I waited tables and worked as a freelance photographer in Lincoln, the capitol of Nebraska, and in 2013 landed in Richmond to start a Masters of Fine Arts in photography and film.
What is your background? And what led you to work with metal?
I took a welding class for the first time in high school and have loved it ever since. Because of white middle-class stigmas against working in trades, I was encouraged to attend a four-year university and go to graduate school. When I found myself back in Omaha after grad school, I went back to school to get a certificate in Gas Tungsten Arc Welding—more commonly known as TIG welding.
"In my welding work I seek ways to break down the barriers of visual art to create accessible art that can be held and heard."
Talk about your artistic practice vs. teaching.
In 2019 I took a teaching position at VCU in the Sculpture department and moved back to Richmond. I am actively working to unlearn ideas and behaviors that have no place in my work or in any classroom. In my welding work I seek ways to break down the barriers of visual art to create accessible art that can be held and heard. This includes breaking down the barriers of the gallery and creating avenues for the work to live with the people. In the classroom, I encourage the use of existing materials in an effort to mitigate the negative environmental effects of the metal industry. Our classes consist of local scrapyard visits, where we gather materials while giving students the opportunity to see how metal recycling creates the fabric of our everyday lives.
We have mostly featured your welding work but tell us about your photography and activism and how all your worlds intersect.
While living in Nebraska, I dedicated my work to documenting the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as teaching visual literacy and photography to newly resettled and first generation high school youth. When I got back to Richmond in 2019, I started making photos for local organizers. Having good images gives community organizations better tools to share their important work. An important aspect of this community work is working outside of capitalism. Since I can’t support my community with capital in this capitalist society, I try to use my skills and privileges for good.
"Since I can’t support my community with capital in this capitalist society, I try to use my skills and privileges for good."
How has 2020 and all that comes with that affected your work?
When VCU locked down in March, I lost access to the metal shop where I teach and the ability to make any welding work. Throughout March I made and mailed out polaroids to friends and strangers, photographing the copper flowers as an opportunity to talk about the work when I couldn’t weld. In April and May, I documented socially distant car rallies at Richmond city jail where protesters were asking for vulnerable populations to be released during an unchecked pandemic. And as the world poured into the streets after the murder of George Floyd, I continued documenting for local organizations and organizers.
What is next for Alex Matzke?
In 2021 my partner and I are moving to Puerto Rico. I started holding welding workshops there after Hurricane Maria in order to teach our community of agricultural workers how to repair and construct their own farm tools. We plan to start our own farm in the next few years and support other agricultural workers in their work to create a more sustainable island while we build toward that dream.
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