by Reda Wigle

Key West is a city of characters, and artist Dick Matson is among its most colorful. A Yale-educated, ex-advertising exec, Matson is known as much for his biting wit as his lush landscapes. The former are on display at the Custom House Museum courtesy of “You Don’t Know Dick,” a retrospective of the artist’s lesser known works. The exhibit features early paintings by Matson, commercial work from his time as an art director at J. Walter Thompson (one of his first shoots was with a young Candice Bergen), and pieces from his line of sardonic greeting cards and mugs. His astrological condemnations are delivered via coffee cup: “Libra: You’re at your best at cocktail parties since three hours is the ideal length of time to know a Libra.”

Matson first came to the island in the mid-’70s. “My first impression of Key West might have been fear. It was a jungle, and being from New York, I thought ‘there are snakes in there and stuff like that.’ But I got to love it.” It’s been an enduring love affair. Matson has painted landscapes around the world, but the light and luxuriant aesthetic of Key West conspire to keep him here. “I don’t get tired of this place. People that do are tired of life or tired of themselves. People come here and think this place is going to solve all of their problems. … It didn’t solve any of my problems, but it gave me a home.”

Matson is familiar on the streets of Key West. He can be heard scouting painting locations from the perch of his trusted tricycle and seen bestowing York Peppermint Patties to those he deems deserving. Matson owns neither a cell phone nor computer, preferring the civility of a landline and the well-worn keys of his typewriter. He bought his breezy home on Olivia Street in 1980 and has stayed through every major storm the island has faced, including Hurricane Irma, when the aforementioned landline was a saving grace to many. A devotee of felines, Matson shares the home with his beloved cat, Mr. Sylvester.

“Dogs are for people who need love,” he said. “Cats are for people with love to give.”

Over the years, Matson has surrendered many vices and devoted himself to a daily painting practice, a choice he views as honoring a divine gift. “I think the Holy Spirit is the one that’s telling me what to do. When I started painting I would stop and go ‘How am I doing this?’ It’s like the biblical prophets. It’s a gift I got and I feel like I have to use it.” Matson paints outdoors into the evening, returning to the same spot for several days until a piece is completed. “Somebody once said to me, ‘Dick, what is it that you look for when deciding on a site for painting?’ I told them, ‘Lots of shade.’” Matson refuses to work from photographs. “Manet says you have to be directly in front of the object you are painting sur le motif. But only for so long or you’ll go crazy.”

Matson continues to paint daily, even amid the persistent pain of arthritis and a Parkinson’s diagnosis. “I go into a form of self-hypnosis, and I find myself painting a straight line. I’m amazed,” said Matson. As are we. Matson’s Custom House exhibit, “You Don’t Know Dick,” runs through July 7.

Twenty Questions:

Full Name? Nickname? Richard Peter Theodore Matson. Better known as Dickie or, on the street, Dick.

Astrological Sign and do you subscribe to it? Gemini. Yes. Also rising signs are so important. Mine is Taurus, so I manage to stay in one place a long time rather than changing my clothes and address every week or so.

How has Key West influenced your aesthetic as an artist? Look around and then look at my paintings! Being outdoors in all kinds of weather. I have pics of me painting on White Street Pier before Hurricane George. The light was the first thing that gobsmacked me.

Do you have a life credo or motto? If you can’t outpaint ’em, outlive ’em.

How do art and advertising inform and deviate from each other? All art has NO PURPOSE. Whereas, advertising has one purpose and one only – sell the product.

What’s on your bucket list? Living the rest of my time here in Key West. I have no urge to travel and with few exceptions, I have everything I want. Maybe that’s why a dear friend calls me “the old man.”

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Heaven. In lieu of that, sleeping late on another gorgeous Key West morning.

What is it that you most dislike? I think it is my temper. I find myself letting loose a string of filth and profanity when something goes wrong while I’m painting. If anyone heard me! I am roundly reaming out inanimate objects that don’t do what I want. I think it is a form of infantilism. Is that a word? Well, it is now.

Which TV, movie or super hero character is your alter ego? I don’t watch TV. I haven’t been to a movie in about six months and the only superhero I can think of is Michelangelo.

What is your signature drink? Vodka ‘n soda/lemon twist.

Name three things you could not live without: Vodka. Painting. Key West.

If invisible what would you do? Go around saying “BOO!” to tourists.

On what occasion do you lie? So as not to hurt someone’s feelings. Then I call that prevarication.

Favorite guilty pleasure? Two drinks at lunch. When I know I have to go out and work later.

What talent would you secretly love to have? The voice of Luciano Pavarotti or Jussi Björling. Two great tenors.

What advice would you go back and give your high school self? Stop jerking off. In more ways than one!

Lunch with one famous person, whom would you choose, where would you take them? That’s easy. Cher, and we’d dine on the deck at Louie’s Backyard.

Finish these sentences…

My friends and family would describe me as … My favorite curmudgeon. Uncle Richard. The old man. I answer pretty much to anything!

My autobiography would be titled … DICK: A LIFE

I can never refuse … A pretty face with a great set of legs.

When I go, I will go … In an urn. I’m being cremated.

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