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Matt French, who grew up in Lynden, can create art in his Whatcom County home, although his creative energy also takes him out to a site like a brick wall in Bellingham. (Courtesy photo)

Matt French earns a living with his art and has a mural in Ferndale

WHATCOM — The oldest son of an artist, Susan French, and a father, Mike French, involved with youth ministry, Matt French started drawing at a young age. He was hyper, and later involved in an Attention Deficit Disorder study, and his mom kept giving him crayons in the high chair and carrying a notepad with her to try to occupy his time. 

Among his three siblings, two are photographers: Rachel and Mark.  

Now 47, he was in the class of 1991 at Lynden High School, but left school early with periods of intermittent home schooling and private school. College training at Whatcom Community College included journalism, but he said the teacher didn’t care for his articles. One test showed he qualified for MENSA, an organization based on members having a high IQ, with an IQ of over 160, but he wasn’t told about that until later. His parents had to deal with his ever-present energy. “They didn’t want me to distract others.” 

“What makes a good student is a good teacher,” he said of a family friend, Eric Claassen, teaching him calculus in the eighth grade. “He made it simple.” Claassen studied mathematics and physics in college. 

A love of creepy crawly things was another interest. At age 13 Matt could identify more than 300 insects. When at a zoo out of state he found they had misidentified a specimen, and he told the managers. It resulted in a job offer he couldn’t take. His parents said no. For one, they didn’t live nearby. He still thought of becoming a type of a marine biologist, but heard there were too many in the field at the time. 

“But I was still fascinated.” 

In the spring of his sophomore year of high school, his dad said, “You’re done.” Matt left school, went to work and got his GED. Working was construction. That skill was used in Teen Missions with flying to Africa, going far from much of civilization to build a medical clinic in Malawi. The nearest one to the village was 40 miles away. While traveling, he said, his group passed through two military coups in progress and the travelers weren’t allowed to leave one point of landing. At another they were escorted by armed guards at a fast pace from the tarmac. 

In the air he had seen an equidistant pattern of light. Up close and upon landing, he found that the lights were people gathered around camp fires miles apart in the wilderness. He was mesmerized by the pattern. What else stayed with him from the experience was the kindness of the hosts, who held a chicken dinner for them late into the night and refused to eat until the guests could join them. The people also remained incredibly healthy by eating not only the chicken meat but the leg bone which has strength in the marrow. 

The experience “blew my mind.” Mud huts. Thatched roofs. Finding a toad with a scorpion under a rock — together as friends and not enemies. The voice of the toad’s croak sounded like “hello.” He stands by it.

Art intersected with another love of Matt’s — skateboarding. The sport has come and gone. At the time it was at a peak with the mid-1980s movie “Back to the Future,” in which the hero rides around much of the time on a skateboard. A skateboarding shop opened in the Lynden windmill’s bottom level. Matt saved money from lawn mowing, bought what wheels he could and wore them out. 

“Drawing is nothing with paper and pencil ... it’s  motion,” he said. “People talk about being a pencil pusher but with art you move the pen in the opposite direction.”

Art is personal. One of his teachers talked of focusing on what excited the students. He said it wouldn’t be the same to each of them. Matt’s family had moved into a home that had belonged to the Little family. They had left behind boxes with great magazines and comics that were a treasure to a 12-year-old. One teacher gave great access to his top students for supplies. Today Matt uses items from sponsors: Faber Castell India ink brush pens and Molotow spray paint. 

“I loved the art on the skateboards,” he said. When the shop opened, “I was completely blown away ... the art is disposable.” 

Skaters buy boards for the art. The art wears out with use of the board. It is disposable art. 

As the 1980s ended, many of his friends moved on from skateboarding. He didn’t — and he hasn’t. He also discovered graffiti. He was on a trip and looked out over a city and could see graffiti on rooftops. “I really liked that.” 

He was with a group of friends in Ferndale painting on a sad wall at Simplot Foods in 1993. The old paint was coming off the building. He was 19. He was arrested, refused to give names of the others, and was prosecuted. He didn’t think the owner was going to press charges, but he did. The police, he said, wanted to make an example of him to stop the ongoing vandalism. 

He had only painted a few feet of the long wall — and it was obvious the artists had different styles — but it resulted in 120 hours of community service for him (painting murals for an animal shelter, of all things) and time in jail eventually. During the 25 days he used watercolor pencils and a handmade “brush” from hair and a pencil to create art he sold to fellow prisoners. Irony or miracle? 

Oddly, this time of punishment enhanced his skill for his career: the prisoners wanted him to create really cool artistic designs on basic white envelopes. He created Mexican gangsters and jokers and received money in his account for candy. The inmates communicated through the cell walls and slid things back and forth. 

He sent similarly designed “envelopes” to skateboarder magazine Thrasher when he was out. These were published in the 1990s and early 2000s. The big look at the time was work obviously done on a computer. It was a time for a change. “People wanted the hand-done look.” 

“It was perfect for me. It was exactly the right time.” 

By now “the skateboard industry has grown so much, with room for so many art forms.” 

Each day is random in the world of Matt French. He focuses on whatever is most pressing and pulls all-nighters on deadlines. With today’s technology he has his studio on his computer, but can text and scan images to wherever they need to go. One of his children has demonstrated art abilities. He can see it. 

Matt’s clients have included Pocket Pistols skates, Volcom, Lib Tech and Gnu snowboards, Ace trucks, Haze wheels, Pig Wheels, Vans shoes, Super Rat and Celtek. 

Not only does money come his way, but boxes arrive with painting supplies, clothing and tickets to travel. A trip is planned to Tokyo for the postponed Olympics in 2021 due to skateboard movie he’s in being screened and he will curate an art exhibit to go with it. 

Ferndale Mural 

Last year, the City of Ferndale via its Arts Commission had six local artists install murals in the downtown. Matt’s contribution joined them this summer in July. His sketch had been submitted and approved. 

The mural is on the former location of the S&H Machine Shop at 2050 Vista Drive. It is titled “Terrain Train.” Work began at the end of June after the building owner agreed to the design and paid to have the exterior prepared. It is based on a train that runs nearby which Matt could hear while he worked. Since it’s in direct sunlight he revised his scheme after getting sunburnt and he finished it in two weeks of mornings. 

Murals within downtown Ferndale are located in the alleys off Main Street and along Second and Third avenues. Funding, according to the City of Ferndale’s website, was a combination of a Project Neighborly grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation, city funds and private donations from the property owners.

The project was spearheaded by then-Ferndale City Council member Rebecca Xczar, now Whatcom County Assessor, with the support of the Ferndale Arts Commission.