Off Kilter with Artist Jen Matthews

The design director and painter takes an upbeat approach to the concept of finding the beauty in chaos with her vibrant floral pieces.
by Colony Little | photography by Geoff Wood

In the third-floor studio of Jen Matthews’ home, pop-art paintings evoke colorful chaos. On one canvas, flowers fly from a geometric vase painted in vivid colors, as if an invisible hand has just tipped it off its pedestal. In another painting, a bouquet of limp, languid flowers belie the cheerfulness of their surrounding color palette. The work playfully chides society’s relentless pursuit of perfection. “I tend to paint haphazard floral scenes that always seem like one lil’ knock away from total disaster,” Matthews says, noting that she relates to the feeling. “For so long, I tried to make it seem like I had it all together at all times — but in reality, I was a hot mess on the inside. Now I embrace the side of me that is a little messy and not perfect.”

By day, Matthews is the director of design at Raleigh creative agency Baldwin&. In her off-hours, painting is a respite from life as a busy working mom of two teens, but her hobby has turned into a successful endeavor. She’s represented by multiple galleries, including Anne Irwin Fine Art in Atlanta, and has had her work featured by Anthropologie and on HBO Max.

Matthews was a creative child. She recalls using Paint Shop software on her parents’ Commodore 64 to make greeting cards and fliers. “That’s where my brain kind of clicked,” she says. “You can do things on the computer and do art!” As Matthews got older, design elements from popular advertising campaigns captivated her, and she started clipping magazine advertisements — from brands like ESPRIT, Swatch and Benetton — that she saved in binders the way other kids would collect stamps or stickers.

She remembers being particularly captivated by a popular Absolut Vodka campaign, which enlisted artists including Andy Warhol and Keith Haring to re-envision the bottle. “They were based on such a simple idea, but it was infinitely executable,” she says. “That was the turning point for me. I’d paint and make posters to sell to all my brothers’ older friends and my friends.” 

Matthews studied graphic design at North Carolina State University and landed her dream job in advertising as a designer and art director at McKinney in the early 2000s. She continued to work in advertising and marketing for over 20 years, painting in her spare time while building her career and growing her family.

But in 2011, she had to place her painting practice on the back burner for a few years. “I got pretty sick with a slew of different autoimmune issues, and everything from then until about 2017 was about work, raising a young family and trying to feel better,” she says. “Finally, when I got to a place where my health was fairly manageable, I started thinking about art again — but mostly just doing it with my kids and for myself.”

As she got back into painting, her initial works were expressionistic, loose and intuitive. (Abstract expressionist artists like Joan Mitchell and the graphical, collagist style of William LaChance are some of her influences.) She drew and painted abstracted florals using oil pastels and acrylic paint. In other works, gestural lines appear to emerge from the canvas, as if she was peeling back layers of paint to reveal the bold shapes, patterns and colors underneath. In these works she built up layers of acrylic paint on the canvas, and if you look closely, you will spot fragments of unexpected materials like vintage fabrics, handmade paper or pieces of string.

She began posting her work on Instagram around 2018, selling pieces to followers who would reach out to her via direct message. During the pandemic, she transitioned to a four-day work week and found herself with time and space to paint more regularly and consistently. “As terrible as 2020 was for a lot of people, I feel like it was sort of a cathartic time for me,” she says. “Work slowed down just enough for me to be able to really put some time into figuring out who I was as an artist.” 

 Her work gained a following on social media, and she started to take on commissioned work from clients, who incorporated her paintings in their home decor. “When I was doing commissions, I made them feel very involved in the whole process, because I do treat it like a design project,” she says. “I’m showing them progress through Photoshop on their walls, which gives them a sense of exactly what it’s going to look like.” She also began connecting with galleries like Art House in Charlotte and the Miller Gallery in Charleston, which now sell her works in limited releases online.

She typically works on seasonal bodies of work that include 10 to 12 paintings at a time. (Her latest release sold out within a week.) Matthews was also recently included in a Charlotte pop-up group show called Start with the Art at Slate Interiors, which was curated by Natalie Papier, founder of interior design firm Home Ec., who’s also a star on the Discovery+ series Artfully Designed. “There is something special about Jen’s work that has drawn me in from the moment I laid eyes on it,” says Papier. “That mix of whimsy, pattern mixing and unexpected color choices speaks to my soul. It doesn’t take itself so seriously, yet it’s always elevated with its unexpected concept and composition. It just makes my eyeballs happy!”

Over time, Matthews’ work has evolved beyond the layering of shape, color and texture; she still focuses on abstract florals, but now the artist often incorporates small narrative vignettes in diptychs with cleverly constructed names. “A lot of my titles come from either things I have going on in my life or memories from awkward situations I got myself into at some point or another,” she says.

One example is a piece titled I Got You, which features two teal-and-blue checkered vessels with interlocking handles. “I did this one show and I overdid it — I was burnt out,” she says. “But my husband was there for me through and through, he was helping me frame things and he built a display for my work. That title is a nod to his arm around me, while I’m falling apart.”

This year, Matthews has decided to scale back on commissions to focus on her seasonal batches of paintings. Through it all, painting helps her maintain her work-life balance. “I see it as my chance to really play,” she says. “I like to make people smile and laugh and even scratch their heads a little. It’s a time when I can challenge and express myself technically and conceptually — to lighten my mood with the hopes of brightening someone else’s.” 

This article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of WALTER magazine