Matt Lamb: The Art of Success By Terri Schlichenmeyer CorrespondentSunday, May 29, 2005When Matt Lamb was told in the early 1980s that he had an incurable disease and that he needed to get his affairs in order, he made a decision: If, through some miracle, he survived, he would change his life. He did survive -- and he did change his life. Lamb went from being a Chicago-area funeral director to an internationally known artist and champion of peace. He's also the subject of the new biography, "Matt Lamb: The Art of Success," by art critic Richard Speer (Wiley, $24.95). "I began to think about philosophical things," said Lamb, 73, of the period when he was ill. "Why did that young person die? Why didn't I say I loved him or her? There is a lot of unfulfilled conversation and communication when someone dies. "Art, though, is the universal language, the beginning of conversation, love, and tolerance. I thought we needed to proclaim this." Success, but at what cost? Lamb and his family owned a chain of Blake-Lamb Funeral Homes in Chicago, Oak Lawn, Palos Heights and elsewhere, and as the business thrived, Lamb and his brother began making investments and dabbling in other endeavors. But Lamb also was drinking heavily, and when he was in his 40s, he began to feel fatigued. His doctor's diagnosis stunned him: acute infectious mononucleosis and two other diseases of the liver, the latter caused by alcoholism. So, the funeral director began planning his own service. But Lamb wanted to live, and he told his wife, Rose, that his dream was to be a painter if he survived. In early 1984, Lamb went to an art supply store and bought his first brushes and paint. By mid-year, Lamb had several paintings and asked friend and Chicago art dealer Arthur Rubin to critique his work. Rubin was impressed and offered guidance. He opened his first studio in 1986, and by late 1987 he had his first public show. He still has Polaroids of some of those paintings, with notations scrawled across the bottom. Sold for $250. Sold for $400. Lamb's paintings now sell for up to six figures. 'The good, the bad and the ugly' Speer had been aware of Lamb's work as an artist, and after he interviewed him for a magazine article, he realized Lamb's story could make a fascinating book. Lamb not only underwent a mid-life conversion, he's become a man of the world. He has studios in Florida, Wisconsin, Germany and Paris, Matt Lamb museums in Banyuls and Port St. Espirit in France; Gualeguay, Argentina; and Tunsdorf, Germany; and Matt Lamb centers in Kunming, China, and Bitche, France. His work is permanently exhibited at Texas A&M University and, closer to home, at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. "I had the good fortune to have access to Matt Lamb, his family, his financial records, everything a biographer would want," Speer said. "I wanted to show as much as possible about this multi-faceted man. I had the ability to show the good, the bad and the ugly." Post-Depression influence Lamb was born at the Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, and was raised on Chicago's South Side. While attending St. David's and St. Sabina grade schools, he started working for his father at the business the elder Lamb bought from the Blake Brothers in 1928. "That's where I learned that there are no differences in people," Lamb said. "We buried all classes, all races, all creeds. It didn't matter who the person was, (whether they were) the family of a prostitute or a politician." Being a South Sider back in late 1930s was nothing like it is now, he said. The city was rougher, and kids looked for their heroes wherever they could, especially in the years after the Depression. "I lived at 31st and Union, Back of the Yards," he said. "A guy I ran around with, a young kid, was given a dime by his father. The sidewalks at the time were wood. He dropped the dime between the sidewalk slats, and five men tore up the sidewalk for that dime. Still, "I had a very good upbringing," he said. "I remember that nobody ever knew they were poor. There was no such thing as poor. You were what you were. "I always relied on mentors. My father didn't come off as a mentor (in the book), but he was." Lamb graduated from St. Leo High School in 1950, and then attended the Worsham College of Mortuary Science. After graduation, he and his new wife settled down to work in the family business and to start a family. Thirty years later, when he told his wife he wanted to give up his career for painting, she was surprised but accepting. Lamb sold his half of the funeral homes and started painting. Internationally known artist Today, Lamb is a renowned artist. He maintains a home in Chicago as well as in several other states and countries. His paintings -- vivid in color and featuring bold lines -- hang in galleries and museums in Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Spain and China. He's inspired by the Holy Spirit, he said. "The interpretations for a painting are from God," Lamb said. "With art, you're talking, you're not fighting." Lamb has other projects that also promote peace and love, including his Umbrellas for Peace project. In it, he had the children of 9/11 victims paint umbrellas that are now displayed in a traveling exhibit. Since then, he launched a program in which he has children paint umbrellas for peace. Lamb is a happy man. He also is happy with Speer's book. "There are no surprises," Lamb said. "I know myself. A biography is an archaeological dig through someone's life. If you lived the life, that's what it is. "Are the facts right or wrong? The book is right. It is a great summarizing of everything. I think he's done a very, very fine job of presenting all the warts and all the smiles. I don't think you can ask for anything better than that." Lamb hopes his life story will foster peace and offer hope. "I hope it shows everyone that they can do something and be someone," he said. "We are born and we live and die, and what's in the middle is what counts. "My hope is that it will help people say, 'You know, I can do that!'"