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Debra Pickett

Sunday Lunch with Matt Lamb

October 2, 2005


Matt Lamb takes out a pen and draws an abstract scribble on the white paper that covers our table at Bistrot Zinc.

"This is about love," he says, and then, shaking his head of unruly white hair, he disagrees with himself, "This is about sex. Or it's about home ..."

Lamb hates the typical artist-critic dance that assigns meaning to works of art. Some of the time, he says, he knows exactly what his work means. And when that's the case, he doesn't hesitate to tell anyone about it. Other times, he doesn't exactly know what he has painted. And he doesn't hesitate to say that, either.

The truth of the matter, I find out as Lamb makes quick work of an order of chicken and mushroom crepes, is that there's actually nothing he won't talk about.

But his favorite subject, naturally, is himself.

Lamb, 73, grew up in Bridgeport and first climbed Chicago's ladders of political and business success as a partner in the Blake-Lamb funeral parlors. He has conducted funerals for prominent figures from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to Harry Caray and made a name for himself as a political fund-raiser, philanthropist and raconteur. And that was only his first act.

Just before he turned 50, Lamb fell ill and was diagnosed with liver disease. He says he was told he had only two or three years to live.

"I felt if I died a businessman, I'd die unfulfilled," he says now, 25 years into Act Two. Virtually everything in his life is radically different now, except his wife of 51 years, Rose, who, I'm guessing, has the patience of a saint.

He doesn't know if he was misdiagnosed or, as he suspects, miraculously cured, but Lamb came through the crisis and decided to sell off his business interests and devote himself to becoming a painter. He received no formal training -- "I always thought that art was God-given and that I could dig into my genes and make something," he says -- but managed to emerge as a singular talent who quickly attracted the attention of gallery owners and collectors.

Hobbyist or artist?

Because he received no training as an artist, Lamb was often described as an "outsider artist," a label more commonly applied to troubled figures like the reclusive Henry Darger than to wealthy businessmen. To some in the art community, though, Lamb was nothing more than a hobbyist, a rich guy dabbling at a new pastime.

The two notions clashed publicly in 2003 when Lamb was blocked from participating in the annual Outsider Art Fair held in New York by event organizers who decided he was not outsider enough. That same year, he was honored at the Centre Picasso in Spain as an heir to the artistic genius of Pablo Picasso.

"The U.S. is the hardest place for an artist" to find acceptance, he says, because critics here are "so caught up in form over substance."

He has been well-received in Europe, he says, because people there don't feel a need to categorize his unique work, which is characterized by thick, multiple layers of paint and, frequently, by the inclusion of primitively drawn figures, in a particular school. He seems both amused and pleased by his fame as an artist and that blend of pride and modesty is borne out in the way he describes himself: "a dumb guy from Bridgeport, twice knighted by the pope, who has his painting shown on Picasso's easel."

The papal knightings, it turns out, are related to his charity work, not his art, but Lamb, in conversation, is hard to pin down on details like that. He'd much rather talk about his vision of using his work to achieve world peace -- he actually has a plan for this, and it involves umbrellas -- than the precise chronology of his life and accomplishments.

He tells me, rather unconvincingly, that he would still paint, even if no one had ever noticed his work.

"I make art because I need to make it," he says, "and because I want it out in the world speaking."

Loving the big balloon ride

When we've finished our bistro lunch and cappuccino, Lamb lifts a well-worn blue duffel bag -- the kind you get for free when you pledge money to public television -- onto the table and begins to unpack piles of "background material" he has assembled for me. As he sifts through the books, reviews, show catalogs and photos, he takes care to point out a photocopy of a nasty review of the biography of him that was recently published by art critic Richard Speer. Matt Lamb: The Art of Success (Wiley, $24.95) was clearly a joint effort between Speer and Lamb. The review he clutches, which ran in the Chicago Reader, proclaims "new book about the self-taught Chicago artist blows more hot air into his big balloon."

"I live for that!" he exclaims joyously.

He tells me he also has a copy of the article taped to the wall of his River West studio and invites me to come check it out. I accept, figuring we'll take a cab over, but that just shows how little I know about how Matt Lamb lives. As I pay our check, he takes out a cell phone and dials Voiteck, who is his personal assistant/driver/office manager. Voiteck -- Lamb is pretty sure that's his first name and doesn't know his last name -- drives Lamb's car, a BMW station wagon, over from Lamb's nearby town house, waits in it across the street, then hops out as Lamb takes over the driver's seat.

We've made it only a couple of blocks south when Lamb realizes he doesn't have his glasses, so he pulls over and calls Voiteck again, catching him as he has almost finished the walk home. Now Lamb asks him to walk back to the restaurant to see if he can find the glasses.

Sure enough, in a few minutes, Voiteck calls back, triumphant: Lamb has left not one but two pairs of glasses at our table.

Meanwhile, Lamb is giving me the tour of his studio, where thousands of paintings sit in three rooms, each the size of a small warehouse. It is overwhelming in every sense. It is more like the output of a factory than a single artist.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he says giddily, explaining that he's got six more studios like it -- some larger -- all around the world. At any given moment, he's got 400 or 500 paintings "in progress."

And, as for the idea that high-profile artists typically only produce a few works each year, he says, nearly laughing at my naivete, "That's just merchandising. That's all bull - - - -."


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