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Undertaking art
story image 1 Courtesy Judy A. Saslow Gallery Abstract spirits: Funeral director-turned-artist Matt Lamb, a Chicago native, incorporates spiritual imagery in his works. Lamb is now internationally renowned.

Funeral home owner devotes self to art after shaking illnesses
by Greg Hafkin
May 05, 2005

The layers of paint are so thick they seem like they're about to fall off the canvas, which is so corrugated that it resembles gray matter.

Such are the paintings of Matt Lamb, the one-time owner of one of the largest funeral home chains in the Midwest. A septuagenarian globe-trotting multimillionaire, Lamb does not resemble most outsider artists, who are often indigent. Revered for years in Europe for his self-taught style of abstract expressionism, the Chicago native is now getting more attention in his hometown with a show in the Judy A. Saslow Gallery, 300 W. Superior St.

The exhibition includes a selection of Lamb's paintings produced since 1988. Simultaneously diagnosed with three life-threatening diseases in the early 1980s, Lamb promised his wife that if he lived through the ordeal, he would sell his business and become a painter, says Richard Speer, a West Coast-based writer who wrote a biography on Lamb.

Follow-up medical tests revealed that Lamb's illnesses disappeared.

"He believed it was a kick in the pants to stop living the life of a materialist and dedicate himself to the spiritual concerns he wanted to address in his paintings," Speer says.

Lamb's textured works are reminiscent of great 20th-century artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Marc Chagall and, at times, Jackson Pollock. Color is everywhere, and random images of heart-shaped heads and fish dance around the paintings. His work is mostly figurative, though in the past two years he has become more abstract.

"He's always had his images, and he calls them spirits," says Gabrielle Goodstein, the gallery's director. "The same images appear in his paintings his whole life."

Lamb's experience in the funeral industry has made him more aware of the spirituality of life. The spirits can represent the dead, the unborn and even beings from other dimensions.

"He claims that he sees -- in the contour of his paint -- spirits, and he outlines them in order to bring them into the world," Speer says. "Lamb believes that one thing the spirits are telling us is to love one another."

Goodstein says the exhibit in Chicago, which contains about 30 paintings and a sculpture for which Lamb collaborated with Catalonian artist Marti Rom, is meant to be a "mini-retrospective" of Lamb's work. Several hundred people have visited the exhibit in its first week, including Ken Broun, of Chapel Hill, N.C., who heard about it from a friend who is an art collector.

"I really love the use of color and free-floating images that remind me a little bit about Chagall," Broun says.

Even more unusual than Lamb's otherworldly subject matter is the way he treats the canvases before applying paint. He dips them into vats of cement and waits up to a year for them to dry. Then the real abuse begins.

"He was attacking the canvas with ice picks, blow torches, running over the canvas in his car, burying it in the sand, throwing it into the ocean, putting it in the washer," Speer says of Lamb's physical methods. "The resulting images have one of the most extraordinary textures that you will see in any painting."

Lamb's financial success has resulted in studios in Florida, Wisconsin, Germany and Paris, in addition to his home base of Chicago.

All of his recent paintings lack titles; Lamb used to give them names, but when he looked at the paintings years later, he discovered something new in them and decided the old titles didn't fit. Now he wants the owners of the paintings to name them.

His success in the art world is even more astonishing considering he had no formal training. Though he wanted to be an artist since the 1970s, he was too busy being a corporate executive to learn to paint, so he taught himself.

"A lot of it was by trial," Goodstein says. "He kept working and there was a public response, and it just snowballed from there."

Lamb's most recent foray is into abstract art, which occasionally appears in the gallery. While it may be more difficult for people to interpret his abstruse work than some of his earlier, slightly more clear-cut pieces, that doesn't concern Lamb, says Carolyn Walsh, a gallery owner in Nantucket, Mass., who has worked with Lamb for over a decade.

"In terms of his financial situation, he doesn't have to care if other people respond to his work or not," Walsh says. "He didn't paint because he needed people to respond to him. He painted because he needed to express himself."

In the end Lamb's work and his entire career boil down to love. He has become a peace activist, working on a Peace Glass for a ceramics company and painting with children orphaned by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And it all began just over two decades ago, when he faced three diseases.

"It made him feel there's nothing more important than love," Goodstein says. "And all his paintings are about love and he wants to express that with a large group of people."

The Judy A. Saslow Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The exhibition is free of charge and runs through July 1.

Medill sophomore Greg Hafkin is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at

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