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'Avant Garage'

Robert Mattson's retrospective "Avant Garage: Four Decades of Art'' will feature an exhibition of his work at the ARTmeyerson art venue in Atwater. The former Strong Ford garage serves as an exhibition space and artist studio. The exhibit opens Oct. 23 with a reception beginning at 5 p.m. followed by a celebration featuring Minnesota music legend Willie Murphy. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

For 37 years, Robert Mattson introduced students to the world of art -- knowing that the best among them would rebel at all that he taught them.

Just as Robert Mattson the artist has always done.

Mattson's commitment to creating art through discovery will be on exhibit as "Avant Garage: Four Decades of Art'' at ARTMeyerson in Atwater.

The exhibit's opening will be celebrated with a performance by Minneapolis music legend Willie Murphy. The opening is from 5 to 10 p.m. Oct. 23, with Murphy performing from 7 to 10 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

Mattson, of New London, is a Willmar native well-known to many -- both for his roles as an art instructor at Ridgewater Community College and as an abstract artist. His achievements as an artist in the region earned him recognition as the 2009 recipient of the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council's Prairie Star Award.

His works have also been featured at the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis and, more recently, exhibited at St. John's University.

Mattson, 67, said he enjoyed "drawing and fiddling" while a young student, but never anticipated that art would define his life. He was attending Willmar Junior College and was very unsure of what sort of future to pursue when his adviser Marietta Johnson insisted that he add an art class to his schedule.

A few years later he was holding a Master of Arts degree in arts education from Saint Cloud State University, and shortly after a job offer from the college in Willmar. He started teaching at what is now Ridgewater Community College in 1967. His teaching and arts career were put on hold while he served with the U.S. Navy from 1968-1972, including service in the Vietnam conflict.

He returned to teaching in Willmar and continued his classroom role until retiring in 2003. He continues to serve as a mentor to students, and assists students along with his wife, Marjorie Nilssen, a Ridgewater College arts instructor.

All these years, Mattson said he has been driven as much by his desire to create art as his love for teaching. "An artist who taught rather than a teacher who did art,'' he said.

Throughout his career, his days in the classroom were followed by evenings creating his own works in the studio. His work stretched well into the wee hours.

Mattson said he has always appreciated most the freedom to create and experiment in the studio without the worries about what may sell.

He has always prided himself on his work ethic, but the long hours in the studio are tempered today. He devotes equal amounts of time to his passion for fly fishing and fly tying.

He has done his own experimenting in art through the years, and his retrospective exhibit offers examples of it. But his focus and passion is for abstract art with a minimalist approach.

"A creative personality can hold two conflicting ideas at the same time,'' said Mattson.

Praise for his work has ranged from an appreciation for his ability to "simultaneously ravish the eye and stimulate the mind'' to these words from Ted Sherarts, professor emeritus of art and department chair at St. Cloud State University. He described Mattson as "...the finest abstract painter around the state and on a par with internationally celebrated artists in New York and Europe.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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