Funeral Director Turned Artist Depicts Spiritual World

Matthew J. “Matt” Lamb abandoned his career as a funeral director and became a full-time painter after surviving a medical misdiagnosis of imminent death in the early 1980s. He works on huge gesso-coated canvases, using paints especially formulated for him, translating his search for spiritual meaning into abstract images.

            Last January, the annual Art Miami exhibition drew dozens of galleries to southern Florida to display one or more of the artists they represent to appreciative art collectors. This show, like the annual Exposition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art (SOFA) shows in Chicago and New York, specializes in displaying the best works that the best galleries have to offer.

Huge paintings and pieces of sculpture, by artists whose works you generally get to see only in glossy magazines and books, were transported to Miami by galleries as far away as western Canada, Europe, and the far corners of the Asia-Pacific rim.

            William Du Priest, a friend whose wife, Virginia Miller, owns ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries in Coral Gables, is well aware of my total confusion when confronted with modern abstract art.  At this show, he took me aside to explain what is different about Matthew J. “Matt” Lamb’s paintings.


Matthew J. Lamb


            Du Priest explained that Lamb, 69,  is a self-taught painter who survived a medical misdiagnosis of imminent death in the early 1980s and decided to spend the rest of his life doing something he had always wanted to do.  Leaving his family business, Blake Lamb Funeral Homes in Chicago, he set out to become a full-time artist.  

“My doctor told me that I was very ill,” he says, “that  I had mononucleosis and chronic active hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. I decided that if I survived, I would spend the rest of my life putting my thoughts and ideas about life in a medium that made some sense to me. I would take the idea of love and tolerance, all of the different human emotions, into another world – the spirit world. In the last years we’ve traveled extensively, and it has struck me no matter where you go in the world people are always the same. Color and culture may be different, but realities of life are the same. The great equalizers are hope, peace, tolerance, and understanding through love. Love is a great panaceas desired by everyone. Before people can love anyone else, they have to love themselves.

“The spiritual world surrounds us. We all are made of two people – one spiritual and one material. That’s why there is all the conflict in the world. The world longs for something spiritual while there are constant fulfilling material demands.  We have to realize there is something besides what we find in front of us. The real space to be explored is not outer space but the world inside ourselves.”

A later doctor determined that the first had misdiagnosed Lamb. By then the Lambs had changed their lives, and Matt was determined to paint full time. One day he went into an art-supply store and bought everything he saw. “I didn’t know or want the know the rules,” he says. “All my life, everything in my business life had rules. I wanted to find my own way in art and to experiment. I was really trying to say something to myself. Ideas that were swirling around in my head had to make some sense. For the first six or seven years after I started painting, I did a lot of discovery, putting materials together. I work in oil on a huge canvas. I paint because I want to paint, and I don’t have to please anyone but myself. I’m lucky I don’t have to paint to earn my daily bread, and can reserve time for myself to feed my soul. Many artists are forced to paint for someone else’s perceptions.”   


Matt Found Virginia

            “Matt found us,” says Virginia Miller. “I regularly get packages of slides from artists all over the world. Matt sent me a show catalog and some slides. I liked what I saw and put him in my future reference file. About two years later, Matt’s Chicago art dealer came by to see my space and to encourage me to meet Matt, who wanted to be represented by my gallery. I agreed to look at his work at that year’s Art Miami. I agreed to meet Matt, to determine how serious an artist he was, his understanding of issues in the art community, and to judge the consistency of quality in his body of work. Matt and his wife, Rose, came to our gallery.  I was impressed with his philosophy, his art, and the story he is trying to tell.”

About 10 years ago, Matt asked a chemist to make special paints for him. They look like acrylic but are oil-based. Mastering them took him about a year.. He had to learn how to manipulate and dry them. “They are very temperamental,” Miller explains. “Matt paints with brushes and a hand-held acetyline torch. Only his special paints work with the torch; other paints turn brown.

            “He works with three different systems. His canvas is always wet, and he control the migration of his paint. He can clump the paint, light it with a torch, or for texture he can pull it up off the canvas. He manipulates the paint by holding the painting upright, on its side, or on the floor. From the time he starts a picture until he finishes can take years.”

He paints on canvas or on boards. He prepares all of his painting surfaces at his Burlington, Wisconsin, studio. I coat all of my canvas and wood surfaces with a mixture and concrete and gesso (a fine concrete product) to give my art longevity and a sand patina, and I let them sit in a barn to age for about six months.”







Migrating with the Seasons

            Then he ships these prepared canvases to homes he maintains at Marathon, in the Florida Keys; Chicago; Cork, Ireland; Paris, France; and Tunsdorf, Germany. For the first part of their married life, Matt and Rose Lamb lived over the family’s Chicago funeral home. Now they live in many places, moving with the time of year.

“The world is in chaos, and our job is to make sense out of it,” says Lamb. He does the same with his canvas. “I mix a whole ménage of materials that ordinarily don’t mix well, oil and water, turpentine and paint. I use many different common everyday tools to dip paint and move it around on my canvas, including brooms, brushes, rags, spatulas, just about anything I can get my hand around.”

“Matt looks at surfaces for a long time before he creates or manipulates a surface to get what he wants,” says Miller. “He likes to release the image he sees in a surface, like Michelangelo, who said he was releasing the figure he saw in marble.

            “Matt’s backgrounds look haphazard, because some are.  Some have working accidents. If he likes the accident, he incorporates it into his painting. The drying times of different parts are different, and that creates tension on the painting surface. Some surfaces are full of color, and some have specks of color, mostly by design. Other effects are random.

“He constantly experiments. Sometimes he restarts migration of paint that has been drying for two or three months. Currently, he is working on the sensation of looking through paint. Using sand color, then gold, then bronze, then magenta and red, he uses the torch and then adds white again to create the feeling of looking into a pool.”


Classifying Matt

            What do you call an artist who has never had one hour of instruction? Classifying Lamb’s paintings is difficult. Some of the terms that might be used include:

            · Folk art, which comes in many forms, according to a definition used by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. Folk art can be “utilitarian, decorative, recreational, ceremonial.” The form is “determined by enduring factors such as cultural heritage and religion. But it is also influenced by national feelings of patriotism, exposure to other cultural byways, changing needs, and images imparted through the mass media.”

            · Outsider art.  Art critic Michael D. Hall, in Raw Vision (Summer 2000), describes someone who is self-taught as “a true artist following a ‘private vision.’”

            · Visionary art.  The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, defines this genre as art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from “an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.”

             Visit Matt Lamb’s Web page, read what the art critics say, and try to decide for yourself.

            Lamb himself doesn’t bother with labels. He paints with vibrant colors. To find out who we are, he says, each of us is on a spiritual pilgrimage of discovery that comes from our recognizing how and why we do things – what drives us.

“There are many different symbols in art that are symbolic of power that radiates from the spiritual world,” he says. “Native American symbols are very prominent in my images. We tried hard to destroy Native American culture, and now we hold it up as a great example.”

Some of Lamb’s recurring symbols are animals, birds, fish, and people. Here are some samples of his symbols which I first saw as fax art coming through my fax machine.




Matt Lamb the Man

            “The eldest male child in my family has always been called Matt,” says Lamb. “I’m named for my father and grandfather. Both men drove delivery vehicles for Chicago funeral homes. I was born April 7, 1932, ‘back of the yards’ at 31st Street and Union Avenue in Chicago. In 1923, my family bought Blake Brothers Funeral Home at 31st and Union and renamed the company Blake Lamb Funeral Home.”

A board-certified mortician, Matt attended Worsham College of Mortuary Science and took over the family business in 1960 when his father became ill. “Eventually we owned 12 Chicago-area funeral homes, flower and insurance companies, and a cemetery,” he says. 

“For years I ran all those companies, running around like a madman. My office often was in a limousine as I dashed from one end of the city to the other. My wife and I worked seven days a week from 6:30 AM to 11 PM. After a full day’s work, every evening from midnight to 8 AM we took all the night calls from families and hospitals. All of our funeral homes’ phones rang by our bed. We talked to family members of the departed, and helped them start the funeral planning process. We raised three daughters and a son over one of our funeral homes.

            “My wife of over 47 years worked long hours. Rose invited many of the family members of the deceased person up for dinner. It was not unusual over a month’s time to have up to 500 people to our house for dinner.”

In 1986, The Lambs merged their company into Service Corporation International (SCI ), a world-wide funeral company, through a tax-free exchange of stock. The family still operates the business.


Not a Dress Rehearsal

            “Life is not a dress rehearsal,” Lamb declares. “As a funeral director, I learned we have only a certain number of years. When I looked at other peoples lives, it was always the same questions: Who am I ? Where am I going? What am I doing? And why didn’t we do this or that -- taking a long-desired trip to Hawaii, buying a new car, telling a loved one that you loved them -- all unfilled wishes.

            “If you’re a great artist, the world will tell you what to paint – what they will buy. Arthur Conan Doyle never thought he was writing a great story, they were just throw-away stories. That’s the real balance of the artist. Who are you? Why are you doing this? Why spend so much time doing this?

            “A successful artist is one who is happy with what he is doing. It is immaterial what the world thinks. Painting is constant rediscovery of self – a psychological dig through all of your old mud to find out what is going on in your head.

            “A lot of people expostulate art to the general public. Most of my work is in my studio, far way from the public. Artist should try what appeals to them. No angel is going to come and tell you want to do. Creativity is a secret place where you reveal yourself to yourself. It is up to the artist to reveal as little or much of himself as he wants to the world, and to keep the rest of himself locked in a closet.”


 Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

 © Ampersand Communications 


For More Information


American Visionary Art Museum - http://www.avam.org

ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries - http://www.virginiamiller.com/

Exposition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art (SOFA) - http://www.sofaexpo.com/

Matthew J. Lamb - http://www.mattlamb.com or http://www.mattlamb.com/index2.html

Pax Lamb - Red de escuelas por la PAZ

Museum of American Folk Art - http://www.folkartmuseum.org/

Raw Vision - http://www.rawvision.com

Service Corporation International - http://www.sci-corp.com/