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Wednesday, December 11,2013

Aesthetes in action

Lansing-area couple’s lifelong love of art carried over to their kids, with interesting results

by Allan I. Ross
Nearly every line of sight in the home of Jerry and Joan Mattson ends in a piece of art. Miniature statues of reclining nudes line a shelf; a bust of a young boy smiles proudly from the bay window; a cabinet filled with tiny figures hangs beside a portrait of a stern Russian-looking man.

“He’s a Scot, actually. Everyone makes that mistake,” says Jerry Mattson, studying the picture as if for the first time. “It’s been Joan’s family for years.”

The man in the portrait is not a relative, nor was the painting made by one. The same can’t be said for the other works. The bust is of one of their sons when he was a kid. The statues are works by their youngest daughter. Joan Mattson’s mother stitched that chair pillow. Even the jazz CD sitting on the table — the cover art’s by one of their offspring, the content is by another.

“Our love of art really comes from love of what our families taught us,” she said. “We both grew up in artistic homes, and we wanted the same for ours.”

Last week, the Arts Council of Greater Lansing honored Joan and Jerry Mattson with the Applause Award, given annually to individuals who are seen as leaders in the Lansing-area arts scene.

“They’re ambassadors of the arts in the community,” said Chad Badgero, artistic director of Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., for which Joan Mattson sits on the advisory board. “If (only) our whole community was as passionate as them.”

But to call Joan, 78, and Jerry, 77, passionate about art is like calling a bird passionate about the sky. The Mattsons don’t just love it; they live in it.

“Before I even met him, I met his music,” she said. “I was in medical school and all my friends and I were talking about was medical school. And then I heard his jazz collection.”

He was stationed in Germany with the 7th Army Symphony as a clarinetist after graduating with a music degree from Oberlin College in Ohio. She was at Northwestern, but they had a mutual friend. He returned in 1962, met Joan, and they were married three months later.

“We weren’t supposed to work,” she said. “But here we are, 51 years later.”

Classical music wafts in from the next room.

“I think it all worked out fine,” he says.

They moved to East Lansing in 1970 after he got his Ph.D. in English literature from Ohio State University and she had conducted a residency there. He taught a freshman composition course at Michigan State University; she accepted a position at MSU Medical School for the first graduating class of human medicine. But it wasn’t until she accepted a position at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak that the world traveling would begin, and they introduced their five children into the world of art. When conferences led her to London, they schlepped the kids to London. When it led to Barcelona, they took them to Spain. Then Paris. And everywhere they went, they visited the museums, galleries and concert halls.

“All our kids had the opportunity to experience art,” Jerry Mattson said. “We realized the effect it can have as far as expanding your horizons and letting you see the world the way somebody else sees it.”

Eventually, all five Mattson children found careers in the art world. Eldest son John, 50, is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles (he wrote the script to the 1994 film “Milk Money” and worked on the first two “Free Willy” sequels). Katherine, 47, is a theater professional, freelancing these days in Oakland, Calif.; her C.V. includes work with Steppenwolf Theatre Co. in Chicago. Neil, 39, is a jazz guitarist and teacher living in Portland, Ore. Elizabeth, 37, is a line artist, ceramicist, screen printer and weaver who works on her great-grandmother’s loom. And youngest son Jeremy, 34, is the executive chef at a high-end steakhouse and seafood restaurant in Orlando. He also dabbled in graffiti art and electronic music.

“I’m not sure that I was directly influenced to want to be a chef (by our travels), but exposure to lots of different foods and cultures definitely helped me excel in this field,” Jeremy Mattson said. “And they made us keep journals. I would mostly draw in mine.”

“I never thought of (our family) as being steeped in the arts,” said Katherine Mattson. “If that’s your family, you don’t think about it that way. It seems normal. We were constantly surrounded by books, music, theater. That’s how I assumed how everyone lived. And I’m grateful that I got to experience that.”

Katherine Mattson’s husband also works in theater. She said their two teenagers have also been surrounded by the museums, concerts and the performing arts their entire lives.

“If you don’t get to experience art on a regular basis — if you don’t have the experience of reading, listening to music, being challenged by performances — your world is going to feel very circumscribed,” said Jerry Matson. “If you do get to experience it, there are no limits. Our kids realized that and knew they could do whatever they wanted to do.”

Although mid-Michigan isn’t exactly a mecca for the arts like New York or San Francisco, Mattson said he’s plenty happy with the local arts scene.

“It’s the perfect size for us,” he said. “It’s big enough to keep you constantly busy — we see three plays a week, sometimes — but small enough to actually get to know the individual artists.”

“We might consider a move to Chicago if we start having a hard time being mobile, but right now we’ve got enough to do,” she said. “And we like being immersed in it. We’re not twiddling our thumbs.”

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