Don Matis dips his purple beard into a paper plate filled with gold paint. He spreads the color onto paper in slow, easy strokes. He shifts over to a plate of blue paint, sops it up with his whiskers and stipples it onto the canvas with quick dabs.
Matis’ “paintbrush” isn’t just affixed to his chin, he says.
“It’s deep-rooted into my imagination, my mind, my body and my spirit. It makes a connection between the paint and paper,” says Matis, who paints in the Stow apartment he shares with his close friend Monica Baird.
As unconventional as the artist to whom it’s attached, Matis’ paintbrush grew as a symbol of solidarity for his former wife, Crystal, who was brutally murdered in 1998.
“It’s all I could do,” says Matis, referring to the helplessness he felt when he learned of Crystal’s death and his decision to grow his beard until her killer is found.
Four years after Crystal’s death, Matis still waiting, still growing his beard and still left with his feelings unsettled. He turned to art as a medium for projecting his pain, peace and life story.
“The first time I painted, I painted all night. All of these emotions — anger, serenity, rage —were coming out of me,” he says. “My life was coming out of me on paper.”
A devoted Catholic, Matis says his faith and prayer led him to his art just as it did to his sobriety 29 years ago. The two merged into a ministry — at a bar — where Matis, a former drug addict and sexual abuse victim, displays his paintings in miniature form.
Sipping hot tea laced with cream, Matis sits beside a wooden display box containing his “eye poppers,” which are 3-by-3-inch original paintings. Although he has no formal art training, Matis says his paintings earn positive reviews from art professors and other aficionados. Matis is also the subject of a documentary film titled “Human Paintbrush,” part of The Amerikans web series of portraits of Northeast Ohioans.
What really keeps him painting, though, are the relationships his art fosters.
“Art helps me connect with people,” says Matis, who sets up his mobile gallery Thursdays through Saturdays from midnight to 2 am at Brubaker’s Pub in Hudson.
“It’s great to be alive,” he says to a wave of curious callers who stream by. Some give him hugs. Others kiss the large crucifix dangling from his neck chain. They ask him to tell his story. They tell theirs.
“They see me and wonder, ‘Who is that crazy dude?’ They talk with me about being in jail, stealing, lying, drug dealing, most things I’ve experienced,” says Matis.
Sure, the talk might be flowing in sync with the stout, but it’s all good, Matis says. He’s been there. He’s still there, he says, recovering one day at a time.
“My job is to stay straight and sober, to be a living billboard for God and to try to make people happy,” he says. “I’m not here to fix, change or rearrange anyone.”
Matis’ personality draws the attention of many.
“He stands out and you’re intrigued when you see him,” says Brubaker’s patron Matthew Henry. He’s the type of person you want to go up to and talk to. You want to know what his deal is.”
Despite oft-discussed heavy issues, Matis says he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He says his art simply opens the door to honest conversations that are good for his soul and others.
“I tell people I’m stoned on happiness,” he says, sporting a yellow, red and blue jester hat. “We’re all flawed. We’re all sinners. That’s why we have to help each other, bring joy to one another.”
Matis’ art serves as a smiling reception to his bar ministry.
“It’s an expression of my insanity, of my recovery, of my service to God to do his will. If God wanted my art in a gallery, it would be there,” he says.
Besides at a local pub, Matis shares his ministry and art at StonedonHappiness.com