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How one Austin artist brings free-thinking creativity — and free art — to people who pass by

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Artist Matthew Stanners displays his artwork “Red Sky Rendezvous” next to his Free Art ATX sign Jan. 26 at the midpoint of the First Street Bridge. Stanners leaves his abstract works around Austin with the sign, hoping an appreciative passerby will take a painting home with them.

On a mild winter afternoon, Austin artist Matthew Charles Stanners places two paintings near the Butler Hike and Bike Trail just east of the Austin Rowing Center.

On the big blocks of limestone, he also hangs a canvas sign, which, in plain, bold lettering reads: "Free Art ATX."

Then he waits.

Earlier at his apartment in the Bouldin area, Stanners had poised thin streams of black, blue and green paint on the two relatively small — 25 inches by 20 inches — canvases. 

On the trail, he clips a QR code next to his sign. Captured on a digital device, the code leads back his Instagram page, FreeArtATX, which in turn links to his website, MattStanners.com, which explains his philosophy of seeing and absorbing art.

This day, hundreds of people run, jog or walk past the free Austin art on the trail around Lady Bird Lake.

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Finally, two women linger. Naturally, they take selfies with the art. 

Stanners, who stands at a modest distance, offers to take a picture of the women together with the art. Then he reveals his identity.

"We talked about art," Stanners told me later. "About how the colors allow you to project associations on a painting to make sense of it. The art goes quickly, however, if the trail is more quiet.

"This is my little foot-in-the-door technique."

In "Face In Flame," Matthew Stanners balances color fields with dashes, dots and curls of intense color, along with the suggestion of flaming orbs on the horizon.

'Art is a debate-like process for me'

Stanners, 25, admits that the offer of free art is something of a gimmick for an artist who has been working steadily on painting for a mere 10 months.

"Nobody buys paintings in this way," Stanners says. "Yet I'll receive DMs from people interested in my story, and we end up talking about art. I'm just glad that the free paintings are being taken and hanging in a home that might not have had original art otherwise."

Although he is living on his savings, Stanners does, in fact, sell his art, mostly through Instagram, which has changed the art world profoundly since it was introduced in 2010. He has completed some 100 canvasses during the past 10 months. He sold 20 of them at full price, received five commissions, and gifted another five or so.

Born in San Francisco, Stanners grew up in the East Bay area. His mother is Elizabeth Delgado Stanners, who worked as a banker on Latin American accounts until she retired to raise their three children. His father is Donald Stanners, a private equity banker who owns candy companies.

His two sisters are equally accomplished in related fields. One works for a venture capital firm in San Francisco, the other for a company that consults on executive pay in New York City.

A super-competent family? Stanners smiles, "Yes, on paper."

He attended the prestigious and straightforwardly named College Preparatory School in the San Francisco Bay area, which limits class sizes to about 80. He did well enough at math and science, but excelled at history, where he could revel in the art of the essay.

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"I liked being a debater," Stanners says. "Art is a debate-like process for me. You are given five minutes to prepare your argument, and then it becomes improvisational. It improves your critical thinking and builds confidence from taking uncomfortable positions. As a shy kid without a way with words, I could express myself — and beat other debaters."

Eventually, he grew tired of debate and the common strategy of talking as fast as possible. 

"I also ran into the buzz saw of postmodern critiques," he says in a smooth baritone that betrays a quick sense of humor about the evolving philosophies of proof and thinking. "My critiques had been more Hegelian. I thought: 'Why bother? What's it worth? Is this a method that can affect change?'"

College for Stanners meant the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the famed Ivy League business school.

"I come from a Duke University family," Stanners says. "My family took me to a Duke basketball championship game the year I applied. It didn't work."

At the Wharton School, Stanners focused on finance and entrepreneurship.

Artist Matthew Stanners studied finance and entrepreneurship at a prestigious Ivy League business school, but two conversion experiences led him to pursue art full-time.

"I thought I could apply this knowledge to anything in the world," he says. "I wanted to understand how the world operates. I liked that the philosophy of the university was very empirical and relied on data."

He graduated in 2019, and eventually took a job in land acquisition for an Austin real estate company, but not before some life detours, including two artistic conversion experiences, and some time spent volunteering for nonprofits and working in minimum wage jobs while fighting off depression.

"I thought that the Wharton School would teach me how to operate in the world," he says. "Instead it was teaching me how to operate in my self-interest. That was not the clarity I wanted to find."

Eventually, art offered him a new sort of clarity.

How did his family take the switch?

"I had been dropping hints for a few years," he says. "How I might get involved in the Peace Corps, or impact investing, or micro-financing. Or I might take a year to become a monk and move to the mountains.

"Dad was mostly just concerned for me. It was difficult for him to wrap his head around. Nobody in our family had reference points on what it takes to be an artist."

'I was still searching for something'

Artists come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some find a calling early in life. Others study it in school.

Stanners comes to art through a background in philosophy — he also had taken art history — compounded by two profound personal experiences overseas. 

Artist Matthew Stanners stands with his artwork “Red Sky Rendezvous” at the midpoint of the First Street Bridge. He studied finance and entrepreneurship, but veered off into art after two intense conversion experiences.

On a summer off from the Wharton School, he worked in London for a global asset manager researching frontier market debt. Stanners thought he could find ethical value in helping to capitalize projects in the lesser known corners of global business.

Stanners: "I was still searching for something."

One day in London, he visited the Tate Modern, the towering museum located in a reimagined power plant on the south side of the Thames. 

"The public collections were closed," he says. "But I went to the gift shop, and from there, I got lost in a building with a lot of closed doors. That's when I stumbled on the Rothko Seagram murals in the basement."

A bit of background: Marc Rothko (1903-1970), an American abstract painter of color fields, is best known to Texans from the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a shrine to peaceful reflection in the Montrose area that is hung with dark Rothkos. 

Yet among his most famous projects were murals commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram's Building in New York City. Furious that they could only be seen by wealthy diners, he refunded the hefty commission. Twelve of the murals ended up at the Tate Modern.

"They are dark red and burnt brown," Stanners says. "Looking at them, my knees felt weak. I felt very conscious of the sound and the smell the AC in the room. It was like I was standing in the paintings as I experienced them."

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Not long after that, he attended an exhibit of sculptures by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), whose most famous sculpted figures are tall and elongated. At times, they look as if they were dribbled from a wet substance turned hard. They are also strongly influenced by several streams of 20th-century philosophy.

"Rothko showed me color," Stanners says, "and Giacometti showed me form, at a base, primal level."

Details in artist Matthew Stanners’ “Red Sky Rendezvous.”

'When I got to Austin, it clicked'

This was 2017. Stanners did not start making his own paintings — these days often strong colors that look dribbled on the canvas — until later.

"The first 10 to 15 were crappy paintings in a simple, sloppy style," he says. "But when I got to Austin, it clicked. One painting brought me to me knees. I had the same sensorial experience as when I first stood in front of the Seagram murals. What happened here? I could paint in a way I couldn't explain, but resonated with me like Rothko and Giacometti."

Stanners describes an experience felt by many artists, that he couldn't control what he was creating. 

"From there, I started relying on instinct," he says, "to remove all fear of the outcome."

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In spring 2021, he introduced his art on Instagram and quickly attracted 4,500 followers, mostly in California, Texas and New York.

Talk to Stanners for a while, and he will likely bring up some philosophical aspect of art, without relying on art world jargon, which he never learned. Yet he nimbly slides into concepts formed in business school.

"I'm learning, for instance, that it's a big challenge fighting for attention," he says. "The free art campaign is less about driving sales than creating a cultural megaphone of sorts. Its job is to peak your interest and capture your curiosity.

"The job of the art is to hold the attention of the viewer so that they can greater understand themselves in relation to the object," he continues. "It says: 'You are an artist, too.'"

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.