“I knew I was going to be an architect from a very young age,” says Mat Barber Kennedy. “My father was an architect; we grew up knowing about architecture. It would have been perverse not to become one.” A conscientious student, Kennedy also became involved in the London punk scene, which he saw as a protest against “mediocrity–the new gray classless Britain. I also thought it was really sexy. For a long time I wouldn’t leave the house without makeup and lipstick.”
In 1982 he traveled to Paris with a friend to sketch buildings there. “We were both extremely loud, pretty gothic, in our dress: we were educating people that you can dress irreverently and still be an intelligent person,” he says. But he was still serious about studying architecture, and the Paris trip was important. “I really do think you have to look at the past in order to be modern,” he says. “You see so much more when you draw; you have to keep looking, even at the bits you don’t draw.”
In 1987, while studying architecture at London’s Royal College of Art, Kennedy stopped wearing makeup. “I started looking beyond the surface–part of growing up, you start looking deeper.” After graduating the following year, he took off on a drawing trip around the world, during which he began to think of his architectural drawings as works in themselves. While he was making a “polite pencil drawing” of Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal in New York, his future wife, ceramist Sherry Kennedy (nee Barber; Mat took her last name after their marriage), took his sketchbook and “sewed some beads onto the page with pink thread. It was not what I thought one did in a sketchbook.” He realized that simply sketching buildings “didn’t sufficiently invoke my emotional interaction with the subject.” To the pencil, pen, ink, colored pencils, and watercolors he was already using he added glue, collaging pieces of paper “to try to depict qualities of surface, color, space–to do more than just render outward appearances.”
Upon returning to Britain, he worked for an architecture firm until he was laid off in 1990, before the one building he designed was completed. It was a turning point: he began to sell his paintings and drawings. And he enjoyed the spontaneity. “It takes so damn long to build anything,” he says. “I’d spent 15 months and hadn’t yet seen the result.” He’s been making and exhibiting collage paintings of buildings ever since.
On Kennedy’s first visit to the U.S. in 1988, he was immediately fascinated by “gritty stuff” not found in Britain, things like water tanks, fire escapes, and fire hydrants. Chicago “was the biggest thing I’d ever seen, because it’s expressed in terms that you can visually take in. The streets are straight, the landscape is flat: you can see them go on and on and on.” Though Kennedy admires Chicago’s architectural monuments, he takes a democratic approach. “I don’t believe that Frank Lloyd Wright’s individual buildings are more important to Chicago’s character than many of the anonymous buildings I choose to highlight.”
A Chicagoan since 1995, Kennedy explores what he calls “the history of vernacular architecture” in the city. “Chicago has a story to tell, which has to do with the time it expanded,” he says. “Architecture was opening up to vast new possibilities, due to the invention of the elevator and structural steel. And there was the ethos of the industrial magnates–they were very keen to express something of their magnanimity. There’s an exuberance about much of the industrial construction here, and you come across some quite delightful and generous architectural gestures.”
Kennedy’s method is to “spend days in the streets with my sketchbook, walking and looking,” he says. “I first find the subject and then decide on the medium, responding to the building in a way I think is appropriate. I look where the sun is, which side of the street the building is on. Objects from the street–a leaf, a cigarette pack, a piece of waste paper–often get incorporated into my sketches or final works.” The Back of the Zimmerman Building shows a section of a wall of the former Schwinn factory with a newer concrete water-storage structure on top. Kennedy used separate sheets for the two parts, getting different textures and colors from two different kinds of paper: “I’m expressing elemental aspects of the architecture.” Pardridge Building 1872 depicts a building on Madison and Morgan with “decorative plaster arches over the windows, which show an attempt at dressing up what never pretended to be an upscale building. It shows an awareness that architecture should be more than just accommodations,” Kennedy says. “I use collage as a reflection of the notion that architecture is itself a construction: buildings are made up of pieces and decay in pieces….My collage, ‘imperfect’ in the way it’s constructed, reflects something of the present imperfection of the building. The inhabitants are long gone; there’s a poignant sense of pending loss.” Kennedy has torn away paper at the upper left, leaving a blank space for one window–“a suggestion that the whole building is about to disappear.
“What I’m trying to do,” says Kennedy, “is find the ‘lipstick,’ the thing that makes each building different.”
Mat Barber Kennedy’s work can be seen this weekend, along with the work of other artists who live in Pilsen, at the Pilsen East Artists’ Open House. There’s a “gala opening” Friday from 6 to 10 PM at 1826 S. Halsted; maps of the studios and galleries, which will be open Saturday and Sunday noon till dusk, are available there all weekend. Call 312-432-1543. –Fred Camper
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Partidge Building 1872”; Mat Barber Kennedy photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.