Former Marine finds hope through art
Artist Matthew “Mattie” Armstrong had just turned 20 when he took part in the Battle of Khafji, one of the bloodiest of the Gulf War. Heavy Allied Coalition air attacks on the Iraqis marked the event, in what Armstrong described as utter destruction, leaving a wake of carnage.
The Harper Woods resident served as an artillery scout for the US Marine Corps and had been trained to be insensitive. But seeing the trail of bloated young bodies brought on feelings of connection and guilt he hadn’t expected.
“Before they were faceless, they were the enemy,” he said. “I didn’t realize these were men my age, these boys were my age…and they were all dead, and they didn’t stand a chance.”
After the war, Armstrong would serve a few more years in the Marine Corps before returning home, but the wounds of his service refused to heal. In addition to the permanent lung damage caused by Operation Desert Storm, Armstrong suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition caused by witnessing an event or experience. traumatic.
He struggled with guilt, sometimes wondering if he was a mass murderer for what happened. He found himself irrationally angry and struggling to connect with friends and family, blaming others for his problems and then isolating himself.
“I didn’t have the ability to say, ‘It bothers me, and I’ll tell you why,’ he said. “I would no longer have the ability to say, ‘You’re hurting me, you’re dead to me “and I would cut (them).”
Armstrong found solace in the bottle and became an alcoholic. After returning from service, he enrolled in art school at Wayne State University―with an emphasis on painting―and took a job at a bar in Detroit. But the party and lucrative nature of the job caused him to miss too many classes and he didn’t graduate. Instead, he became the bar manager — a position he held for 20 years — which exacerbated his alcoholism.
He also continued to paint, but after spending months working on a work, he sold it for pennies.
Things changed in 2015. After complaining of pain in his side, Armstrong’s doctor told him that alcoholism had damaged his liver and he was dying and needed to put on order in his affairs. The visit was a wake-up call and Armstrong decided to fight for his life.
He began to wean himself off his alcohol addiction over the following months, noticing not only a reduction in physical ailments, but increasing clarity of mind and purpose. He was directionless and realized how unhappy and dissatisfied he was.
“I started to see things more clearly again,” he said. “The fog was gone.”
With his newfound clarity, Armstrong found gratitude and forgave himself, deciding to focus on kindness to himself and kindness to others.
He quit his job at the bar and started working at Trader Joe’s grocery store, an environment of positivity that he found fun and rewarding. His painting also changed and he found himself with more focused and positive ideas and a transition away from abstraction.
“Rather than (putting) all this emotion of PTSD and anger and resentment (into my art)… I wanted to put more kindness into it,” he said. “If anything, that’s what I want to be known for.”
Armstrong’s life changed again in 2020. In February, he met art agent Nicole George, who set him on the path to becoming a professional artist. She taught him the true value of his work – more than 10 times more than he had sold in the past – which he said reflected his changing self-image.
His works now range from $2,500 to $5,000 each, he said. It also sells prints for $175.
“Undervaluing myself was part of who I was back then,” he said. “I undervalued myself as a human being, I didn’t see my worth.”
When the pandemic hit, his wartime lung damage prevented him from working at the grocery store and his PTSD worsened in isolation. But instead of having a drink, he threw himself into his art and began to blossom.
Armstrong’s work is notable for its bold colors, thick brushstrokes, and use of smaller shapes – like squares and circles – to create a larger image, inspired by the breakdown of the grid of a cloth. While his earlier works were more abstract, his current style depicts clear images, often containing a subtle message of social awareness.
His painting of a rhino depicts the animal with tiny eye-like circles in its midsection, hidden among a multitude of shapes. Accompanied by its detached horns, it depicts the horrors of poaching. A seemingly cheerful image of a jellyfish is full of tiny shapes representing plastic in the ocean and the proliferation of plastic in the world at large.
Much of his work depicts iconic images of Detroit, including the Fisher Building, Belle Isle, Campus Martius, and one of the city’s famous pheasants.
“I’ve been away, and I’ve been all over the world, and Detroit really is family,” said Armstrong, who lived in the city for 20 years before recently moving to Harper Woods. “Detroit is my home. There’s something different about the people of Detroit and Detroit and the way we collectively bond over tough things.
Artist and friend Brian Pollock said Armstrong’s work had an unmistakable spirit with depth beneath a whimsical surface.
“There is a vulnerable truth that is genuine in each of his paintings, there is a story inside each,” he said. “All these lines, if you follow them, they will show themselves. Every brushstroke is intentional, like him as a human being.
Christa Chamberlain and her husband Shaun are longtime friends and fans of Armstrong. They own two of his works, including “The Cloud”, a large orange abstract painting displayed prominently above their fireplace, as well as a non-abstract work, “The Crucifix”.
For her, bright colors bring her joy, and knowing about Armstrong’s background and his kind and generous nature makes the paintings more special.
“We fell in love with these two pieces,” she said. “They had a story and a story, they’re a part of him and they’re absolutely stunning.”
Reflecting on his time in the Marine Corps, Armstrong said he loved his country and was proud of his service. He said he treasured his connections with fellow veterans and found the community empowering, but said there was a huge need for their continued support, especially those also battling PTSD.
He hopes his story is an example to others and proof that healing is possible and that veterans will recognize that their lives matter and are worth fighting for.
“All of these veterans feel alone, they feel like there’s no other way, and there are other ways,” he said. “There are people for all of us, there is care. You have to fight for yourself, and if you don’t fight for yourself, there are people who will fight for you, and I am one of them.