A few years back when I was in Brooklyn, I was at our security guard Rob Masiello’s house and loved the paintings on his walls. I was just getting into the art scene, but I knew there was something unique about the work – colorful images and slogans painted on old newspapers. Rob told me the artist was a little guy who hangs out in Soho and that the frames cost more than the paintings. Rob said to go to Soho and look for the Steps to Nowhere Gallery.
The “gallery” is literally a staircase that goes into a wall next to the J. Crew store in Soho. Sitting on the staircase, surrounded by his work, was street artist Matthew Courtney. Matthew is a Portland, Oregon native who’s been at it in NYC for almost 20 years. Every day he takes the train in from Flatbush and sets up shop on the Steps to Nowhere.
I bought a piece on my first visit and have come back several times. Matthew has shared his story with me, which is powerful. He’s faced challenges like living with AIDS and working every day out on the street, but it’s clear that he is doing what he loves to do and doing it by choice. He feels strongly about the quotes he uses in his work like “I am the sum of all my experiences” and “Question everything.” He even quotes Camus and JFK. Here’s one of his favorite JFK quotes:
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.
A lot of people are now trying to copy what Matthew does — making art on newspapers and old cardboard. People who meet him and purchase his work know that he is the real deal and his personality is as vibrant as his art.
A conversation is worth the trip as much as taking home a piece (he’s as much a poet as an artist). And chances are he’ll remember you. He remembers all of his customers, which considering how many people come through Soho is especially impressive. Matthew told me that he loves that hundreds of his pieces are hanging above couches and in bathrooms across the world. I hadn’t seen him for two years and when I saw him last week at his studio, first thing he said was, “Mason Plumlee, how is Denver?”
My piece features the quote: “The Time is Now.” It’s a reminder about the importance of staying in the moment. We can do things in the present that are as great as anything that has happened or will happen. No need to get too far ahead or dwell in the past. Nothing is more important than the here and now.
There’s a lot we can learn on the steps to nowhere.