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Creativity Through Pain, Interview with Tony Matzke

“I learned wire wrapping on a dare,” said Tony Matzke. Over the last 30 years, he has learned many art forms. They include leatherwork, beadwork, building dreamcatchers, creating shield mandalas-- and most recently wrapping precious stones in wire and turning them into pendants in 2016.


Tony creates this wide array of work not only for his Lakota heritage but also for his mental health. 


From Lakota descendant to Air Force veteran, from someone who loves his morbid sense of humor to someone coping with chronic pain, he puts a lot of who he is into each piece he creates.

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“With wire wrapping,” Tony said, “inspiration comes from the stone, how it wants to be wrapped. Agate looks different from, say, jasper. Look at how it speaks to you, how it wants to be wrapped. If it doesn’t come out right it’s because you didn’t listen. In Lakota culture, even the stones have spirits, so you need to listen to the spirit.” 


Tony’s Lakota heritage infuses his life and his work. His service dog is named Mila, the Lakota word for “shield.” 


“I found out soon after my paternal grandmother passed away, from one of my aunts, that I have Lakota heritage. My work connects me with my culture. With some of my work, I talk with an elder, and they direct me on how to tell our stories to make sure I don’t cross any spiritual lines. Showing the Lakota culture with fine art is a pretty special thing.”

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Tony’s work adds a traditional Lakota twist to modern items. “Attitude and patience are so important when doing work like this,” he says. “Any art. It’s all in your mindset, all in how you think about things.” 


He describes it as very prayerful work. “Every action is a prayer. How you think becomes part of the work, so you have to be careful.” If he becomes angry at the piece or anything else, he walks away, not wanting the anger to become part of the piece. 


“I’ve had a lot of elders and others help me with that kind of mindset,” he says. “It took a little learning. I never used to be a patient person. When I've had a special needs child and in doing my type of work, it takes more than patience; it takes a sense of calm while I’m doing it.” 


Tony says he also learned focus and patience while serving in the Air Force. That’s where he picked up his good work ethic, too. “Though that’s hard,” he said, “ when you’re constantly in pain.”


Even so, the pain is one of the reasons Tony still makes art. 


Living with chronic pain and chronic fatigue is draining. “I’ll give myself two hours,” Tony said, “to work on art and take a break. Then I’ll decide if I’ll get back to it later in the day, or another day. It’s always interesting with chronic pain.”

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Tony first learned beadwork after serving in the Air Force. He kept it up while on disability, needing something to fill the time. He received a lot of encouragement, so he kept going. 


Beadwork is one of his favorite mediums. “The beadwork I only do at my bench because of a 113-pound shepherd who likes to put his nose in things. “What are you doing, Dad?” and then I have beads everywhere when he snorts. I affectionately call him my supervisor.”


Tony’s inspiration for the beadwork, from keychains to pen covers and medallions, comes down to the pattern. 


“It’s a matter,” he says, “of finding or working up a pattern that speaks to me. Then just clear my mind and apply the beads and if the pattern looks good as I’m doing it, good, I keep going. It’s a lot of trial and error to get a piece to come out right. While working a pattern, I can tell if it’s going to work, and if it’s not I tweak it and work it again.” Then he says with a chuckle, “I have my own rejection pile. Pieces that didn’t work.”

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Tony cracked jokes while we talked. Humor is important to him, a way to cope with life. “I’ve been married 37 years. When people ask how we’ve been together so long, I say, ‘She keeps me around for some reason,’ and she says, ‘For comic relief!’” 


He reasons, “Sometimes you need to have a sense of humor, otherwise you just get mad.” 


This is true in his marriage, life, and artwork. “In my beadwork it’s important. If something goes wrong I need to have a sense of humor. If I don’t have a sense of humor about things, and Creator sends me a curveball, I can say “Ok, I’ll do it your way,” or “Dang it” and get frustrated. 


“When you have pain levels like I do with fibromyalgia and back problems, humor is important. I had a choice to have a “woe is me” attitude or have a sense of humor.” He describes his sense of humor as morbid. 


Tony defines his success as an artist in seeing his pieces go to a good home. “I like to see someone's eyes light up when they buy a piece,” he says. “My art is something that could be cherished for generations. At least, that’s my hope.”


Tony’s work is displayed at Gallery 24 in downtown Rochester, Minnesota. Browse through his work, find a piece that speaks to you, and give it a good, new home. 

Nicole Hanson, 2024

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