It’s the itty bitty moments that are mighty in our minds. We spin webs of the littlest things and get lost in the angst, fear, rage, love, joy, and pain of it all. This is the human condition.
We are a beautiful mess and Boston artist Matthew Zaremba jots it all down with a soulful transparency and creative eye. One piece features a heart in a hammock. It reads: “Take it easy on yourself. Life is hard enough already.”
All pandemic long, I needed the reminders. Sometimes they are uplifting. Other times, he offers pieces that reflect the broken bits of us. Over 50,000 people follow his work on Instagram, all of us relating to the swinging of the moods he expresses artfully.
He’s not a mental health expert or a wellness influencer, but his art is therapeutic.
“Art can also be very healing,” said Liz Beecroft, a psychotherapist and clinical social worker. “Research has shown that creative expression can reduce stress, is a healthy form of releasing emotions, can boost self esteem, and help us grow our minds. Matt’s work is great because it comes from personal experience. He does a really good job opening up and sharing through his own lens, while doing it in a way that helps others realize that they’re not alone.”
It was a sense of loneliness, loss, and grief that moved Zaremba to turn his Instagram into an online art journal.
A decade ago his father left home with his camping gear. A week went by. No one had heard from him. His canoe washed up on land. When they found his father’s body near Scituate Harbor, Zaremba’s world twisted inside out.
“I was 28 and dealing with mortality,” he said. “The spotlight was on all of the things I had been burying and repressing and partying to subdue. And I went blank. I had a super strained relationship with him and I never got a chance to sort that out. And everything came to a head.”
For a year or two, he floated on waves of grief so thick he can’t remember that time very well. He would space out at work and doodle. He has ADD and sometimes drawing helps him focus. But the little sayings and thoughts that would end up on paper were something deeper. And in time, he found joy in the exercise.
“What started as a distraction was really a discovery of myself and unearthing trauma,” he said. “I remember sharing with my therapist how I couldn’t shut off the inner monologue in my head. But when I would draw, I was emptying it. I could quiet the noise. Journaling, which I didn’t realize until later, is a therapeutic technique for anxiety.”
He shared the doodles that started on paper, on canvas, on murals, and most commonly, digitally, on Instagram. What started out as notes on his grief and his relationship with his father turned into notes on life and everyday relationships. He keeps notes on his phone and in notebooks about random thoughts and feelings, things said in conversations. It’s his daily exercise in unwinding.
“When I am laying in bed at night and quieting down, I check in with myself. I ask myself, ‘How do you feel? What was the big theme today, what are you stuck on?’ I take those overarching ideas and reconnect with moments.”
This is his process. It’s how he does the art we love, the pieces that cover major walls like the Underground at Ink Block mural. One hand holds a heart, another is open-palmed. It reads: “For giving, for getting.”
Zaremba has always been an artist. Graffiti, street art, music. He studied writing at UMass. Even in his role as director of marketing for Bodega, a Boston streetwear boutique, he is a creative.
“He makes the complex and personal very universal,” said Oliver Mak, cofounder of Bodega. “Matt started as a graffiti writer and a poet and seeing him evolve and be able to create a signature style — his output is very prolific. His inner monologue sometimes has a more eloquent way of understanding what we all are going through.”
He credits outdoorsy family trips as his earliest inspiration. The rural wilderness of New England combined with the graffiti culture of Boston influenced him and his brother Nick, who is also an artist.
“With so much downtime, we entertained ourselves,” he said of the vacations. “In those rural towns, you see the forgotten places and abandoned places and graffiti was about leaving our mark.”
In that way, even when his medium isn’t a spray can, his presence is solidified. Zaremba is seen. And in his work, many find respite.
“Sometimes people need validation that their feelings are real and they matter and they aren’t alone,” said Ché Anderson, member of Mass. Cultural Council and cofounder of POW! WOW! Worcester mural festival. “Matt speaks from a very rare position where he is being 100 percent vulnerable while being 100 percent himself and he is able to materialize and make physical thoughts that run in people’s minds. There is solace.”
There is meditation. Zaremba’s artwork are his meditations on life.
And though his work has expanded beyond processing the loss of his father, the grief is still there, an everyday undercurrent. This is his life.
“I wish it was fiction sometimes because it’s too heavy, even when it’s funny, it’s really how I am feeling. I am, myself, messing up all the time, correcting myself, and trying to grow. It’s hard to be a human. People talk about mental health and I want it to be destigmatized so we talk about it as the human condition. Anxiety, fear, doubt. This is part of the human experience.”
When we are looking at his art, we are peeking at the pages of who he is. And how we process it, the good and bad, is a reflection of who we are: a messy, stressy, beautifully broken bunch of humans.