Written by Andi Agnew

LeFleur East resident Matthew Puckett is a baker and a painter, but he doesn’t draw a lot of parallels between the two roles.

“I mean, they’re both tactile, and they both involve dealing with material that doesn’t really care what you do. With baking, you have a pretty good idea of how something is going to turn out; in painting, not so much,” Puckett says.

He started baking around 2005 when he went to work with his friend Nathan Glenn (who later became his brother-in-law), owner of Rooster’s in Fondren. Puckett started out making hamburger buns and other bread needed for the restaurant. “I really got into it… I read books on the subject and just got a lot of practice at Rooster’s.” Soon he began making more complicated types of bread and later found himself running the kitchen at both Rooster’s and the Belhaven location of Basil’s.

In 2009, Puckett turned his attention to painting full-time. He was selected as one of the artists featured in the bi-annual Mississippi Invitational at the Mississippi Museum of Art, and he had a successful show at Fischer Galleries that year. Receiving high praise and recognition almost overnight, it was a humbling experience for him. “At that time, I really hadn’t been painting for very long, and I didn’t realize the Invitational was such a big deal,” he says.

Shortly after the Invitational, Puckett enrolled in the MFA program at the Memphis College of Art. “I had a rough first semester, which I later learned is typical – everyone has a rough time usually their first or second semester. It was a different environment… I learned a lot. I read a lot even before grad school, but I wanted to learn theory, and it was difficult to find books that really dove into the theory of painting and art. I found that in grad school. I started painting more naturalistically – using more detail than before. I learned that form and content can’t really be separated. (Memphis College of Art) was very concept-heavy… it was less about honing my craft and more about learning different ways of expression.”

Puckett’s success continued beyond graduate school, with a show at the prominent David Lusk gallery in Memphis just six months after graduation. He felt incredibly lucky. “I was getting everything I applied for back then,” he says. “Then around 2012 or 2013, I moved back to Jackson to run a restaurant, which took me away from painting for about five years.” Shifting gears between working in a restaurant and painting in the studio was difficult. “Painting is a slow thing… I tend to think about it hour by hour, rather than minute by minute, which is the way things work in a fast-paced restaurant environment. I’m a very studio-oriented artist – I needed to spend a lot of time with my work, not just paint a little here and there on the side,” he says.

Luckily, Puckett found his way back to painting. He participated in the Mississippi Invitational again in 2016, at the urging of Marcy Nessel, owner of Fischer Gallery and a family friend. He entered work he had completed in graduate school. He also showed some of his works in February as part of the Art Lovers’ Soiree in downtown Jackson. Some might describe Puckett’s work as moody – portraits of unsmiling people in sparse, dark rooms, lonely objects or barren landscapes. But he also uses light and texture to diffuse the mood, illuminating a woman’s upturned face, or highlighting an old wooden table and chair to put a little “life” back into the still life.

Getting back into the groove of painting after a five-year hiatus is not easy for the artist.

“I’m not great with self-discipline; I have to treat painting as if it’s a job. I’m finishing up a commission right now, and I’ve got some canvases that I’m trying to decide how to begin. I want to do something very different. I usually start with a general idea, paint, then add and take away… I’ve got more tools in my toolbox now than I did before, but the challenge is figuring out which tools to use. Painting is something you’ll never figure out all the way.”