Written by Andi Agnew
LeFleur East resident Matthew Puckett is a baker and a painter, but he doesnâ€™t draw a lot of parallels between the two roles.
â€œI mean, theyâ€™re both tactile, and they both involve dealing with material that doesnâ€™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,â€ 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 Roosterâ€™s in Fondren. Puckett started out making hamburger buns and other bread needed for the restaurant. â€œI really got into it… I read books on the subject and just got a lot of practice at Roosterâ€™s.â€ Soon he began making more complicated types of bread and later found himself running the kitchen at both Roosterâ€™s and the Belhaven location of Basilâ€™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. â€œAt that time, I really hadnâ€™t been painting for very long, and I didnâ€™t realize the Invitational was such a big deal,â€ he says.
Shortly after the Invitational, Puckett enrolled in the MFA program at the Memphis College of Art. â€œI had a rough first semester, which I later learned is typical â€“ everyone has a rough time usually their first or second semester. It was a different environmentâ€¦ 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 canâ€™t really be separated. (Memphis College of Art) was very concept-heavyâ€¦ it was less about honing my craft and more about learning different ways of expression.â€
Puckettâ€™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. â€œI was getting everything I applied for back then,â€ he says. â€œThen around 2012 or 2013, I moved back to Jackson to run a restaurant, which took me away from painting for about five years.â€ Shifting gears between working in a restaurant and painting in the studio was difficult. â€œPainting is a slow thingâ€¦ 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. Iâ€™m a very studio-oriented artist â€“ I needed to spend a lot of time with my work, not just paint a little here and there on the side,â€ 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 Loversâ€™ Soiree in downtown Jackson. Some might describe Puckettâ€™s work as moody â€“ 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 womanâ€™s upturned face, or highlighting an old wooden table and chair to put a little â€œlifeâ€ back into the still life.
Getting back into the groove of painting after a five-year hiatus is not easy for the artist.
â€œIâ€™m not great with self-discipline; I have to treat painting as if itâ€™s a job. Iâ€™m finishing up a commission right now, and Iâ€™ve got some canvases that Iâ€™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 awayâ€¦ Iâ€™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 youâ€™ll never figure out all the way.â€