This past week, Chicago Ideas Week brought to us artist-in-residence Matthew Hoffman to talk about his art. You’ve likely seen his art around town or elsewhere, and you may be familiar with his “you are beautiful” campaign.
It was a warm afternoon in October — in the 70’s — and pretty Pioneer Court plaza, a favorite spot for tourists and city natives alike, was a lovely setting for a talk by an artist. In fact, the talk took place in the center of the plaza on a colorful art installation, The Thick City Pavilion by PORTUrbanism.
An initial impression of Matthew is that he’s mellow though friendly and not the least bit pretentious despite his budding fame. He has a rather quiet – even serious – demeanor. Perhaps he was thinking of what he would do next to uplift this troubled world. The first thing Matthew wanted us to know about him were his three motivations for doing his art:
o To stimulate conversation
o To deliver positive messages
o That it’s important to put yourself out there in the world
Matthew shared with us that as a youngster he enjoyed tinkering and making things. Eventually he got his degree in graphic arts. He moved to Chicago in 2002 and worked at a PR firm for many years until he was part of a big layoff. Losing ones job can be devastating, but he decided “it’s all good” and started tinkering again.
He focused on outdoor placement of art where anyone can see it. He’s never been in trouble with the law though he admits he has probably “taken liberties”: He says people are going to write on things they’re probably not supposed to write on in any case; at least he is posting nice messages.
In 2003, he opened a P.O. Box so people could order stickers. Now they’re available online. In fact, now there are over two million stickers in 81 languages on all seven continents; it’s a global movement. He’s been doing this for 13 years, and what he does is spread mainly by word-of-mouth. He is able to support himself with his art and in fact employs one person and is about to hire another.
His very first “you are beautiful” installation was comprised of refrigerator magnets and didn’t even contain all the letters. But it garnered positive attention none-the-less. His next “you are beautiful” installation quickly disappeared. Someone eventually emailed him and admitted they have it on their living room wall and they won’t give it back. He learned from that and made the letters bigger; they’re now 8’ x 8’.
Although he started small, now he does large projects that are requisitioned. Planning can take months. The letters are laser cut; the work is very intensive, most projects involving thousands of pieces. Matthew sometimes does projects in concert with other artists. But you will also see “you are beautiful” done by others. When people started emulating him, he kept an open mind about it. His famous sayings are not copyrighted; they’re “for the community,” and there are “you are beautiful” installations all over the world.
One Sunday morning, he did a “you are beautiful” fence piece with Styrofoam cups between his apartment and his studio, where he could see it as he rode his bike back and forth. Someone changed the word ‘beautiful’ to ‘bad’ and thereafter it changed continually. He noted someone even supplied more cups. The message changed from positive to negative and back to positive, every other time, till it eventually disappeared.
In an underpass, he did a large “you are beautiful” on which people added tags. To cover those up, the city repainted it a drab beige. Next, someone painted it bright orange. To this day, people are still helping to preserve it.
In 2004, some folks in San Francisco used party streamers and spelled out “you are beautiful” on an overpass, which made the front page of their local newspaper. A girl in grade school slipped “you are beautiful” messages into everyone’s lockers before school. The message is also being shared at senior centers. At one point, an art gallery did a “you are beautiful” showing.
Some of Matthew’s other famous sayings from which he creates artwork are “love” and “nice to be important to be nice.” When he did his premiere “everyone makes mistakes” piece, he describes it as “a massive mistake” which turned out to be two times too big to fit where it was meant to and unable to stand on its own.
It’s not unusual for folks to help him spread the word: One early Sunday morning, several of his friends hiked around the city with letters that read “anything is possible.” He did a “go for it” for the historic Pullman district in Chicago where people from the community assisted; he likened it to a “barn raising.” It was done in a large facility, and cohorts walked two blocks on foot carrying big pieces to the installation site. It was meant to be temporary, but it’s still there.
What’s next for Matthew? He says he and his team will go all over the city. Plans include installations in Englewood, Roscoe Village, Lawndale. He agreed with someone who said it would be a good idea to share his positive messages in high-crime areas. “You are beautiful” is a beautiful idea spreading out and making the world a more beautiful place. Thank you, Matthew.
And thanks to the Chicago Ideas movement and its sponsors for inviting Matthew to share his stories along with an upbeat slideshow presentation. During one exciting don’t-miss-it week in autumn, Chicago Ideas presents all kinds of stimulating speakers and hands-on labs. If you missed it, plan on it next year for sure. The best way of doing this is to become a member.
And always know this: you are beautiful!