GROWING UP on Wilmington Island, Matt Toole has always been creating.
As a kid, he’d make swords out of sticks and play street hockey with palm fronds. He frequented the dump on the island, lugging home as many items as his mom would allow.
“I’ve always made things,” remembers Toole. “I’ve always liked to build stuff, and over time it just got better.”
Time’s been good to Toole. His exhibition at Gallery F.A.R. at Chatham County’s Resource Conservation Education Center, opening this Friday, includes both indoor and outdoor sculpture work. As per the gallery requirements, and by Toole’s own practice, the work consists mainly of reclaimed material.
Toole’s inspiration, from childhood through his career, has always been the natural world.
“What I’ve always been attracted to are the branches that grow in the flora and fauna,” he says. “I don’t use anything live, I don’t kill anything, but I’ll find the bones. Trees are the lungs of the earth—they’re shaped the same as our lungs, and they serve the same purpose. Rivers and streams move in the same way as blood moves through capillaries. We’re organisms living on an organism, so there are similarities throughout our environment.”
Toole doesn’t work just in found objects. He’ll hit up the hardware store sometimes to find something that fits just right. That duplicity of natural and man-made objects also sends a good message.
“I try to bring the similarities out by coupling them together, but I also want to show how very different they are,” says Toole. “I’m curating the objects, deciding on the things that I want to communicate. With the found objects, I let the objects dictate the direction. Sometimes it takes years to finish a sculpture because it’s not ready.”
That process requires Toole to be a collector of sorts. He sets aside items in his studio for future use, saving them for the perfect time.
“I forget a lot of what I have,” laughs Toole. “Out of sight, out of mind, right? There’s shit everywhere because I have to see it, and sometimes it gets lost in the clutter. I do have systems that I organize, and that becomes kind of a work of art in itself.”
In a perfect loop back to nature, Toole is stockpiling items like animals do. Ravens have an affinity for shiny objects. Bowerbirds build aesthetically pleasing nests to attract their mates. Termites and ants build mounds and tunnels.
“That is, I think, an innate component of life on this planet—we build,” muses Toole. “We’ve gotten away from many of the natural things, but everything comes from this place.”
As we build, nature builds around and with us.
“You ever see a tree growing next to a fence, and it kind of envelops it and fuses into it?” Toole asks. “Life goes around it. I’m trying to capture that. Life will go on. I like that half-step between fully manufactured and fully natural, like a house built into a hill or a house built around a tree. Or a hobbit house—alright, I read Tolkien!”
Toole is as inspired by Middle Earth as he is by our own earth and the resources it provides us.
“I always see potential in materials,” he says. “Certainly with the way we’re abusing our resources to make, make, make for money, money, money. That is a problem to me.”
As Toole sees it, reinvigorating the materials is a return to the way it used to be.
“Instead of preserving it, which is what our grandparents would’ve done, they would’ve fixed it,” says Toole. “Now it’s like a disposable economy, and that rapes the environment.”
For the show at Gallery F.A.R., Toole created sculptures for both indoors and outdoors.
“I’m going to show where these ideas come from,” he says. “I build this thread of a collage of objects, and then I’ll have some pieces in progress, and a piece from my nephew. I’ve got completely finished pieces that will be on pedestals.”
In the future, Toole hopes to collaborate with fellow artist Lisa D. Watson on a collaboration, but for now, he’s just hoping to convey the importance of conservation and reclamation to his audience.
“I want to communicate that the life of these objects can be extended,” he says. “I want kids to be able to see solutions to the things we manufacture. We can see solutions in the long run for some of these materials, and if it doesn’t live beyond that, it can peacefully go back into light.”