After 48 years, retiring art professor advises to live in the present

As someone who has taught freshman art students from the Warhol era to computer graphics, Richard Mattsson believes in the importance of the moment.

“My contention is, most people live in the past and the future most of the time,” said Mattsson. “The present is the hardest place to get to, strangely enough.”

For Mattsson, the present means retirement as the longest-serving faculty member at the Kansas City Art Institute. For five decades he has helped young minds find their way — many to later acclaim.

“Forever changed our lives,” wrote one former student on the school’s Facebook page.

“What I learned from him finds its way into my life every day,” wrote another.

“Changed my life, took it all apart, put it back together!” wrote yet another.

Mattsson will be honored with a reception today at the art institute, along with professor Patrick Clancy, chairman of photography and digital film making, who is retiring after 27 years. Mattsson will also be feted by the broader Kansas City art community at a bash Saturday in the West Bottoms.

Peter Keenan, who attended the art institute in the 1970s, is flying in for that from Los Angeles, where he produces television commercials. Keenan credits Mattsson with opening his eyes and helping him realize he was more interested in film than ceramics.

“He was instrumental in that,” said Keenan. “What was probably very obvious to him was not to me. That’s what a good teacher does.”

Mattsson’s entire house in Brookside serves as his studio. His paintings, mostly landscapes, have been shown nationally as well as locally. He says his obsession is finding patterns and balance in complexity, something that also applies to his hobbies of doing crossword puzzles and of gardening.

It also informs his approach to teaching, which is to be more nurturing than controlling.

Mattsson’s own walls and shelves display works from some of his students, including Jeff Aeling, whom Mattsson describes as one of the better realistic landscape painters in the country.

He also has works from two of his own freshman art instructors at the Minneapolis School of Art, who he said made an enormous influence on him.

Always artistically inclined as a youth, Mattsson would make drawings in the margins of his math books in school. His high school teachers in Minneapolis were so uninspiring, he said, that he dropped out. When he returned home after two years abroad in the Army, his wife surprised him with an application to art school.

“I owe my life career as a teacher and as an artist to her,” Mattsson said of Janet, who died young.

Mattsson went on to become an art instructor and in 1965 was recruited by the Kansas City Art Institute to teach in a new “foundation” program that was being required of all freshmen. It was a new concept in which students were schooled in observational drawing and other basics before branching into specialties.

Some schools assign less-experienced faculty to teach freshman classes, but Mattsson thinks those students, often disoriented, should be exposed to the best teachers.

“You should try to get the best people you possibly can to teach beginners,” he said. “If you get things started properly, then students can pretty much take care of themselves.”

Mattsson helped hundreds of students get things started over a span of 48 years. Every year people ask him how students have changed.

“Fifteen percent are pretty good, 15 percent are pretty bad, and then there’s the middle group,” he replies. “That doesn’t change any.”

He has noticed some trends. Obviously, modern students are more interested in technology. Many have less experience in traditional drawing from direct observation, which Mattsson views as a weakness.

“A lot of them have the idea that art is fun,” he said, blaming high school instructors who do not teach discipline.

“It’s hard work. If those kids go through the foundation program (at KCAI) and they do nothing but have fun and don’t learn a damned thing, then I think we’ve wasted a year’s time.”

Mattsson, who is 78 and ready to retire, doesn’t want to waste time in his life. He still enjoys teaching but, increasingly, he feels time spent in meetings and dealing with bureaucracy is not worth infringing upon the present.

“I want to unload myself of anything that I can to make more free time for my work,” he said.