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Matt Moulthrop says his MBA education has helped him market his artwork, which is entering the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.
Matt Moulthrop says his MBA education has helped him market his artwork, which is entering the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.

Profile: MBA Alumnus Matt Moulthrop's Art Makes It into Smithsonian

Next year, Matt Moulthrop (MBA 2004) will have his turned-wood vessels join those of his father and grandfather in the permanent art collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The Moulthrops will become only the second family with three generations of artists (after the Wyeths) featured in this collection.

Matt was recently invited to participate in the "40 Under 40: Craft Futures" exhibition of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, which will run from July 20, 2012 to Feb. 3, 2013. Now 34, Matt has clearly come a long way since he sold his first pieces a decade ago. They were quickly snapped up in the first gallery to show his work and demand has only increased.

"I was an overnight success, but it took 25 years," jokes Matt, who began learning the art of woodturning from his grandfather, Ed, and father, Philip, when he was still a boy. "For a long time, I didn't have any aspirations of selling the work. I did it just for fun."

Family Tradition

Matt has followed in the stylistic tradition of his father and grandfather, using a lathe to turn logs into wood sculpture, often in the form of highly polished vases and bowls. Through the use of the lathe and other hand-forged tools, each piece created by Matt possesses a unique grain pattern and color scheme. He commonly uses trees native to the South – wild cherry, box elder, sycamore, white pine, red and silver maple – but he's created commissioned works out of wood sent from as far away as New Zealand.

"Each tree has a story to tell," Matt says in the book Moulthrop: A Legacy in Wood, written by Kevin Wallace. "Wormholes convey past life, rings communicate growth, and certain colors tell the story of death from lightning or blight. My job is to tell the story in picture-book fashion, showing rather than talking, extending the life of the tree rather than ending it."

Published in 2007 by Crescent Hill Books, the Moulthrop book visually and verbally chronicles the evolution of this family art form. The tradition began with Matt's grandfather, Ed, who enjoyed carving animals and figures out of wood as a boy then progressed to smoking stands, dishes and platters after getting his first wood lathe at age 16.

After completing his graduate studies in architecture at Princeton, Ed taught physics for five years at Georgia Tech before becoming the chief designer for Robert and Company. Throughout his career in architecture, Ed continued to work with wood, finally deciding in 1972 that he was ready to become a full-time wood artist. He became so renowned that wood-turning enthusiast President Carter once surprised Ed with a short-notice visit at his home studio.

Ed's son, Philip, became interested in carrying on the family wood-turning tradition after returning from the Vietnam War. He learned the art while in law school, and for years balanced a legal career with woodturning as his acclaim as an artist rose to the level of his father's. Philip quit practicing law in 1996 to devote himself full-time to his art.

Full-time Commitment

Philip's son, Matt, has worked full-time as a wood turner since completing his MBA studies in 2004. Before entering the MBA program, Matt worked for a year in wireless sales, but soon realized his passion lay with woodturning.  Despite his desire to become a full-time artist, Matt felt it was necessary to complete his MBA before diving into his chosen career path. "My MBA education has helped me in many ways," he says. "There is definitely a business side to successfully marketing yourself as an artist."

His family had concerns about whether he'd be able to immediately sustain himself as a full-time artist. However, Matt says, "By the time I graduated, I had booked shows and was working to make enough pieces for them. The work was selling well."

His career has been successful enough that his wife, Amanda, has been able to take the last four years off from her legal career to focus on raising their daughter, Reed, since her birth. "We've been fortunate during the recession," says Matt, who works out of a 1,500-square-foot studio in the basement of his home in Marietta, Georgia.

Time will tell if his daughter is interested in learning about wood turning. But Matt's own passion for this art form developing at an early age. Growing up, he spent a great deal of time with his grandfather in the studio, learning about wood and using tools. A framed photo hanging in Matt's home shows him sitting in a giant tulipwood bowl created by his grandfather.

Mastering the Art

While he was in college, Matt learned how to apply finishes to the wood pieces. By the time he started graduate school, his skills had developed to the point that he was able to help his grandfather, who was suffering from a physically debilitating neuromuscular condition, complete his last few pieces. Ed Moulthrop died in 2003.

While the Moulthrop name helped open doors for Matt early in his career, it also raised expectations of the quality of artwork he'd produce. Though his work resembles that of his father and grandfather, all three artists have taken different approaches, Matt says. "There are distinctive differences in our shapes," he explains. "As with handwriting, our styles vary a great deal."

Today, Matt's work is sold in 11 galleries across the United States, and he's been featured in numerous exhibitions. A variety of museum, institutional, and private collections include his work. Two of his pieces are housed in the Georgia Tech President's Office and College of Management Dean's Suite. He's currently in the process of creating custom pieces commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Georgia Tech Alumni Association from a red elm tree that once lived in a garden outside the organization's building.


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