‘Here for the long haul:’ Artist carves out homestead in Matfield Green
By Matthew Kelly
Matfield Green isn’t on the way to many places. If you find yourself in the 45-person Kansas town nestled in the Flint Hills, you’re probably not just driving through. You’re there with a purpose.
Matt Regier is no exception. A printmaker, gardener and “amateur naturalist,” Regier and his family uprooted from their Marion County homestead four-and-a-half years ago in search of a community they could call home “more or less for life,” he said.
In recent decades, many thriving rural towns in Kansas have dwindled, but Regier sees a future in Matfield Green.
He’s a native Nebraskan who earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and theology at Tabor College before completing his studies at a seminary in Fresno, California. As an artist, he’s mostly self-taught.
“I never really had an interest in being purely a studio artist,” he said. His studio is one room tucked away on the second floor of his pale yellow, white-trimmed Victorian house on Reed Street.
“I still see my art practice as interconnected with the other things that I do,” Regier said. “It’s one particular way that I try to understand or ask questions about the world around me.”
He said he has a fascination with the building blocks of the community.
“How does a community get started? What is the foundation or the basis for having a community — especially of diverse groups of people. What brings you together?” Regier asked.
The quest for those answers is something he describes as “lifegiving.”
Much of his artwork is about developing an understanding of place, and his affection for the prairie is apparent. Intricate woodblock prints depict dramatic Flint Hills landscapes and snapshots of prairie life.
“It’s very often the prairie as an ecosystem — as a landscape — and sometimes even more as a human cultural landscape,” Regier said of his work. “What is it that’s unique? What does this land have to say to us?”
And Matfield is a place where he can explore his interdisciplinary interests.
His wife, Tia, works as a nurse at Newman Regional Health, a hospital 40 miles away in Emporia. He stays at home with his two young children — Eliot and Lyda.
The Regiers grow much of their own food in a sprawling garden next to their yellow, two-story Victorian house with a bay window and two front porches. A BNSF Railway line runs directly behind the backyard, and trains intermittently clatter through — puncturing the silence of an otherwise hushed town.
Perched in a backyard lawn chair on a warm mid-June afternoon, Regier reflected on his town. Trains aside, he doesn’t think of Matfield Green as a “quiet” place. Not in a metaphorical sense, at least.
“I’ve found that it can be very busy,” Regier said.
“Any time you want to do something or organize something or get something done, it takes a lot of work, and you have to do a lot of things yourself.”
He’s the co-manager of the bank art space, which usually operates as an art gallery but is being renovated to improve accessibility. He and Tia have taken on a new project — developing the old elementary school building on the east side of town into something they’re tentatively calling the “School for Rural Culture and Creativity.”
They want it to be a resource for the town, providing a gym, a playground, community gardens — maybe even an orchard. Regier and his daughter just planted a native prairie garden in front of the old school.
Inside, there will be an event space and a stage that can be used for small concerts. Regier also hopes to create a studio space for local and visiting artists.
The ultimate goal, he said, is strengthening and enriching the community for the people who live there while helping outsiders envision a future in a place like Matfield Green.
He and Tia plan to schedule several work days for volunteers to help clean up the building. It will be a community effort.
That’s something Regier said he appreciates about rural living.
“Relationships are built off of how we rely on each other in a human way,” he said.
“One of the things that makes living in a rural area unique is that, because there are so few of us, we sort of have to engage with people that disagree with us on all these other fronts,” Regier said.
Regier said his family will often trade the herbs, spices and vegetables they grow in their garden — potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, among other things — for other goods their neighbors have, such as eggs and chickens.
He acknowledged that rural communities oftentimes lack the racial and ethnic diversity of their urban counterparts.
“I do think, however, think that there’s a kind of diversity in rural areas,” Regier said.
That diversity may be socioeconomic, political or religious, but the relative isolation of a small town forces people to interact with those whom they don’t see eye to eye.
Deprivation is an equalizing factor. Access to food and other resources is limited, so community members rely on each other.
That integrated community dependence is something Regier explores creatively.
“I like to understand things — especially visually. Art is a way of looking and a way of observing,” Regier said.
But he’s not just interested in recreating the Flint Hills or its features for someone else to look at and appreciate.
“If you can take another step forward in more of a sort of personal, experiential, existential way — even a spiritual way,” Regier said. “‘What is this landscape? What is this ecosystem saying about me or about an individual or about a community?”
Those questions about philosophy, spirituality and religion are wrapped up in his artistic practice of portraying the land.
And his family plans on sticking around in Matfield Green. Like the plants in their vegetable garden, the Regiers are digging in their roots.
“Some of the projects that we have in Matfield, even if it’s just in terms of integrating into a community — it takes time,” Regier said. “Not just a few years. Not just five years, but 10 years or more.
“We’re here for the long haul,” he said. “We see this as home.”