Long, worn curls of salt-and-pepper hair suggest that Matt Mabis is a free spirit who has collected a rich history of story and adventure. The wrinkles on his face, set aglow by the twinkle in his eye, leave no doubt that he walks the earth sharing kindness and nurturing the lives of those he meets. He is a man who rides the wave and lets the current of life push him in new directions.
Nudged by fate, Mabis ended up working as an instructor on the teaching staff at the University of Saint Francis School of Creative Arts. Interestingly, he attends the same school as a full-time student working to earn his Bachelors of Fine Art in sculpture.
The path that Mabis followed to this point could be compared to that of an Escher labyrinth, with zigs and zags that lead to dead ends and suddenly flip course, escorting Mabis to interesting opportunity.
Like most artists, Mabis followed his creative spirit at a young age. He had a deep interest in Native American culture and remembers building small figures out of clay harvested from a nearby pond, then wrapping them in foil before tucking them into the fire stoked by his woodworking father. He learned about craftsmanship from his parents and followed his own muse to blaze a new trail. He put in years toward his BFA, but as a self-proclaimed wild student the money ran out before the degree was earned.
Without a plan, he stepped into the working world. As a young adult, Mabis seemed to be up for just about anything that could add to his skill set and bring him new knowledge. He worked 13 years in a glass factory which, because it required “no thinking,” allowed his mind to wander and dream about the possibilities that his future might hold. Mabis spent 15 years building sets and costumes for a community theater and even tried his hand at landscaping and cabinet making.
The twists and turns of life eventually led Mabis to fiber arts. He learned about the cycle of wool and with his revered life partner, Jamie Stark, began operating the fiber processing company, The Wooly Knob Fiber Mill in Laotto
Stark and Mabis worked their fingers raw building their business. “People sent us their animal fiber. We washed and carded it, then sent it back.”
Sounds simple enough, until you hear the details. Raw animal fiber is filled with mud, grass, bugs and clumps of manure and needs to be meticulously cleaned by hand – “monkey picked,” as Stark and Mabis like to say. To keep the tedious and exhausting work lighthearted, they named the fleeces after Hollywood notables: next up for monkey picking, Lola Fa Lama.
The process at the mill is as natural as it gets. Commercial processing involves scouring the fiber in sulfuric acid “to remove all the yuck,” said Mabis. “For us, we don’t want to deal with the acid. We hand pick and send it through the machines to knock it out.”
At one point Mabis and Stark found themselves collecting fiber from artists at 12 fiber festivals each season. Working at full capacity, they pumped out 13 tons of fiber a year. Additionally, they conceptualized and organized the now popular, annual Salomon Farms Fiber Arts Festival and absorbed every bit of information they could about the fiber process. The workload became overwhelming and now the mill only works with cleaned wool on a limited capacity.
The experience and reputation Mabis earned at the mill led to an unexpected opportunity. One day, out of the blue, an email arrived from Saint Francis University asking if he would be interested in teaching.
“I thought it was a joke,” said Mabis. “I called them and they asked if I could come in the next day and bring some of my stuff. I didn’t really have much to show, but I grabbed what I had, a few small rugs and some fiber, and went in at 4 [o’clock] the next day.”
During the meeting, Saint Francis School of Creative Arts Dean Rick Cartwright explained he needed a new fiber arts instructor.
“I was very apprehensive. I had never taught a full curriculum,” said Mabis. At the end of the meeting, he was offered the job and asked to report back by noon the next day with an answer.
“I was scared to death,” said Mabis, “but I said yes because I knew students needed the class.” He had one weekend to develop a full curriculum and course syllabus. On Monday he went in to establish his classroom; the following day, students arrived.
“After two weeks in I realized the classroom was my element,” a now cool and comfortable Mabis explained, thinking back to the early days that seemed so overwhelming. That was 2004, he’s been teaching ever since.
For Mabis, collecting new experience never ends. Last year he decided to take the daring step back into the classroom as an undergraduate. He put together a portfolio and entered the review session alongside a mass of high school seniors.
“I was an old man surrounded by high school students. My colleagues from the art department didn’t know I would be there, and the whole situation was pretty awkward.”
Now fully immersed as a student, Mabis has just one more semester to complete a goal he set out to achieve long ago: to earn his BFA in sculpture. Inside the Mimi and Ian Rolland Center for Art and Visual Communication, which currently hosts the annual student show, Mabis explained the thought process behind the pieces representing his work. Clay relief tiles and a figurative sculpture sum up his learning experiences from the past school year and provide insight as to how his mind pulls him through life.
“I am an over-thinker. I got into this thing to work fast to override the brain and let the gut do the talking.”
As his life story shows, Mabis is turned on by the process of exploration. He enjoys learning how his mind will respond to different artistic challenges.
“Drawing and I are not friends,” he explained. “My hands aren’t in it.”
One day in a figure drawing class, he faced the easel loaded with a large pad of newsprint, and a rush of anxiety flooded his mind.
“I felt over taxed. I couldn’t cognize the figure. I hit a huge wall.” Paralyzed by frustration he left class feeling defeated. “I wish this was clay and not drawing,” he thought. The creative wheels in the mind of this natural problem solver turned and clicked on a solution. He constructed a rig to hold a clay tile that could be perched on an easel, then brought a series of clay slabs to class in place of newsprint. Success and mental-block averted. He would draw in clay and develop relief tiles.
To this day, Mabis is hooked on “painting in clay”. He gives himself a 20-minute time limit to capture the main points of an image. The self-inflicted rule keeps Mabis from getting caught up in the detail and stuck in over-thinking. The method opened up a whole new realm of creativity for Mabis to explore, prompting him to set a personal goal for the summer: “I want to do two clay paintings a day and six every weekend. I can’t imagine where I’ll be by the end of the summer,” he said, thinking about the growth he has already witnessed in his work, work that sits in a gallery next to pieces created by his own students.
At a time in life when many make plans to slow down, Mabis is ramping up. After graduation he plans to continue to ride the current and let circumstances and experience lead the way.
“I have learned to trust the universe and realize I have always been exactly where I need to be.”
Click on the headings below for full calendars
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Art on Broadway — Tours of 5 downtown venues featuring art from Alexandra Hall, Julie Wall, Peter Lupkin, Daniel Dienelt, Knotodday, Kay Gregg, Terry Ratliff and St. Monci, 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Broadway Street, Fort Wayne, free, 417-5925
Beer, Bourbon, Bacon Festival — Unlimited beer sampling from national and regional craft breweries, fine bourbon sampling and bacon inspired treats, 6-9 p.m. Saturday, March 25 (5-9 p.m. VIP), Marquis and Three Rivers Ballrooms, Hotel Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, $35-$75, 484-0411
An Evening with Author Tom Frank — Author of What’s the Matter with Kansas talks about his new book; hors d’oeuvres, lecture and book signing included in admission, 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25, CS3 Hideaway, Fort Wayne, $15 plus donation, 602-1008
Puttin’ on the Ritz —Active 20-30 club fundraiser with live music from Chris Worth and Company, gourmet edibles, wine and beer, live and silent auctions; black tie optional, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, $50-$90, 450-2844
Shipshewana on the Road — Food, craft and primitives show and sale, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, March 25 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $4, 483-1111
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Big Dick and the Penetrators — Classic rock at Navy Club, Ship 245, New Haven, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 493-4044
Brat Pack — Rat Pack/variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at Vinnie's Bar, Decatur, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 729-2225
Ellsworth Sharp — Neofolk at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 745-3369
FBC Band w/Sheba — Variety/Music and Memories benefit at C2G Music Hall, Fort Wayne , 8 p.m., $7-$15, 426-6434
Fireball Matinee — Rock at Hideaway Lounge, Bluffton, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 824-0455
Fleshwounds — Rock at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 488-3344
Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra — Funk at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., cover, 483-1311
Fu5ion — Variety at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $3, (260) 387-5063
The Illegals — Rock at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 422-5896
Joe Stabelli — Jazz at Don Hall's Gas House, Fort Wayne, 5:45-9 p.m., no cover, 426-3411
John Curran & Renegade — Country at Alley Sports Bar, Pro Bowl West, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-4421
Johnny Freakin' Xcitor — Country rock at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
The Orange Opera w/Mickyle James — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., $5, 267-5303
Prime Suspects — Variety at American Legion Post 499, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 483-1368
Quincy and the Q-Tet feat. Phil Potts — Rock/variety at Downtown Eatery & Spirits, Warsaw, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, (574) 267-6000
Second Nature — Pop at Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Shannon Persinger Quartet — Jazz/variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at American Legion Post 148, Fort Wayne, 7 p.m., no cover, 423-4751
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Ambitious Blondes Karaoke — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Beat Karaoke & DJ — Variety at American Legion Post 296, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m. , no cover, 456-2988
Bucca Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Corner Pocket Tavern, Fremont, 10 p.m., no cover, 495-9255
Classic City Karaoke w/Tobin — Karaoke at Toad's Tavern, Monroeville, 10 p.m., no cover, 623-6226
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Karaoke at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., , 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 557-1563
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-4748
House DJ — Variety at Early Bird's Ultra Lounge, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 483-1979
House DJ — Variety at Flashback on the Landing, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 422-5292
Karaoke — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Live DJ — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Pike's Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-6200
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at Kville Pub, Kendallville, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 348-1677
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The Children’s Hour — Lillian Hellman’s seminal drama about bigotry perpetuated against the LGBT community and how easily a lie can spread, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
Getting Sara Married — Comedy about an unmarried lawyer in need of a husband (according to her aunt), 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Saturday, March 25, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
One Foot in the Gravy — Howard Kingkade’s comedy and winner of Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 422-4226
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22nd Annual Valentine’s Invitational — Works from local and national artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru March 31, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568
2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — Award-winning works from northern Indiana and northwest Ohio middle and high school students, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Afros: A Celebration of African Hair by Michael July — Contemporary photography exhibit by Brooklyn author/photographer, daily thru April 14, D’Agostino Art Gallery, Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne, 399-8626
An Artful Spring — Works by Gwen Gutwein, Patricia Weiss, Austin Cartwright and more, Tuesday-Saturday thru March 31, Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Decatur Sculpture Tour — 31 original sculptures and 15 permanent exhibits on display, walking tour maps available, thru April 1, Decatur, free, 724-2605
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Entropy — Daniel Swartz solo exhibition explores relationship between death and mourning through combinations of mythology, mathematics, multi-dimensional physics and pop culture, Monday-Saturday thru April 1, Jennifer Ford Art, Fort Wayne, 740-1309
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Garden Party — Garden-themed works in a variety of mediums from over 30 local artists, Monday-Saturday thru March 31, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Generations: A View of Who Was Who — Works by Romare Bearden, Kara Walker, Alma Thomas, Jacob Lawrence and other African-American artists, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
A Mary Poppins Garden Party — Child-oriented garden exhibit, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 1, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Moments in Time: Reflecting on the Human Spirit — Elizabeth Opalenik photographs from her recent Amish series A Journey Home and her Reflecting on the Edge exhibition, daily thru March 26, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
RAW. Untamed. Unashamed. Visions of Freedom. — Abstract romanticist works in acrylics and epoxy from Kristy Jahn, Fridays and Saturday-Thursday by appointment thru March 25, The Gallery at Pranayoga, Fort Wayne, 423-9642
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Wabash County Schools Exhibition — Works by high school art students, daily thru April 16, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102