WORDS by Leticia Nguyen
Courtesy of Matthew Gillett

Australian artist Matthew Gillett shares his story of how he combined his two main passions—surfing and art—to conquer the depression and anxiety that was plaguing his life.

Only a few years back, Sydney based artist Matthew Gillett was the venue manager at the Annandale Hotel, working long hours in a job he loved. During the same time he was also surfing and not taking his painting too seriously (although being prompted to by his mentor, Gabrielle Pool), but enjoying himself nonetheless. Despite possessing a laidback and friendly personality for which he is known, an incident involving a drunken patron catapulted Matthew into an unexpected crossroad of his life, which subsequently left him with depression and anxiety. While some succumb to the desolation that either of these illnesses can leave in their wake, others muster the courage to confront their illnesses and face them head-on, so to speak. Fortunately for Matthew, he chose the latter option from which his inspiring art project, ‘My Art Kills Monsters’ was born. Through his aptly named project, Matthew used art as a platform for conquering his inner turmoil and raising awareness of these common mental illnesses. “After the incident at the hotel which left me in hospital and living with some demons, I realised that doing my art a lot more alleviated my depression and anxiety.” His project soon gained momentum and prompted Matthew to show the works created during this time. Matthew comments that his first exhibition was “an extremely successful show”, that earned him a full cover story in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Extra magazine. It was through this story that Matthew began to open up about what he had been through, which resulted in people approaching him in the street and at his work, wanting to share their experiences. “This is when the light bulb went off and I realised that I felt better and the people I spoke with also felt better and I thought communication is the key to break down the walls associated with depression and anxiety.”

Steadily on the path to recovery, Matthew embarked on the art odyssey of a much larger scale; painting 14 different works in 14 different locations in his favourite place in the world, Bali. I asked why he chose Bali as the destination for his project, which seemed to bring about a warm and fuzzy response from Matthew. “Bali…aaaaahh. I have been surfing in Bali for 20 years. The people, the smells, sights and sounds get into your skin, I just assimilate with it.” Matthew says that this beautiful place seems to bring out the best of him, where he is more patient more tolerant. “The people have taught me lessons without even knowing it. Their souls are full of love, happiness and smiles, which are infectious on me. I feel my time there has made me grow into a better person, although I am still a work in progress.” The ocean itself is often seen as being therapeutic, as is art, which is why Matthew thought it would be perfect to combine these two passions of his, to fully benefit from the healing properties that each could provide. “Surfing and painting are two holistic moments when I am living in the moment without the hang-ups. After my incident I was unable to surf and was very agitated, but painting kept me from spiraling out of control and the two together are a perfect balance for me.” It was during his year in Bali that Matthew immersed himself in the tranquility of his Balinese surroundings and created 14 incredible works that reflect his journey of healing and self-discovery, each documented with time-lapse photography by his right-hand man, Hamish.  

“Surfing and painting are two holistic moments when I am living in the moment without the hang-ups…painting kept me from spiraling out of control and the two together are a perfect balance for me”

Matthew has a bevy of sponsors supporting his project, some of which he acquired through word-of-mouth prior to embarking on his Bali mission, and others came on board when they learnt about what he was undertaking. “All these guys have shown great support of me aiming to get my message out about mental illness and it no longer being a taboo subject.” Although he also had the support of his girlfriend and recruited the help of different individuals throughout the trip, his voyage was predominantly solo, in which he took on the roles of the artist, road crew, tour manager, photographer and documentary filmmaker, all while schlepping his gear between locations.

In his pursuit of overcoming his anxiety and depression, Matthew focused on channeling his energy into his two main passions, which he shared with his followers via video posts and candid blog entries on his website. His honest and often humourous posts reflect his positive outlook and energy during his journey. Through his insights, it’s almost hard to tell that Matthew had been subjected to the traumatic experience that took him to Bali in the first place, which he says he owes to his “recipe” of surfing and painting. While he admits that in the first few months he wasn’t dealing with the challenges too well, he learnt to meditate before writing posts or making comment. “In the past, the posts would have been written on automated responses and would have been bitter and whiney, but part of my journey was to get away from those automated responses that I had developed.”

Matthew painted in a range of locations, including beside active volcanoes, a secret monkey forest and a beach where the waves were pumping, where he had his board by his side and was able to switch between painting and catching a few cheeky waves. “It was a hard decision to decide on the locations, with there being so many amazing spots to choose from, but the ultimate goal was to add an amazing element to my art.” Most locations were decided as he went along, and were often involved speaking to locals and discovering unknown places. But it wasn’t just the was picturesque locales that Matthew opted for, he also set himself up amidst a crowded street, which he claims to have been one of his greatest challenges. Although highlights of this trip were abundant, Matthew says that one definite standout would have to be painting at Borobudur, a 9th-century Buddhist Monument in Magelang, Central Java. “I think being given permission by the Indonesian Government to paint at Barabudur, said to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the world! A first for any artist let alone a westerner.” Feeling spiritually and mentally replenished and armed with the inner peace and clarity that a year of surfing and painting brings, Matthew’s journey drew to an end and his life back in Sydney awaited him. Leaving Bali behind him for the time being, he comments, “I think the biggest thing that I brought back is my calmer soul, a more relaxed attitude, patience and being a lot more tolerant, things I hope to continue to improve on each day.” Looking back on his trip, Matthew remarks on one of the greatest achievements he gained from the time he spent is Bali was not only discovering more artistic ability that he knew he had and belief in himself, it also harnessed him with the insight to deal with life. “It taught me to deal with life’s situations in a calmer, more spiritual way. The biggest gain was discovering just how much one can achieve when good intentions and passion are the fuel for the fire.”

Since returning to Sydney, Matthew has continued to pour his blood, sweat and tears into his project, learning that the trip to Bali was only half of the hard work involved in his odyssey. He plans to exhibit his 14 works in an epic art show that will be a culmination of the paintings as well as installations in which people will be able to watch a projected screening of time-lapse videos. Matthew has called on his contacts of iconic Australian musicians and bands, who have each contributed a song for exclusive use towards his project. This is a massive task that he is realising does not happen overnight, but the teasers he has shown the punters thus far give an inkling it will be a stellar event. “My ultimate goal would be to have an east coast tour taking in Brisbane Hobart Melbourne, then back to Sydney for the huge opening night and auction, but like most artists, I am chasing the funding to put on such an event.” While getting his work out into the public is obviously a big part of his plans, Matthew continues his mission to destigmatise mental health. “The main focus of such a big show was to have a cool an interesting way to raise awareness about mental illness. If I had it my way I would love to take it to schools it would be such an interesting, interactive way to get a message out there.” Through his personal experience and having had friends commit suicide in the past, mental health is an issue that Matthew strives to shed light on, saying, “Don’t be afraid to talk about it, if we have a broken arm we get it fixed, mental health is the same just because we don’t bandage it doesn’t mean it doesn’t need fixing.” Wrapping up the interview, I feel uplifted by the power of Matthew’s project, as it shows how new beginnings can arise from the ashes and I look forward to following his journey as he to continues to take his project to new levels.

To keep updated with Matthew’s work and his imminent exhibition, head to his website here.