Getting To Know S. Douglas Matlaga, Founder of Green Hill Art Services
It is an unassuming Kensington entryway with the building number spray-painted across a blue metal door. But it opens to the sweet smell of lumber and a vast expanse of wood-working machines and carpentry tools, interrupted by towering stacks of frames and art-exhibit walls under construction. Two large dogs bark in warning, and then in greeting, as I am welcomed by S. Douglas Matlaga, founder of Green Hill Art Services (GHAS), who shares this post-industrial space — as well as lunch — with three furniture makers. Occasionally, when need arises, they also share tools and expertise. It is a symbiotic arrangement common to the Riverwards.
“I found the space on Craigslist,” Matlaga explained. In keeping with Philadelphia’s long tradition of wood-working and furniture making, four other wood shops and other cooperatives operate on the same street. GHAS designs and builds exhibit spaces for places such as the Delaware and Woodmere Art Museums and galleries such as Fleisher Ollman and Wexler Galleries. GHAS also works closely with individual artists to display and protect their pieces. The craft is meticulous and creative.
“I fully realized my love of art at Oberlin College,” said Matlaga, relieved to get off his feet for a moment. Rain patters on the windows. “But I admit that smoking cigarettes in paint-splashed classrooms was also a big draw. I vowed never to sit at a desk and wear a suit. I figured that still gave me a lot of career leeway.”
In 1995, equipped with a fresh Bachelor of Arts degree in art history and studio art, Matlaga moved to New York City and parlayed his experience building house-sized skateboard ramps into a gig with the Production Services and Fabrication departments at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
“During the interview, I compared my ramps to the Guggenheim’s curves,” Matlaga laughs. “I learned so much there from older, experienced workers.”
A skateboarder himself, at age 15, Matlaga and his friends built a half-pipe of regional renown on his parents’ property in Burlington, NJ — a remnant of the 2000-acre horse farm called Green Hill founded in 1791. Even today, Matlaga runs into people who rhapsodize about skating there 30 years ago, and he tells them, “Hey, that was my house!” In order to skate there, you had to accompany someone with a key and sign a “completely useless” waiver to skate. Matlaga has broken both wrists, both ankles, and his collarbone three times.
“Especially in Philly,” Matalga explained, “a lot of the art world is made up of skateboarders.”
His work at the Guggenheim was freelance and involved 80-hour weeks for a few months, followed by stretches of job hunting. So a permanent part-time stint as the Exhibition Carpenter and Preparator at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, was welcome and lasted for 13 years. While there, Matlaga completed a Master of Fine Arts program in sculpture at Hunter College.
“I did art installations, like, I turned one studio into a tropical beach scene with tons of sand. Another time I built a miniature three-story apartment with a TV on in the living room.” For one such commission in the 90s, Matlaga built a wooden rocket-ship for children receiving cancer treatment at West Chester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York.
After a series of personal tragedies including a divorce, declaring bankruptcy during the 2008 financial recession and several family deaths, Matlaga started fresh in Philadelphia, opening Green Hill Art Services in 2011. In 2015, he designed and built a semi-permanent installation of Howard Pyle murals at the Delaware Art Museum. Currently, he’s making portable walls for an art show of birdhouses at the historic Mount Pleasant house. The birdhouses are destined for Fairmount Park’s meadows.
While the “shop dogs” are not Matlaga’s, he does have a cat named Pico, who oversees the framing for individual artists that Matlaga does at home in a pristine space. “I use acid-free gloves, dental pics . . . oh yeah, tremendous care when handling an artist’s work.”
SaraNoa Mark, an award-winning artist whose fragile, carved-paper pieces require complicated framing, still ships her work to Matlaga, although she graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and moved to Chicago a year ago. He creates delicate shadow-boxes that allow her work to float. Evan Fugazzi, also a PAFA graduate, artist and Assistant Director of the Gross McCleaf Gallery, hired GHAS for frame construction and fitting of his paintings.
We pause as a third dog, tiny and determined, traverses the cavernous workshop on a beeline to me. This is Wingmore, who allows me to stay. I am grateful. Matlaga stands, picks up a chisel. Sawdust glitters in a fleeting wash of sunlight. The carpenter-artist resumes work. •
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