The tortured artist is such a tired cliché that it might even date back to the invention of art itself. It does, in fact, exist for a reason, and I’m reminded of this on the rare occasions that I meet somebody like Matt Achziger.
Upon stepping into the lobby of his studio space in Denver’s University neighborhood, a nebula of dazzling shapes and colors bursts out at me from white rectangles of canvas on a west-facing wall. The sensuous silhouettes of female models materialize in each frame as my eyes focus, with swaths of vibrant color hanging juxtapose to crude squiggles and archaic lettering.
At the conceptual foundation of each piece Achziger produces is an aching, unwieldy grit, a stark patina that permeates through every flowing contour winding across the canvas. Textures of urban decay and streaks that imply motion foster a reality somehow more authentic than our own that resonates in some abstract pocket of the beholder’s sensibility.
His style of mixed media combines elements of high fashion photography and the stylized swagger of graffiti art. It’s the culmination of hand-drawn sketches, simple paint accents and digital Wacom tablet illustrations. There’s something about it that just works, though - and strikingly so, at that. Much of the Denver art community shares that sentiment, as Matt Achziger has has been able to make a living off of his artwork.
A customer of a nearby cannabis shop catches a glimpse of Achziger’s wall and stops in his tracks. “Are those prices accurate?” he asks us in disbelief. Achziger briefly turns from our conversation to casually nod, utter a few humble words, and close a deal on a large and especially colorful print of a girl wearing a Native American war bonnet. At this point, he’s obviously been doing this long enough to know that his work speaks for itself.
That’s not to say that Achziger leads an easy life by any means. As a matter of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. “I’m in recovery,” he tells me while gazing downward. “I’ve been clean a little while.” I had first made Achziger’s acquaintance in the summer of 2013 when I came across his artwork online and commissioned him to design an image for a project I was working on at the time.
He had mentioned in passing that he had previously suffered from opiate addiction, and at some point over the course of our dealings he relapsed. He finished my artwork during a rehab stint later in the year, and with the aid of addiction counselors and therapists he’s managed to stay clean in the three years that have followed his discharge.
Achziger was one of three children adopted by a Mormon couple in Utah who then relocated to the Centennial State while he was still an infant. His father became the principal of Trinidad High School in Trinidad, Colorado, and his mother found work as a college professor. “I came from a background of higher education,” Achziger says, “and there were always paints and materials around.” While attending Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, he immediately excelled in art classes and ended up winning the Best Portfolio Nationally for the Scholastic Arts and Awards Scholarship.
Aurora is among Denver’s rougher suburbs, however, and Achziger’s precarious surroundings would end up derailing his forward momentum. He got into drugs early on when a doctor prescribed him opiates after he’d gotten into a car accident at the age of 16, which marked the beginning of his ongoing habit. However, he would owe his first major career setback to a much more benign controlled substance. He got caught with cannabis by the police, who arrested him for under suspicion of intent to distribute. “I had a half ounce back when it was still a felony,” he explains. “I lost my scholarship, and the same year one of my best friends was shot and killed.”
Achziger eventually did pull himself together and shut out the distractions of his environment. He redoubled his efforts to succeed as an artist, and made significant headway as a result. He landed his first paying graphic design job with Broadway Wellness (which has since been rebranded as LivWell), which was the second cannabis dispensary ever opened in Colorado.
He saved up enough money to rent out his first studio space in the Santa Fe "Art District" - and soon after, he also purchased an Epson 13” by 19” desktop printer through which he could feed sheets of canvas. After experimenting with numerous methods of sketching, scanning, and painting (both digitally and physically) Achziger perfected his instantly recognizable style - a major turning point in his career.
Selling art in galleries was not without its challenges, though, and at times it was a flat-out gamble. “You’ll rent out a wall space for $300-400 and deck it out with pieces that you think will sell and you wanna put out there,” Achziger explains, “and there’s nights where it’s really slow and there’s not a lot of people down there”
As word spread about his artwork, however, gallery showings would become more consistently lucrative. Once on a whim, he rented an entire wall of a large venue called Chac Gallery for $600. Achziger ended up selling every single piece, which he recalls netted him somewhere between $1,500-1,600.
Just when things started to look up for him again, however, his opiate addiction became a more glaring issue than ever before. He moved from painkillers to heroin, and the resulting changes in his behavior ended up blackballing him from numerous opportunities.
Achziger found himself in an ongoing cycle of relapse and recovery, which would continue for years on end. He recalls meeting with a big graphic design client (whom he asked me not to name) to interview for a position and nodding off right in front of the hiring manager. “They never called me again,” he says.
Among the more embarrassing instances Achziger is willing to talk about from this sordid era were gallery showings in which he would make thousands of dollars, which he would then blow on heroin within days. He mentions times when he would pretend to be spending a long time using the restroom even though all of his friends knew he was shooting up. However, the darkness that crept over him as he grappled with addiction colored his creative process more and more, injecting even more raw emotion into each of his pieces.
One of his canvases in particular acted as a conduit for an unexpected human connection at one of his gallery showings. Achziger explains:
“I had a piece called ‘Fill My Void’ that I did when I was all strung out on heroin, like a girl with all these flowers coming out of her and she looks all sad. In the art district down there, there was a homeless lady and she came into the gallery and looked at all the pieces. I was like, ‘Whatever, this lady needs to get out of here,’ but I didn’t say anything, and she just started crying and dropped to her knees looking at this picture. She said, ‘I’ve just been so depressed and lost, and this piece is how I feel. I was just planning on walking in front of cars on Kalamath and killing myself, but this piece just means so much to me.’ I just took it off the wall, and I was like, ‘I just want you to have it.’”
As the years inched by, Achziger eventually came to learn about treatment methods for his self-destructive behavior that shed light on the potential causes of his mental imbalances. By taking QEEG brain mapping readings, physicians at an Indian Hills, Colorado neurotherapy and counseling center called TRS Neurofeedback determined that Achziger had “anomalous brain waves” in 2014.
The human brain’s receptors emit waves that control speech, sleep, cognitive and motor functions. A series of tests administered by a doctor named Yvonne Tate PhD determined that Achziger’s frontal brain produced an abnormal amount of Theta waves, which is often linked to impulsive, addictive and emotional behaviors.
In addition to recommending that Achziger undergo an advanced “Full Cap Training” neuro treatment, the doctors suggested an at-home method that resonated especially with his artistic sensibilities. He points at a turquoise brush stroke on one of his canvases and tells me, “That specific color triggers Alpha Phi Beta waves…so I isolated that color in a lot of my work.”
Music has also provided Achziger a refuge of sorts from his discordant day-to-day life. He cites Tycho as his creative idol; the San Fransisco ambient producer and composer was a respectable visual artist before he ever seriously pursued music. “Tycho has been my biggest inspiration, straight up,” he tells me. “When I design, I listen to Tycho.”
Against all odds, in the past couple of years or so Matt Achziger has managed to grow into himself. Moving beyond art alone; he now works as the marketing director of Wellness Center of the Rockies and designs ads for Denver alternative newspaper Westword. He’s even pioneered a unique business model in which he approaches local businesses and offers to hang artwork for sale in their lobbies, offering to pay them a percentage of what he makes selling each piece. So far he’s set up shop in five locations.
As much as he may have overcome, the single greatest tragedy of his lifetime didn’t take place until just this year - a turn of events more devastating than anything else he’d gone through.
In July, Achziger’s girlfriend, Riley L. Wigington, gave birth to their daughter, Zoey Leigh Achziger. 27 days after she was born, Zoey unexpectedly passed away in her sleep due as a result of what doctors identified as sudden infant death syndrome.
Achziger talks about his daughter’s passing with the expressionless gaze of somebody who’s been conditioned to bury their feelings. “I was in this group a couple weeks ago, and they were like, ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen to you, that would make you relapse and say ‘Fuck sobriety?’’ he recalls. “I’ve thought about it before, like, ‘Oh, what if my kids died,’ and you know what? I think the worst thing that could possibly happen - and it did happen, and there’s nothing else worse.”
Every so often, Achziger remarks that he’ll never escape the torment that’s tested him all these years. No matter how much he heals, his wounds only fester further.
For a man whose life almost occurs to me as being entirely characterized by suffering, Achziger remains remarkably hopeful and inspired by the world around him. His eyes still hold a glimmer of the childlike wonderment that led him to envision the exotic imagery in his paintings, and his gentle demeanor suggests that his purity of heart will persevere. “I’ve spiraled down to the deepest, darkest place I’ve ever been,” he tells me with a twinge of pain in his voice. “I hit rock bottom, but I had something kind of beautiful come out of that.”
Knowing what I do about Matt Achziger, I almost feel a strange sort of guilt for looking at a wall covered in his artwork. A curious tension contorts each serpentine brushstroke, and each gravelly patch of texture hangs languidly over its portion of canvas. Even the models seem to stare past me with stony vacancy, their pale skin refracting beams of the flood lights illuminating each frame.
I suppose that true art is intended to make you feel a broad spectrum of emotions, though. It shouldn’t only evoke one single, rudimentary sensation, and beneath the layers of metaphor enveloping any statement worth making is a longing for something that you’ve lost.
To be an artist is to have the courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable, and Matt Achziger continues to make his own statement poignantly and fearlessly. It’s only a matter of time before his life story and creative legacy weave their way into Denver folklore, so in a way, his hardships will not have been for nothing.
To see more of Matt Achziger's artwork or learn about his services, visit his website.