Local Artist Displays Eclectic Work at Museum of Un-Natural History

Isabel Mills

Museum of Un-Natural History
Photo by Chaoyu Li

If you met him on the street, 82-year-old Gerry Matthews would seem like any other retired, happily married Wheaton Terrier owner. In reality, he is a rather unique artist.

Matthews moved to Walla Walla with his wife Pat Stanley years ago, leaving both of their acting careers in New York behind. A class clown since elementary school, Gerry loved to entertain, but he was envious of his friends who were artists and could work from home. In 2001, he opened a free museum in downtown Walla Walla.

Inspired by Dadaism, surrealism and absurdism, Matthews creates art unlike anything I have ever seen.

“I use the word Dada because it takes away all of the rules and regulations. You don’t have to please anybody. Collecting things and assembling them in meaningful ways is to me a whole lot of fun and not too stressful. Not everyone who comes up here gets it, but some do, and that’s fun,” he said.

His work is displayed in a hidden loft above Tallman’s Drug Store called The Museum of Un-Natural History. Every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. he sits in the midst of his art, waiting for people to come explore and to make whatever interpretations they will.

One of his pieces is titled “Diana of the Hunt” or Dangerous encounters of the third grade.” Created shortly after the Columbine school shooting, the primary figure in the work is a manikin of a small boy wearing a short tunic. He holds a bone in his mouth and a pistol in his hand. Gerry had heard people around him saying that everyone should honor their children. This piece of art shows his interpretation of that.

“I think I definitely start off with an object and try to make something with it and other collected things that go with it, and ultimately [I] have the whole assembly turn into something that I can name and that has a point to it. I often don’t name them until after I’ve finished them because I don’t know what they are. And then it suddenly comes to me,” said Matthews.

Museum of Un-Natural History
Photo by Chaoyu Li

Much of the artwork in the museum is fantastically thought-provoking. Whether the thoughts inspired by the art are positive or negative seems to depend highly upon the person viewing it.

“Well, I hope they’ll go out thinking how witty and wonderful it is and just enjoying it. I get some very enthusiastic remarks and other people who just think it’s ridiculous, but I enjoy it when people dig it,” said Matthews.

Some of the work in the museum is very personal. There are multiple pictures of Gerry as a young boy trying to steal a kiss from the neighborhood girl, and one piece of work even includes his passport and birth certificate.

In contrast, many of his pieces make social or political commentary. One example illustrates an image of God, taken from Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” who is reaching toward a light switch in space. Its caption reads, “That’s all folks.” This piece is a customer favorite.

Gerry and his wife, award-winning Broadway-performer Pat Stanley, have five kids between them. Both Gerry and Pat are 82 years old. In fact, they were born just hours apart.

Their love story actually began at the afterparty of a funeral for a mutual friend.

“The deceased [man] was a gay piano player who we both worked with, and everyone at the party was gay except for me and Pat. I asked if I could sit next to her, and we’ve been together ever since,” said Matthews.

Sitting in his small museum, Gerry almost seemed like a piece of art himself. Despite some age-related challenges, Matthews enjoys the work that he does.

Museum of Un-Natural History
Photo by Chaoyu Li

“I’ve had this open now for 15 years, so my enthusiasm has died down a bit. I still come every Saturday because I’ve got it and I don’t know what else it would be. What else am I going to do with it? My concern is that I’m getting old and I don’t know how much longer I can climb those stairs or how much longer I want to come up here. But I’m drawn to it every week.”