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Island Profile: Christine Matthäi | A ‘travel bird’ wings home

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Christine Matthäi with two of her works on display at the Alex Ferrone Gallery in Cutchogue.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Christine Matthäi with two of her works on display at the Alex Ferrone Gallery in Cutchogue.

To the busy and the practical, Shelter Island ferries are utilitarian crafts of steel. Artist and Shelter Island resident Christine Matthäi sees the ferry as her passage to a refuge, a place where she can do work that expresses her hard-won calmness and understanding.

“When you come rushed and you want to go on the ferry, sometimes there is no ferry. You have to sit there, take a deep breath, and wait for the cradle to come,” she said. “And then it cradles you back home.”

Christine grew up in a small town in communist East Germany during the Cold War. Her mother died when she was eight, leaving her father to raise her and her two sisters in an oppressive climate. Since they were not members of the Communist Party, Christine’s family was denied educational and professional privileges available to party members.

She remembers from a young age feeling uncomfortable with the secrecy and ever-present informants. “It started early when our teachers asked us to report on what our parents would talk about. Even as a young girl, I thought, ‘My God there’s something wrong.’”

At 17 she went to Berlin to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and although a career in fashion was not her choice, in hindsight she saw it as “a connecting point” to her unimagined future as an artist.

But first, she had to get out from behind the Iron Curtain. A relative in West Germany provided the money to pay for passage, money that had to be paid back. “There were certain organizations that made money getting people across,” Christine said. “There are so many stories and mine is just one of them.”

Christine’s escape in the mid- 1970s resulted in retaliations against her family; her father lost his job, and her sisters’ education was affected. “But it was my life, and I would do it again,” she said. After she got to the West, she said she helped 12 people get out of East Germany. “I have my own little Schindler’s List,” she said.

Christine worked hard to pay her debt and then left Germany to work in Greece for a Berlin fashion company. There she befriended a photographer on assignment and accepted his invitation to travel to New York City in 1982.

She stayed in New York and became part of the art scene, taking courses and working. She met an artist, they fell in love, married and moved to a loft in Tribeca. Christine worked as a foreign correspondent and in 1992, the couple bought a house on Shelter Island as a second home. In 2004, they separated.

For two years, including winters, Christine lived on Shelter Island by herself. “It was really a milestone in my life,” she said. “I threw myself into what I really wanted to do.” Lonely and isolated, “I also created some good work that was sold to Ralph Lauren by a gallery.”

She began to travel, finding inspiration in Antigua, the Bahamas, Italy and Dubai. She even returned to East Germany after the Wall came down: “The only healing thing I could do.”

Although she had helped her little sister escape East Germany, that sister died. Christine still goes to Germany every year to see her surviving sister. “She stayed the whole time,” Christine said. “She’s like an oak.”

“We are the sum of our experiences,” she said. “It all contributes to where we arrive.”

The crises of Christine’s life are expressed in her work: losing her mother as a child, the death of her younger sister and the end of her marriage. “I went through a real turbulent time for quite a while. It took me a long time to find my calmness again.”

Christine’s first solo show was in Munich in 2010, followed by two shows in Italy in 2011 and one in Dubai in 2012. “It went really rapidly,” she said. “If you really follow your bliss, things happen.”
Christine’s art is abstract and her process begins with photography.

She employs time-lapse, long exposure and a computer to manipulate and add layers of complexity and depth, resulting in images that don’t reproduce a scene, but rather suggest it. One of her pieces, currently on exhibit at the Alex Ferrone Gallery in Cutchogue, is called “Moonrise,” and although it evokes the light and feeling of a rising moon, no moon is depicted. “My work is not just what you see, but also what you feel,” she said.

In a series of images created last year, Christine combined body shapes with layers of water. She described these images as a metaphor for an inner sea. “Incorporating forms in my work contributed to a surge in my own sensuality,” she said. “Which I thought was not there for quite a while.”

Christine is working on a new series, influenced by literature, including poetry by Keats and Baudelaire. She continues to travel the world, and when the cold sets in, she will leave, to return in spring.

“I’m a travel bird but always in the back of my mind is little Shelter Island,” she said. “It’s the only place in the world where I feel grounded, the most beautiful place on earth, the good news.”

Works from Christine Matthäi’s Light and Sea Series is part of the show entitled, “Calm Before the Storm” at the Alex Ferrone Gallery in Cutchogue, through September 27.