WRITTEN BY ROBERT S. COCUZZO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIT NOBLE
MATT OATES’ PROPERTY IS NOT HARD TO FIND. IT’S ACTUALLY HARD TO MISS. JUST AFTER TAKING THE CORNER WHERE SOMERSET LANE MEETS HUMMOCK POND ROAD, BROKEN SURFBOARDS, SPINNING BIKE WHEELS, AND DEFUNCT COMPUTER MONITORS PROTRUDE FROM THE ROADSIDE LANDSCAPE.At a drive-by glance, the display seems a cross between a hoarder’s paradise and an HDC nightmare. CDs are mounted on a fence alongside saucers and dinner plates. Old crutches, painted red and yellow, emerge from the ground with mannequin legs and suspended toasters. Everything about the property is provocative, not the least of which is a sign reading Advice 5¢. If you can’t tell already, Matt Oates is not your typical Nantucket artist. Better yet, there’s really nothing at all typical about Matt.
“Do you know what a vacuum tube is?” he questions me. I ponder for a moment and hazard a guess that I already know is too obvious to be correct, “The tube you plug into a vacuum?” “Nope,” he says. “Before they had silicon chips, they had vacuum tubes in the back of televisions. They’re little glass tubes.” I nod, wondering where this is going. “I started collecting them, mostly for the original artwork on the boxes. I soon discovered that there is an entire world out there that collects vacuum tubes. And you would never know about it, unless you were looking for them,” he says. “There is a planet of crazy people out there that knows everything about every vacuum tube that has ever been produced. But you would never know them, unless you collected vacuum tubes.” He pauses, brushes a blond curl away from his eye, and drives his point home: “Nantucket is the same way. There is an art world going on here, but because it’s not being shown in the galleries, because it’s not being talked about, people don’t know it exists.”
Matt’s appearance vaguely resembles his artwork: Tight blond curls shooting out from a weathered cap, freckles and a big, animated smile. Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen some of Matt’s work, what he tells me is “Recycled Art.” He has an elaborate installation titled “Dreaming Impossible Things” at NISDA where he serves as a guest instructor. He built and tends to over 500 birdhouses throughout the island. And, of course, he has a spread of interesting assemblages in front of his house on Hummock Pond Road. “It’s a little different. It’s just something different,” Matt says of his work. “I think a lot of the attention I get is because it’s different. Not because people like it or hate it.” But today, I’m not here to talk about Matt’s artwork, or at least not his recycled art. I’m wondering about that sign in front of his house soliciting advice for five cents.
The whole concept, Matt tells me, originated as he was tinkering away in his workshop, half-watching Charlie Brown’s Christmas. He was tired and in need of a vacation, but couldn’t quite afford one. So instead, he was looking for a fun project to occupy his time. Then it hit him: “That scene came on with Lucy and she’s got the stand ‘Psychiatric Help 5¢,’” Matt recounts excitedly. “I looked at it and I thought, I’m doing that.” Matt rushed to the dump, picked up a table and a chair and an umbrella and made the sign, changing it to Advice 5¢. He set up the stand without telling anyone, and sat down for what would become a living arts project meets social experiment.
“I figured a couple of people would think it’s interesting and stop,” he recalls. “Hundreds of people stopped. Hundreds. The fourth day the cops came; they wanted to know why there was a traffic jam!” Matt grins as he continues, “Families with little kids would come, and they would be playing in the driveway as they waited their turn. There was a line down the street, down the street, I’m not kidding you.” For ten days, Matt hosted young and old at his roadside stand, fielding questions from the silly to the serious. “I had to keep pointing at the sign to remind people it’s five cents advice…I can’t tell you if you should get married or not,” Matt jokes. “A little girl asked me if there is such a thing as reincarnation, would it be good to be reborn again? This is a seven-year-old girl! I’m like ‘My advice is to forget about all that until you’re older!’” After ten days, Matt closed his makeshift stand and considered his advice giving days done. Yet to his surprise, people continued to approach him on the street in search of his unqualified wisdom. So the following weekend, the doctor was in once again.
The broader stroke of Matt’s living arts project was its commentary on today’s communication, or lack thereof. In a world of texting and Tweeting, good old conversation seems to be left as a last resort, an almost antiquated form of communication. Matt, who until recently went without a cell phone or computer, saw his project invoking the most human impulse of conversation. “Most of the people that stopped did it because it was fun,” he says. “But also I think people saw it as an opportunity…It’s almost like people had nobody to talk to.”
Broader still, the project is a commentary on the Nantucket art scene, the one that exists behind the oil landscapes. Since the 1960s, the island has been a haven to artists that fall outside the norm, and that community still flourishes. “There are a lot of people on this island that do amazingly cool, funky stuff, but they don’t put it out in front of their house because they’re afraid,” Matt says. “They’re afraid of their neighbors, the town. They’re afraid because it isn’t an oil painting.” So what’s Matt’s advice for Nantucket? Perhaps it’s to be more open. However, until that time when galleries show this brand of work, you can always check it out at Matt’s place. And although his advice stand no longer stands, his advice remains an affordable five cents.