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John Lamb, Published November 15 2010

Artist finds therapy in work after suffering ‘life-altering assault’

Step into the front room at the Rourke Art Gallery, and you’ll be greeted by a rather stern, hard and cold face. Drawn in charcoal on white canvas, it’s a dark head, nearly floating above the faint line of a shirt collar, with heavy shadows covering the eyes.

It’s a self-portrait by artist and Minnesota State University Moorhead adjunct art professor Jessica Matson-Fluto. Her first solo show, “Speaking Figuratively,” opened at the Moorhead gallery earlier this month.

As stoic and closed as those charcoal faces are, they help the 29-year-old artist open up about what she refers to in her artist statement as “a life-altering assault” that changed how she saw the world.

Over time, she’s been able to find comfort in those quiet, dark faces.

Dark night

Around 2 a.m. on June 19, 2004, Matson-Fluto hopped into the passenger seat of a cab to head home after a night out with friends.

But the cabbie passed her Fargo apartment near the Red River and instead turned down into the parking area near the mid-town dam.

When the car stopped, he got out and started shaking. Matson-Fluto asked if he was a diabetic. He said no and got back in the car.

“Something was really wrong, I felt at that point,” she said; she kept her hand on the door handle.

He asked her to feel his forehead and then grabbed her neck and said he would kill her. She started screaming, hitting the car horn and fighting back as she opened her door. He used plastic restraints to try to bind her hands. In the struggle, she realized he had a knife, but not until he cut her along her right jawline. A thin scar remains faintly visible today.

As they fought, they tumbled out of the car, though he tried to pull her back in. During the fight, she took the knife and broke the handle. “I felt it was going on for 50 minutes. It felt like an hour fighting,” she recalled. “I was just waiting for the worst part to happen. Then I saw the red lights of the police car.”

A resident of the high-rise apartments overlooking the dam heard the screams and car horn and called 911.

The police apprehended 28-year-old Cory Daniel Smith, and he was charged with attempted kidnapping, aggravated assault and terrorizing.

The following May, Matson-Fluto faced her attacker again as he represented himself at trial.

Judge Georgia Dawson noted Matson-Fluto’s testimony from the witness stand as “graphic” and sentenced Smith to 10 years in prison.

Early sketches

In the days following the attack, Matson-Fluto felt like she “was on display,” that everyone knew what happened. It was all anyone wanted to talk about.

She left Fargo, retreating to her family’s cabin in northeast Minnesota.

“I lived with my family for six months before I started to function again,” she said earlier this month at a downtown Fargo coffee shop.

She eventually moved back to Fargo and worked service-industry jobs. Then, one day while scrubbing toilets, she realized she was not making the most of her second chance.

“I just thought, if that was my last moments, I wouldn’t have died a happy person,” Matson-Fluto said. “I wanted to do something more fulfilling with my life.”

Though she already had a degree in business, she returned to MSUM to study painting and drawing.

“I thought that was the best option for me, whether it was lucrative or not,” the artist said.

At home, she created portraits of her family.

“I wanted to capture those moments of happy memories,” she said. “I started thinking about how fleeting every moment can be.”

After completing her fine arts degree from MSUM, Matson-Fluto studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia. Though she felt a need to leave Fargo, she soon became lonely and developed trust issues in the City of Brotherly Love.

It was then she discovered Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti’s dark, textured portrait of his brother Diego.

“I wanted to emulate that particular feeling of isolation in your own existence,” Matson-Fluto said.The dark faces started appearing in her sketches, drawings and paintings.

“It just happened,” she said. “I moved in that direction at a time that I felt lonely, vulnerable and self-doubting.”

Out of the shadows

While that period may have come out of a time of self-doubt, she finds power in the pieces. By creating self-portraits, Matson-Fluto depicts herself both as vulnerable and as more of an aggressor.

“Self-portrait 2” takes the vantage point from above her head, giving the viewers a feeling of unease as they watch her like a voyeur.

The eyes are shaded out on the dark piece that hangs in the front gallery, “Self-portrait 1.” The artist says the figure gazes into the viewer, but the viewer can’t see the subject’s eyes. Matson-Fluto finds this empowering.

She laughs at how narcissistic it may seem to keep re-creating her face but said those ghostly visages occasionally keep popping up.

A series of three similar, though smaller, self-portraits hangs below. The repetition represents lingering flashbacks she experiences.

While recently opening a comb and brush set by cutting the ziplock, she was thrown back six years to when Smith tried to bind her hands in the attack.

“Kind of creepy,” she said, adding that the flashbacks are diminishing.

Dark art shines

While the recollections may be unnerving, the process of making art was necessary.

“I knew I had to be making art,” she said. “It was self-therapy for me.”

Matson-Fluto reluctantly went to one session with a therapist shortly after the attack and said it was a bad experience. Since moving back from Philadelphia in ’08, she’s started checking in with a therapist twice a year, though the sessions aren’t very intense.

Her process and work haven’t gone unnoticed by her former instructors, now her colleagues at MSUM.

“The dark undercurrent in several of her paintings and drawings is likely due, in part, to the attack,” Carl Oltvedt, a drawing instructor said, adding that he doesn’t know all the details of that night. “Her involvement in the creative process will act as an outlet for the demons she has been forced to grapple with following that incident and can do so in the future.”

“Painting is just like meditation,” said Zhimin Guan, Matson-Fluto’s painting teacher at MSUM. “I feel I am melting or lost (in) myself when concentrating on painting. I think that is a true core part of art therapy.”

While Matson-Fluto is now open to talking about the attack, she knows it could push her back “on display.”

“I knew I was asking for it all over again,” she says of the attention. “But I wanted to be truthful. This is part of my recovery process, exploring these experiences.”

What she doesn’t want is for people to think she’s trying to capitalize on her survival to draw attention to her work.

Matson-Fluto knows that this period in her work will eventually phase out, fade into the shadows like the faces themselves.

“I know one day it will stop completely, but I’m welcome to it at this point,” she said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533