Nfld. & Labrador·Atlantic Voice

How a thinker rocking the design world draws upon his N.L. roots

Matthew Mazzotta, an award-winning U.S. artist, is inspired by his Newfoundland-born grandfather. Documentary maker Luke Quinton launches a new season of Atlantic Voice.

Documentary maker Luke Quinton launches a new season of Atlantic Voice

Grandfather and grandson: Matthew Mazzotta and his grandfather, Matt Colbert, in Bauline East, N.L. (Submitted by Matthew Mazzotta)

Matthew Mazzotta looks at cities and sees solutions to problems that most of us don't even know exist. It turns out that some of the inspiration for this provocative urban thinker comes from rural Newfoundland, and the can-do attitude of his grandfather. 

A Guggenheim Fellowship winner, Mazzotta describes himself as an artist who builds buildings, and someone who is working "at the intersection of art, architecture and urban planning." 

He's designed and built buildings that collect rainwater to water plants, another that transforms into an open air movie theatre, and streetlights powered by dog waste.

Mazzotta says the way he moves about his art practice is similar to the way he moved about the city as a skateboarder. Rather than show up in a place and make content, he prefers dialogue. 

"I go into a community as an outsider, with my eyes, and just start to pick up things and talk to people," he said.

He calls it a quest, with curiosity as the backdrop. For the "Park Spark" project in Cambridge, Mass., Mazzotta found a way to transform the methane from dog poop into a park light.

He got calls from all over the world, from parks departments asking how they could do this.

The Park Spark project is the transformation of dog waste into energy through a publicly fed methane digester that powers a streetlamp and questions our current waste system. (Matthew Mazzotta)

A new take on a downtown theatre

Then there's the Storefront Theatre, a building facade in the small Nebraska city of Lyons. It folds out onto the sidewalk using hydraulics, and turns into seating for an outdoor movie theatre. A tractor pulls in the projection screen.

Mazzotta hopes the project helps the audience see their downtown in a different way.

In 2018, the project was nominated for a major award from Dezeen, the London-based architecture magazine.

The awards ceremony was attended by some of the biggest names in architecture, firms that had completed multi-million dollar projects. But sure enough, Mazzotta's name was called.

He was shocked. "This cannot be happening. I'm not an architect, these are the greatest firms of the world right now," he said, recalling his emotions.  

This cannot be happening. I'm not an architect, these are the greatest firms of the world right now.-Matthew Mazzotta 

He won Architecture Project of the Year. 

A signature method of Mazzotta's art practice to draw people in by using a spectacle.

He once set seven sheep on a rugged pier in Rijeka, Croatia.

Word got around. Why are there sheep there?, people would say. Then they would head to the pier to see what was going on, and then they'd encounter works of art that local artists had made from wool. 

Pier Shear brings seven sheep to live on the pier, while seven local artists transform raw wool into art installations that reveal the complexity of Rijeka's transitioning future. (Matthew Mazzotta)

Mazzotta's art journey is a long and curved one that started with childhood summers in Bauline East, a small community south of St. John's on Newfoundland's Southern Shore. 

He followed his grandfather Matt Colbert around as he tinkered with motors, invented tools, picked berries, fished and repaired his house. He says he learned a lot about how to live a good and interesting life from Colbert, his mother's father.

LISTEN | Click the player to hear Luke Quinton's documentary for CBC Radio's Atlantic Voice: 

A documentary by Luke Quinton introducing listeners to the work of Guggenheim and TED fellow Matthew Mazzotta. His internationally recognized art practise helps small towns see themselves in a new light and was inspired by his Newfoundland-born grandfather. 26:10

When his grandfather needed a tool to make a repair, to pick a certain fruit or to fix a motor, he just made it.

That rural can-do attitude contrasted with his hyper-urban life as a skateboarder in New York. Both worlds are evident in his current art practice.

Mazzotta who is now a visiting lecturer at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), got his start there as a janitor. He was cleaning artists' studios, until he attended a professor's talk and — inspired by his work —enrolled in the Art, Culture and Technology program.  

The project that won Mazzotta an award for Architecture Project of the Year. (Matthew Mazzotta)

Mazzotta is building on his family's Atlantic Canadian roots by designing a new summer home in Bauline East with his partner, the artist Sujin Lim.

Grounded during the pandemic

Grounded by COVID-19, Mazzotta is staying close to his childhood home in upstate New York these days.

Not travelling for seven months has brought him his longest stint living in a single place in 10 years. For now he's gone online, with an upcoming TED talk and next year a talk at the United Nations.

But the list of new artistic interventions is stacking up: he has projects planned in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boise and Tampa. For the last, it's a resin sculpture at the airport featuring a 21-foot flamingo.

Sitting in the rocking chairs triggers a pump that brings the collected rainwater up into the ‘cloud’ to drop onto the roof, producing the pleasant sound of rain on a tin roof. At the same time, rainwater drops from the tops of the windows onto the edible plants growing in the windowsills. (Matthew Mazzotta)

At a moment when the pandemic has revealed just how little space has been left to pedestrians and active forms of transportation, Mazzotta is focusing on helping communities come together to make remarkable, unusual social spaces that fill a void left by larger global economic forces. 

Atlantic Voice with host Angela Antle airs each Sunday at 9 a.m. NT in Newfoundland and Labrador, 8:30 a.m. NT in the Maritimes. Discover more in the program's rich archive of original documentaries. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Luke Quinton


Luke Quinton is a writer and audio producer in St. John's, who returned to N.L. after a decade in Austin, Tex. His documentaries have appeared on the podcasts 99% Invisible and Snap Judgement, and on radio for the BBC, CBC and NPR. He's written on architecture and the arts for Dwell, Maclean's, the Globe and Mail, Gramophone and Eater.