From Pain to Love with Paint and Canvas

Matt Moberg and painting / Photo provided by Moberg

Brushstrokes on Matt Moberg’s artwork reflect a kinetic energy. Addiction’s bared teeth show up in the fangs of the wolf, the jaws of the bear, the wild-eyed terror of the horse. The animals and people reveal intensity, edginess, tension. In one piece, his wife’s body bends taut with anxiety. In yet another, his grandpa’s eyes alight with love. Thick black pencil lines and layers of color depict raw emotions. How did Matt Moberg become an artist who renders pain and love using paint and canvas?

He grew up in a sports-focused family but was never good at sports. Instead, he did performative work, playing music around the Midwest. After getting married, he got asked to be on the TV show, The Voice. His time in LA springboarded him into studio-type work as a singer-songwriter with TV licensing. Playing music, talking in front of people, leading a church community, that was his identity.

Growing up, Matt only drank casually. Not being great at sports, he found his social circle among the creatives who tended to participate in drugs and drinking. As a performer, Matt looked for affirmation and applause. The moment he stepped off the stage, outside of the public eye, anxiety got the best of him. He couldn’t stop working, doing performances, nor could he stop his messed-up thinking afterwards. When the anxiety picked up, his drinking became nightly. He knew it was a problem, but he also saw drinking as a tool, a way to cope. Alcohol, he thought, was a performance enhancing drug, the thing that allowed him to be the person he thought he needed to be.

Matt became convinced that sobriety was a threat to everything he provided, a threat to who he was, to his God-given gifts. He recalls, “It’s a weird, twisted thing. I bought into the lies of alcohol: I felt that to be a good dad, not focused on the 10,000 different things pulling me away from my home and family, that I needed to drink so I could be more present. Alcohol doesn’t allow you to be more present. It just allows you to be less bothered by your own absence. I believed that drinking allowed me to do ‘this,’ to be that. I drank to love them. I drank so I could sit down with them. I drank so I wouldn’t be distracted. I drank so I could look them in the eyes.”

In rehab, they taught us that cravings don’t last much longer than 5 minutes. If you can immerse yourself in something that captivates you for 5 minutes, it steals your eyes from the things that you shouldn’t want, but you do want.Matt’s addiction peaked during a public leadership role. In college, he had switched from Business Marketing to Theology after hearing a minister tell a great story about Jesus. He and a friend started The Table of Minneapolis about ten years ago – a church community for people who have been harmed by the church. It’s a group where people can be loved as children of God, people who are sufficient and celebrated. Because the foundation was based on transparency and authenticity, Matt wasn’t shy about the fact that he was an addict. The medicinal part of authenticity was that other people said, “Me, too.” They went to meetings together.

However, authenticity is challenging for addicts. When Matt went to his first meeting, he wasn’t honest. He told his wife, “I need to run some errands real quick.” Never in his ten years of parenting had he said, “I’m running errands!” He called her from the church parking lot, just weeping and said, “I’m going to a meeting.”

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About four to five years ago, while working with a therapist, Matt told her, “I can’t escape this idea that everything I do has to be for public consumption. I’m constantly on edge. People keep asking for more. Demands keep coming in. My schedule, my bandwidth is limited.” He knew he needed sobriety, but with all the demands pulling at him, he wasn’t finding sanity and stable sobriety. She told him, “If you want to stay sober, if you want to make a real go at this, what is something that you are awful at doing?”

Matt told her, “My hands have always had tremors. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve had shaky hands. I know for a fact that I cannot draw or do art because I cannot hold a pencil without shaking.”

Matt Moberg and his artwork displayed at Douglas Flanders & Associates Gallery / Photo provided by Moberg

She said, “That’s exactly what you need to do. Painting is something that can slow your mind down. You can just be in that space, doing something that nobody’s ever going to like. You’re not doing it for anybody but you.”

Painting became a therapeutic practice for Matt. He says, “I need art. Art is the thing I bank on. It’s this therapeutic balm that keeps me afloat as I try to battle addiction. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had multiple relapses. I went to rehab last year, but I’m doing good now, and I’m scared to say that. I don’t want to get too confident. I don’t want to get recklessly arrogant about that.”

“I have an ADHD mind that goes from zero to 60. Somebody told me once, ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is like having 20 television sets on at the exact same time, but you only have one remote control.’ Art allows me to stop, press the pause button. It lets me catch my breath. I get immersed in it. In rehab, they taught us that cravings don’t last much longer than 5 minutes. If you can immerse yourself in something that captivates you for 5 minutes, it steals your eyes from the things that you shouldn’t want, but you do want. Art has been that for me. It’s also beyond being a distraction or a tool. I’m consumed by it. I love art so much. It’s slow work in a very fast, distracted world; a world that is ADHD just like my head. Art makes you ask questions. Look at answers. Evaluate and assess where you are in your own story. Art, alone in a studio, in a quiet space, saved my life.”

Art is paradoxical for Matt, because this quiet thing that he was sure he couldn’t do, turns out to be another talent. Matt’s art is getting media attention, putting him back in the limelight. Since recovery has been a significant part of that journey, he doesn’t leave it out of his story. As somebody who’s been addicted to performance and getting applause, he acknowledges that this attention can be dangerous territory, that his brain could get hijacked again. “I’m an addict through and through. Whatever I get into, I go in all the way. I don’t know how to tap on the brakes and find a healthy medium. I’m trying to steward my talent rightly, but I do think that success contributed to one of the relapses. I got asked to do commissions. Those were the gateway drug for anxiety to creep back in. They sabotaged art for a bit. I haven’t done commissions lately, because art is a sacred space for me, one I need to preserve. The show at Douglas Flanders is all non-commissioned work. I’m not painting somebody’s dog. It’s not a response to an ‘ask’ or ‘can you please do the dance for us right now?’”

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In contrast, when Matt painted his great grandpa, he was doing art as a sacred practice; organic, original, and derived from within. In the stillness and silence, he processed a conversation he had with his grandfather. He just grew the colors on the canvas, trying to digest his thoughts. Matt said, “At my age, you never know how many conversations you have left with your grandpa. I wanted to savor them. I didn’t want to just flippantly go back inside and watch the NBA finals. I wanted to take in and reflect on what that conversation was.”

At Matt’s rehab, the speakers talked about mindfulness practices, too, one of which is creativity. In the circle, addicts would overwhelmingly respond, ‘Well, I’m not creative.’ It’s not true, people are creative, but we get told that what we’ve produced isn’t any good. Somehow that means ‘you can’t do it.’ The two are not the same thing. Matt wasn’t looking for success when he picked up a pen. He still picks up his brushes to find peace and stillness, sanity, and sobriety. He stopped. He got still. He did something he was drawn to, that he thought he couldn’t do. “I use art as an attempt to return to the manufacturer’s settings, the animal setting, to be present, at peace, integrated, whole.”

Today, Matt tries to align his priorities with his family’s main motto: “Life is a gift and love is the point. To save the gift that is life, I need priorities and boundaries. I’m not a ‘yes man’ to everything anymore. My goal is to get better at knowing where I start and where I stop.”

He’s found that one of the gifts in recovery is realizing “I’m the one who fumbled. I made mistakes. I broke trust. Accountability and ownership are required. When you mess things up, and you’ve broken trust, you need to pick up those broken pieces and try to create something whole again. Sobriety has allowed me to have intentionality and clarity. If life is a gift, and love is the point, then I need to be faithful to both the clarity of seeing the gift, but also the fidelity of my actions. Sharing love on a day-by-day basis, as every addict knows, is the ultimate aim we’re aspiring towards.”

Matt Moberg has an MA in Theology from Bethel University with an emphasis on Just Peacemaking. He is a past co-leader of The Table of Minneapolis as well as the current Chaplain for the Minnesota Timberwolves. His artwork has recently been featured at Douglas Flanders & Associates in Minneapolis. Matt’s website: www.mattmoberg.net


Mary Berg is a retired associate professor of clinical education, a resume writer, published author, and poet. Her first poetry collection, A Mystic in the Mystery: Poems of Spirit, Seasons, and Self will be released in 2024. Her website is: marybergresumewriter.com.

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Last Updated on July 12, 2024

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