Matjames Metson was in a really dark place. The artist had lost everything in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and was broke and traumatized.
It was then, when he had “braced for the end” that he got a phone call he had never suspected. It was from his estranged daughter, the one he had abandoned as a baby.
This call was going to change his life.
He was not ready to be a father
Matjames Metson was only 16 when he met the future mother of his child. “Selanie walked into my American history class and I was just blown away. I was like, ‘Oh my God, who is that?’ It was an instant: ‘I need to know who that person is.'”
Matjames’s parents were artists, and his stepfather worked as an art professor at a succession of different art schools.
“We moved endlessly, it seemed like,” Matjames says, “and I’d never really had an opportunity to make actual friends. I’d meet people and then we would leave and so it always gave me this distance that I still hold on to today, I think.”
They spent some time in the South of France, before the family moved to Yellow Springs in Ohio, which is where he met Selanie.
“We got together and we had a relationship for several years and then it had actually ended, but we had what they call now ‘a hook-up’ and Selanie became pregnant,” says Matjames, “but we were still not a couple.”
Matjames was only 18 years old at the time. He did not feel ready to become a father.
I was utterly terrified. It threw my world upside down. I didn’t have the faculties to deal with it in any sense. I was too young, too naïve and I didn’t know what to do.Matjames Metson to BBC
Selanie gave birth to a little girl called Tyler. After she was born, Matjames met Selanie and held the baby. “I held Tyler in my arms for about 30 seconds I’d say, and that was it,” he revealed. It did not register that he had become a parent.
I didn’t understand that it was my child on an emotional level. I knew biologically I was involved and I was just like, ‘Oh my God this is just really heavy. I don’t know how to react to this, I don’t know what to do.’Matjames Metson
He has been escaping all his life
Matjames says this started a trend for him of constantly escaping from life. “It’s classic fight or flight. Having zero self-esteem at the time, I chose to run and continued to do so,” he told the BBC.
After spending some time in Montreal and Boston, Matjames ultimately moved to New Orleans around the age of 19 or 20.
“I was a kid, I was young for my age, emotionally, and all of a sudden here I am in a very exotic, very different place. It was a good place to hide, I suppose.”
But he could never fully escape from his past. In a graphic novel, Matjames sketched images showing himself hunched over, carrying the heavy weight of guilt on his shoulders. It felt like carrying a “16-tonne block of burden” around, he says.
He ultimately had a mental breakdown that left him in an institution “for quite some time” he says.
When he was discharged he gradually became a well-known face in the city’s French quarter, famous for its nightlife, its music and free-flowing bourbon.
“I went in as a fairly anonymous resident of New Orleans, but I came out and it gave me some sort of mystique, and suddenly I knew everybody. I was living in someone’s closet and I didn’t have anything except for my pens, so I’d go to the coffee house, the bar or wherever people were and I was embraced as a character and a spectacle,” he says.
His daughter grew up never knowing him
Meanwhile his daughter, Tyler Hurwitz, grew up in Yellow Springs with her mom, Selanie, another talented artist.
“I was submerged in a creative environment from the time I was born basically, and that has never ended,” Tyler says.
She was happy though, because she never fully realized what she was missing. “I had so many people and family and friends surrounding me all the time, I guess I just didn’t really think about it,” she says.
“It wasn’t something that had ever existed in my mind, so it wasn’t ever a huge question as to who my father was, or where he was, or why he wasn’t there.”
I never asked, therefore I didn’t really know.Tyler Hurwitz
The tragedy that changed his life
Meanwhile her dad had turned 30 and had an epiphany. “Suddenly I was like… ‘I can’t believe I’ve survived to 30,'” he says. He’d had a “live fast, die young” mentality, and decided it was now time to slow down. First he moved out of the French Quarter, then he left New Orleans altogether for a few years, only to return in the spring of 2005.
“I get an apartment, I unpack my stuff and that’s when Katrina hit,” he says.
That’s when Hurricane Katrina hit. “It was utter destruction,” says Matjames, “If I close my eyes I can still see it.”
“There was a lot of loss of life, everything was completely broken. The stores weren’t open, the groceries weren’t open, the crime was insane. There’s so many people just losing their houses and possessions, it was nothing more than just utter desperation on everybody’s part.”
Matjames lost everything and ended up moving to a small apartment in Los Angeles.
“Once I’d moved into this flat they literally tore down every building surrounding me. So the little four-storey building I was in suddenly was infested with mice and cockroaches and meth heads,” he says.
Someone gave me a futon, I had a little black and white TV and maybe a couple of T-shirts and that was it.Matjames Metson
Matjames’ best friends were his dogs, and they were all he had left.
“When I got regular food they’d get some,” he says. “And when I didn’t have regular food I’d eat some of theirs. I’d reach in the dog food bag and eat handfuls of dried kibble.”
He found a job in another part of the city, working as a “stock boy” in an art supply store for $7 an hour. Whenever the phone rang, it was always bad news. He ended up shutting down emotionally.
“My capacity for self-preservation was slipping and slipping and slipping and I had nowhere to really turn,” he says, “until the phone call which not only saved my life, but it changed my life.”
Tyler had no expectations when she made that call
Tyler was 16 at the time, when her mother handed her her father’s phone number. “I think that she just kind of stumbled upon it in a stack of papers and was just like, ‘Oh, better give this to Tyler in case she wants to call,'” Tyler says.
“It was just like a very nonchalant thing that she’d just done, and she specifically asked me to write instead of call, but minutes after she gave me the paper I called the number. I think half of me really was not expecting anybody to answer, so I didn’t put much thought into it.”
I kind of had this mentality of, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’ So when he answered, I wasn’t emotional, and I wasn’t nervous.Tyler Hurwitz
“Have you ever heard the name Tyler before?” she said.
And Matjames replied, “Tyler, I’ve been waiting for this call for 16 years.”
Then I said, ‘Do you hate me?’Tyler Hurwitz
“I said, ‘I really don’t hate you. Do you hate me?'” says Matjames. “And she said ‘No.’ Like here I am, a total messed up, traumatized artist guy who had zero to offer her, but we talked about music and we talked about this and that.”
For Matjames, the call changed everything
“I really feel as though my spine straightened and my eyes opened and I stopped looking on the ground and started to say, ‘Well OK, here I am in Los Angeles, my daughter thinks that’s amazing, maybe I should think that’s amazing?'”
He says he wanted to impress his daughter, and that made him want to work and be creative again.
I’m not going to be able to do it with my home or my bank account or my clothes. I’m going to be the best artist I can possibly be, and that is something I have picked up and have not put down, and I owe that all to Tyler.Matjames Metson
Tyler was apprehensive but reconnecting felt like the most natural thing.
“I was nervous, which I feel is understandable,” says Tyler, “but then the second that we were acquainted it just felt OK, it felt natural and normal and I was perfectly content with being myself.”
She instantly noticed the physical resemblances too.
“I have curly hair and my mum has pin-straight hair and it’s always been a situation trying to figure out how to deal with my hair,” she says. “So when I met Matjames I was like, ‘Well, we both have curly hair, that explains it.’ And we have similar hands and we both have green eyes.”
They bonded over their artistic spirits
One of the first pieces of art that Tyler says Matjames showed her was an intricate sculptural assemblage tower.
“If you open this door and unlatch this thing and you slide this over, you’d look down in there and in between a bunch of nails you’d find my name,” she says.
So my name is hidden in a lot of his work, you have to search for it, but it’s definitely there and it’s just kind of cool knowing where to look.Matjames Metson
She believes this symbolizes the motivation that she provided for Matjames to resume his work as an artist. “I knew she was right and I had to do it. It was like resetting some sort of machine,” he says.
“It was a way for me to suddenly become my age and grow up and stop being the teenager who ran.”
While he was there, Tyler was re-upholstering a sofa and Matjames got to help with the project and witness his daughter’s artistry at work.
“My whole inspiration behind upholstery and my love for furniture and fabrics was initially inspired by my mother,” says Tyler, now 29. “So the sofa was really a project where the brains of all three of us came together.”
Over the years, Matjames and Tyler have talked a lot about why he left her. “She understands why I had to go,” says Matjames. “We talked a couple of weeks ago. She was like, ‘You couldn’t have lived here, it wouldn’t have been the right thing for you, no matter what.'”
So it’s nice to have the person that I left clearly understanding why I had to do it and not resenting me for it, which is huge and brave and really remarkable.Matjames Metson
It is never too late to make amends
Matjames and Tyler’s incredibly touching story is a strong reminder that it’s never too late to rebuild a broken or severed relationship. Years after he abandoned her, Matjames was confronted with a ghost from his past. Rather than keep running, he faced his mistake–and a wonderful, life changing bond ensued.
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