Neighborhood Spotlight #1: The Character

The three-story, blue/gray home stands on the corner of 31st and Portland. If you fly by on the one-way heading south, nothing would stick out about this particular property. Walking, though, takes on a difference perspective. And this kind of perspective is the whole point of this article series.

We bounce in and out of our neighborhoods everyday and often miss what they’re made of. More telling, we miss who their made of. Today we start a stroll through my neighborhood—Central—here in south Minneapolis to conduct a series of interviews with the people who live here. They’re the people who often go undetected, because they’re right under our nose. But I followed mine, and found Matt Carlyle:

Matt Carlyle’s is one of those people you’d deem as a character. He actually taught me what it meant to be a character. He’s a metal worker, an artist, a builder, and a naturalist. Most of all, though, he’s all these things all the time.The first thing you notice as you approach this corner lot is the “unkempt” lawn. I use quotes because unkempt gives the notion of neglect. Carlyle, contrarily, sees more and pays more attention to his surroundings than most. In summers, the lawn is a mixture a gardens, wild plants, and trees. In the winter, the stand-out features are the tallest plants sticking through the snow and random metal sculptures scattered about:

Walking up on the porch of this 100 year old house offers a museum’s storeroom of artifacts. An antiquer’s old piano, an ornithologist’s birdhouse, a toy collector’s set of earth movers, and even a naturalist’s pig skull atop the old couch. Yes, a pig skull. Somehow, though, it all belongs. So it’s not quite the opposite of your grandmother’s pleasant and tidy porch; but it’s also nothing like it:

pig skull not in view

Walking inside provided a continuation of this aura. No skulls, but a large pulley hung from the ceiling; old art decorated the walls; beat-up lamp stands without shades or bulbs stood atop the worn wood floors. Bookshelves, another old piano, some plants, and a couple canisters of lacquer were punctuated throughout the house, yet also could easily get lost in the thick of things:

Take the best of both these worlds: the old shed out back and a cozy home, because mixed in with all these odds and ends was all the life of a comfy residence:

We sat down at the kitchen table—replete with more stuff—an axe head, some bean sprouts in a jar sprouting away. Matt looked a combination of woodsman and gear head. Flannels and khakis and a sweater were all featured in his layers. He’s got a scruffy blonde head of hair, an old tattoo on his chin that’s now covered up with a scraggly, lightly-colored beard and mustache, and an intensely calming look in his eyes.

Matthew Carlyle, 32, is a city boy. But he’s no slicker. He dropped out of Minneapolis public school after the eighth grade. I don’t know what kind of student he was, but he apparently didn’t turn too many heads, because according to him, it took his school a full year to finally get around to contacting his parents about his absence. That’s okay; Matt had other plans.

He worked construction, the trade of his father for 45 years, who is now 88, and lives at this property which he is the owner of. He bought it 29 years ago.Matt’s artistic pursuits slowly took over—had been for some time, evidently, as he said that he’d been playing with torches since he was three. But for Carlyle, even “art” is a loose term. Okay, so what does he do?  Well, this why he's a character, and noteworthy one at that: he spends all day being Matt Carlyle.

I asked him about a challenge facing every artist: how to go from using your mind to be creative, all the way to other end: thinking about cut-and-dry things like bills.

He answered briefly, “It's continual”.

He didn’t mean that finance x’s and o’s come naturally to him. (He said, in fact, “I don’t deal with banks at all.”)

What he meant was that he ties financial security into his way of life—in his own terms:

“Pretty much every time I drive my truck around the city, to go run errands or whatever…I usually find enough stuff to double the amount of fuel that I spent.”

Stuff equals scrap metal.

“Drive down the alley”, he continued, “and see some decent metal someone’s thrown away and you stick it in the truck.”I had always seen his truck parked outside, an old beat-up steel beast with two pistons welded on the grill, a reinforced iron-pipe rear bumper with table vice attached:

Truck/art

Carlyle never got the memo that people are supposed to compartmentalize their lives according to work and family, house and car, weekend and weekday. “Friday, Saturday, Sunday…those days don’t compute to me.” There’s a striking lack of conformity. This is what separates Carlyle from most people; this is what separates him from most artists. Because  for Matt Carlyle, art isn’t his life; his life is his art. It doesn’t come in separate “works”—though he does make them, too.

The Pedal Cloud: pedal about town with nine of your buds.

His uniqueness shows on the outside, but it starts on the inside—his philosophy. Gesturing around, he tells me, “I like to remove things from the waste stream. Just about everything you see in here is from the garbage.” He then proceeds to show me where he found each knick-knack on the table. It’s not just axe heads and other inanimate objects.

“More than making something out of metal”, he says, “Everything goes with it: where you get your food, where you eat.” From this same motivation he lets his lawn grow out in the summers. “I generally just try not to mow it and things really cool pop up”.

Of course, that’s what brought the city inspectors last summer. A metropolitan area with all its people needs some semblance of oneness, and a bird with as such distinct feathers as Carlyle’s goes against the uniformity.

“There’s ordinances against anything the inspector decides he doesn’t want you to do”, says Carlyle with some displeasure.

He hasn’t been fined, but said, “Last year I was sitting on the front porch when three dudes jumped out of a pickup truck with weed-whackers; [they] were gonna mow my whole yard down.” Carlyle said they were “contractors from the city of Minneapolis”, and added, “It wasn’t a big deal. Dude was like ‘hey, I don’t want to bother you, so we’ll go and you talk with who you need to talk to.’”

Minneapolis never took action, and he never mowed his yard.

But despite butting heads with the city, and though Carlyle longs for the day when he can have some land in the country, he also knows he belongs where there are people close by. “ I don’t’ think it matters where I end up”, says Carlyle. “I’m gonna know the people who are around me. That’s your resource.”

But he doesn’t have any plans to end up anywhere else. He loves it here.

“This neighborhood…is absolutely one of the best neighborhoods anywhere in the country. It’s awesome here. The community has been so incredibly supportive. Everybody looks out for one another. It’s not just, like, white folks looking out for white folks. It’s all of us looking out for one another. Brilliant!”

Carlyle also recognizes the security aspect of a connected neighborhood:

“Us having a presence out here..being out there hoeing your garlic; that’s what keeps the crime down. The police making laps around the block, they don’t do nothin’.”

Whether talking about neighborhood, nature, law enforcement, or lifestyle I enjoyed my time with Matt Carlyle because he, if I may say, “kept it real”. It’s a 24/7 mode that wrings out of every situation his singleness of purpose. It’s a rare authenticity that elevates him as one of the pristine examples of humanity I’ve had the chance to meet.

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