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Artist Matt Patterson Goes in Search of a Turtle Muse

Taylor Quimby
Matt Patterson

For nearly a decade, Peterborough NH has hosted *broke: The Affordable Arts Fair. It’s a refuge where frugal or budget-conscious art aficionados get connected with local artists and makers who are offering their wares for fifty dollars or less. The arts fair is part of Peterborough’s annual music festival, The Thing In The Spring, and it kicks off this year on June 10th.


I recently took a trip to see Matt Patterson, one of the local artists who participates in *broke at his studio in New Ipswich, and we went turtle hunting.  

When I arrive,  he’s pointing at a cracked and broke tree trunk, half-submerged in a swampy pond just off the road. Two grapefruit sized turtles are sunning there, so still they look like a couple of mossy stumps.


Credit Taylor Quimby / NHPR
Matt Patterson's studio

Matt heads into marshy grass holding a long wooden bug net.  He drives down to this pond a lot to catch and photograph animals–snakes, salamanders, frogs–but his favorite are the turtles. He says his buddy Chris is always making fun of him about his constant hunt for turtles.


“He’s like 'Don’t you ever get sick of it? What is it about turtles?' I don’t know. They’re really cool animals. All compact in a little shell. I don’t know. Something about ‘em.”


He doesn’t go turtle hunting just for fun–the photographs are references for his artwork. Matt's methods are part of a long tradition of amateur naturalists as illustrator. His paintings look like they belong in a old science museum. He uses coffee to give the paper the look of an aged map, and then each painting features a specific animal highlighted in it’s own miniature ecosystem.


The broad flat head of a hellbender salamander, perched on the rocks of a riverbed, a smooth green snake squeezed between forest mushrooms, a musk turtle stretching its neck towards a tasty looking minnow.


“I’ll start doing a drawing, I’ll have a lot of reference with me. Building it up [with] acrylics and gouache. Watercolor sort of soaks into paper, gouache kinda sits on top of it.”

His latest work, a coffee-table/reference book that was co-written with a New York conservation biologist, is something that could be enjoyed by lovers of wildlife or art. And since it's focused on the reptiles and amphibians of the Northeast, why do research via Google when you can get reference material at your local frog pond? Just watch out for the snapping turtles.


Credit Matt Patterson / Courtesy of the artist |
Courtesy of the artist |
Snapping Turtle

“I was taking pictures and I kind of forgot how close I was. And he bit my camera and my thumb at the same time. I actually got a picture of it as it happened. So I have a picture of his mouth wide open, looking down his throat. He didn’t get me too bad. It’s just like a cut, you know.”



Credit Matt Patterson
Open wide!

That picture is a little blurry to use as reference, but in the book, the snapper does look ready to pounce. Its stubby beak-like mouth is open wide and ready to take off a finger. The colors of these creatures are often pretty earthy, so Matt uses bright vegetation or background mushrooms to help the browns and reds of his turtles really pop out of the page.   

Back by the pond, the two sunning turtles slip into the water before we can get a closer look, so we hop back into Matt’s truck and drive the five minutes back to his house where there are a couple of more reliable references having a snack in the backyard.


“One of them is a three-toed box turtle which I’ve had for 22 years. And the other is an African spur-thigh tortoise which I think we’ve had for 10 years.”

Credit Taylor Quimby / NHPR
Paulie the turtle snacks on an apple as Eddie looks off into the distance.

In a small enclosure, a tortoise roughly the size of half a basketball is munching on a freshly cut piece of apple. Matt pulls out another one wedged inside a small cave formed between two rocks, who was tucked so neatly into her shell Matt could hold her like a baseball.

“I had this one growing up. I had a cage at my parents house outside and one fall I couldn’t find her, something happened, she got away. And in the spring I went out, and there she was! So she overwintered.”


Standing there in Matt's perfectly rustic one-room studio, you get the impression that nature makes for a wonderful, and better yet, reliable muse.

With life spans that can surpass even their owners, it’s no surprise that turtle people like Matt are a pretty devoted crowd. It also makes them the perfect customers for the framed prints and originals he sells online. Turtle people don’t just congregate at the local ponds anymore, now they’re on social media.


“Instagram is pretty big now. [It’s] so weird that Instagram is how you sell pictures of turtles and snakes. You can target a whole group of turtle people out there with #TurtlesofInstagram.



Tiny eastern painted turtle I found while searching for snapping turtles! #turtle #turtles #easternpaintedturtle #turtlesofinstagram #nh #nhwildlife #herping #reptile #nature A post shared by Matt Patterson (@stoneridgeartstudios) on May 20, 2017 at 11:32am PDT

Another online gallery that gets a lot of business is the Etsy website, where Matt has sold more than 750 originals and prints. His first book, about fish, was a collaboration with his Dad, a veteran high school biology teacher who taught Matt how to hunt for turtles and catch frogs. Matt says the fish portraits sell pretty well online, but lately, he’s been catering his artwork for another group of devoted wildlife fans: Moth lovers.


Credit Taylor Quimby / NHPR
One of Matt Patterson's moth sculptures.

“I sculpt them out of a waxy clay–and then I make a mold, cast them in plaster–so once I do the first sculpture I can cast a whole bunch of them after that.”

Standing there in Matt’s perfectly rustic one-room studio, you get the impression that nature makes for a wonderful–and better yet, reliable–muse. That is, assuming we take good care of our turtles.


*broke: The Affordable Arts Fair starts on June 10th in Peterborough as part of The Thing In The Spring Festival



Taylor Quimby is Supervising Senior Producer of the environmental podcast Outside/In, Producer/Reporter/Host of Patient Zero, and Senior Producer of the serialized true crime podcast Bear Brook.
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