Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Matchstick Construction: James "the Matchstick Man"

James working

Interview with James

More photos at Flickr - just click the pic

More photos at Flickr - just clikc the pic

Artist: James the Matchstick Man
Medium: Matchsticks
Location: Washington Square Park

Most days James the Matchstick Man sits on a concrete bench in Washinton Square Park. In front of him are the tools of his trade – a desk which displays some of his work along with various newpaper and magazine articles about him, a card thanking him for allowing his work to be displayed in a museum of folk art, a box of matches, a small box for donations and a vice clamping in place his current piece. In his hands he holds an exacto-knife and bottle of wood glue. With these tools and memorabilia close at hand, James creates intricate patterns on wooden frames with burnt out matches.

In a slow, methodical voice James explains his story. As the son of a furniture maker/wood worker he was born working with wood. In his early teens he started working with wood and whittling. James only began his innovative work with matchsticks in the mid 70s. Although he enjoyed working with matchsticks, initially “it was nothing major, nothing big. Just something different to do.” His work was merely a jewelry box he made for a friend and he only worked in the medium for a short period of time thereafter. In 1995, though, James began making matchstick boxes in Washington Square Park and enjoyed it so much there’s barely a day that goes by where his unimposing shop isn’t set up in across from the fountain (weather permitting, of course).

Jame’s perseverance stems as much from his love of his craft as from his love of meeting new people and seeing new things. “I mostly just do it because…this is something I love to do.... It’s something worthwhile doing and people enjoy watching me do it and enjoy people watching me do it and I [enjoy] talking to people.” A fan of old movies, James muses over a fitting quote from a George Peppard movie – “’If you stay in one place long enough, the whole world will pass before you’… and that’s how I am.”

James is meticulous in his work, cuts and places each matchstick individually and makes everything from scratch, including the box frames and the designs. A medium sized piece like the one featured here takes between three and four weeks to complete. But while James’ hands are slow and steady throughout his work, his mind is envisioning a new concept or design. Thinking for a moment, James recalls an interview with Keith Richards where Richards noted that he could compose a new song even while performing on stage. “When I heard that, I go, oh wow, I can do that. I can be working on one piece and designing another piece that I have to do in my head.”

If you’re looking to acquire a piece of James’ work unfortunately you’ll have to go see him yourself. When I asked him about how he sells his work he said he works solely by commissions he receives in the park explaining that he’s afraid that if too many people ask him for a piece he won’t be able to keep up with demand. Besides, his message to everyone reading this is:

“Just keep coming by, saying hello and stopping to watch me. I enjoy you stopping by, keep up the good work and I socialize.”

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Like what you see?
There’s not really a way to reach James other than going to the Park. Leave me message at and perhaps we can convince him to open up a little.


Noah said...

looks like the flickr isn't loading...

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duklvr said...

I am a match book collector saving only the covers; I wish I had a way to get all the sticks to James, the matchstick man!

Paul Overton said...

Great post! I'm going to link to it over at

Thanks for the great work!


kamagra said...

it was a brilliant interview and it'd be nice if you can add some illustration about the moment... I am a young journalist and I'd like to learn your methods. Seriously, I think you're one of the best in this kind of musical interviews. 23jj