Lions Helped Launch Successful Commercial Art Career
By ~ David Robinson
Mike “Maddog” Matson first demonstrated his artistic abilities (and probably his fondness and talent for creative behavior) as an elementary school student. “Even as a 7-year-old I had the identity of being an artist,” he said. “I was one of the kids who always wanted to do the posters and other art projects.”
By the time he arrived on the San Diego State College (SDSC) campus in 1965, Mike was ready for new challenges. One of his first decisions was which fraternity to join; seemingly an easy choice since older brother Sam was already a popular SAE. “My brother encouraged me to rush a few different houses for the exposure, to get to know other Greeks. There was no question I would ultimately join SAE, but his advice was good, as I was able to make a lot of friends.”
As a Cal Theta pledge, Mike also found new opportunities to express his creative side—helping to design the homecoming parade float, creating party posters, and making fliers for Brothers running for student body offices. However, Maddog (whose wrestling coach actually gave him the famous nickname) raised the bar when he committed to build the grand lions for the recently completed Cal Theta house. The “making of the lions” is definitely a highlight of the SAE in San Diego history.
“They were thinking of relocating two dusty lions from a vacant lot in Oklahoma or having someone make them,” Mike said. “I told Dick Laureau (CA-BE ’54 and Cal Theta house architect) that I could do it. I was a 19-year-old kid with some artistic talent, but no experience making huge cement lions, yet he gave me the chance to prove myself.”
Dick asked Mike to produce a model of the lions he intended to build. “It took 1 ½ years of researching casting methods, trial and error practice to get a final model approved, and raising funds to purchase materials before we were ready to start.”
During Spring break of 1968, when most Brothers were away, Mike began work on his ambitious project. He first prepared a paper Mache form covered with ﬁberglass that would serve as the basic mold. “We had to build a large frame and then added sand around the model, hoping that it would withstand the pressure from the cement.”
By dusk of the first day, Mike and his band of Cal Theta volunteers (John McMullen, ’70; Steve Ironhill, ‘70; Mark McLaren, ’68; and Doug Butz, ’68) had completed one eight-foot lion, with its mold still in place inside the sand ﬁlled box. “John reminded me later that when we removed the mold I said, ‘Great, it worked!’, which suggested I wasn’t one-hundred percent confident that the process would be successful.”
The pair of “mighty” lions were an impressive sight for Brothers and visitors and are still standing guard 50 years later.
Upon graduation in 1971, Mike knew his long-term niche would be as a commercial artist. “I always believed that I would make my way in life as an artist, although the path towards that goal was somewhat uncertain.” His first job was helping an SDSC advertising professor create the Bug Line, a student bus service. “He hired me to make the front of the bus look like a giant bug.” Mike later persuaded the Der Weinerschnitzel marketing team that he could create a life size “Weiner Man” costume. In addition, in the early 1970s Mike and a partner operated a taxidermy studio; producing realistic replicas of trophy fish and other species.
Over the next 40 years, Mike continued to refine his unique sculpture and mold-making techniques for the reproduction and restoration of museum facades, hotel adornments, and statuary, which has enabled him to forge long-term relationships with several clients. His first Balboa Park project was the restoration of the Electric Building in 1978; he has since restored architectural ornamentation for the Organ Pavilion, Museum of Art, and Del Prado. Mike’s work for Las Vegas hotels dates to 1976 when he was asked to upgrade the interiors at the old Golden Nugget, and has included projects at New York-New York, Monte Carlo and Bellagio.
Recent commissions include a 16-foot bronze depiction of the famous World War II Iwo Jima flag raising for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, a Balboa Park memorial honoring Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and an Indian Brave mascot for El Cajon High School.
“My four decade-long career has been so much fun,” Mike said. “I never planned it to go in one specific direction or thought it would have worked out so well. I haven’t considered it a job.”
Now semi-retired, Mike has turned over the leadership reins of Restoration Resources to his son Kevin. “Kevin has passed me up regarding artistic talent and he has a tremendous work ethic,” he said.
Mike still goes to work at the Matsons’ downtown San Diego warehouse/design studio, where they also fabricate their popular home/office product lines that include fireplaces, museum piece replicas, and marine industry items. However, he’s no longer on a full-time schedule, which enables him to enjoy frequent golf outings with wife Cheryl and get together with his Brothers.
Of course, Mike has been a long-time volunteer for Cal Theta and the San Diego Alumni Association. He has assisted House Corp. president Gary Losey with the restoration of the chapter room and various other house upgrades. In addition, he is a featured attraction at Cal Theta’s new member breakfasts, during which he entertains undergrads with the lion building story and anecdotes about the benefits of SAE brotherhood. Mike was the well-deserved recipient of the 2010 “Brother of the Year” award.
“Being able to participate—to give back—is a big deal to me and I know a lot of Brothers feel the same way,” Mike explained. “I’ve tried to follow the example of my brother Sam and so many exceptional SAEs before me. I like the phrase ‘You don’t have to be the hero…just do something.’ It’s a great message: Contribute whatever time and talent you can.”