Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Artists For Humanity
6 min readSep 8, 2021

Edition 25— Mattaya Fitts, Visual Artist and Muralist

Good Surprises

Mattaya Fitts can’t imagine herself not painting. (Photo by Ally Schmaling)

There’s a big misconception out there about artists: to create art is a decision they made, a chosen occupation. The truth is most artists don’t choose to make art for a living, they just can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

Mattaya Fitts’ story details how she returned to a passion for painting, a destination which surely would have surprised her teenage self, who worked almost exclusively in Artist For Humanity’s Photography Studio. Mattaya explains this twist of events,

“I liked painting, I admired it, but I didn’t think I was a great painter. Rob [Gibbs, Co-founder/ Painting Studio Director] was super encouraging, but I found that it would take me three months to finish an 18 by 24.”

“I thought, this is not it — I’m just not meant to be a painter.”

“Maybe you were just a perfectionist,” I chime in.

“Yeah, I think it was that too. As soon as another studio opened up, I said, ‘I think I’ll do photography.’ I had never done it before and it seemed kind of interesting.”

Mattaya has fond memories from the Photography Studio when she worked with Haidan Hodgson, now Creative Project Director in the 3D Design Studio. Mattaya remembers developing film in the darkroom, going on outings in the neighborhood to shoot pictures, and “getting to see the world in a different way because I didn’t have a camera at home.”

Teenage Mattaya worked in the Photo Studio.

According to Mattaya, she was a quiet and reserved student in high school, so perhaps photography acted as an outlet to express herself. She proudly recalls her photo essay on biracial identity which was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston.

“The photo essay is about being half-Black, half-Asian, and struggling with that growing up . It was about coming to terms with certain beauty ideals that I just didn’t possess, will never possess, and loving who I am as I am.”

A photo from Mattaya’s photo essay, which explored her biracial identity.

“We all had our own photo essays and I was able to present at the ICA one night. At any age, that’s amazing.”

Mattaya was surprised she won the Sun Life Financial Award after AFH nominated Mattaya for her noteworthy work and leadership. The extravagant way in which AFH revealed the news made it no less astonishing.

“Haidan had wanted me to ‘work.’ She said, ‘Can you work this day? It’s an event.’ She kept on asking me about it and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely going to work it’.”

“The whole thing ended up being a surprise. Cirque Du Soleil sent a couple of people to present this check to me. I was so embarrassed because I hate attention sometimes. It was also amazing because everyone knew about it and I felt like I was the only one who didn’t know.”

Susan Rodgerson, Founder; Mattaya Fitts; and Dana Mancini, Sun Life Financial Regional Vice President with Cirque Du Soleil acrobats. (Photo by Wicked Local)

While photography has become more of a hobby to Mattaya now, it undoubtedly solidified her sense of composition and spurred her artistic interests. Mattaya applied to Massachusetts College of Art and Design with a photo portfolio and, ironically, graduated with a painting degree in 2015.

Mattaya spent a few years in the food industry post college before she applied for a position at Haley House, a social organization dedicated to empowering community through food-based initiatives. Though she applied for a different job, Haley House saw that she had the skills to be the Marketing Coordinator and encouraged her to interview for Communications instead.

Mattaya got the job and, for a few years, took a break from painting once again. Mattaya’s visual skills are a strong asset for her role in Communications, but she ultimately felt something was missing.

“As I felt myself working on things that have nothing to do with art, even working in marketing, there was always this pull to come back to it.”

“Into the Wild“ and “Untitled 4”, acrylic and spray paint on canvas.

Mattaya has continued to grow and change since her time at AFH. Still, she maintains the same support system and excitement for art which was fostered at AFH.

“I gained the skill of being able to work with different types of people. There were adults and there were teenagers — all kinds of teenagers. Everyone had a different personality. I still have friends that I met at AFH, like my best friend, Stephanie. We text every day.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had any sense of what I wanted to do in life. AFH helped me see what I was good at. AFH encouraged me to experiment, try new things, learn new things. It helped carve my path to being a visual artist.”

“Untitled 1” and “Fireflies”, acrylic and spray paint on canvas.

The best alumni stories are not merely a list of past accomplishments; the best ones are about what’s in store for the future. Sometimes, it completely surprises the alumni themselves. I’m glad I caught the chance to speak with Mattaya at the cusp of an exciting venture in which she wholly embraces painting again.

“My work now: it’s primarily painting. I’ve always painted on canvas, traditionally, but I’m finding myself very drawn to murals and mural making,” Mattaya said. “That’s the direction that I want to go into — larger-scale works, but very much painting.”

This summer, Mattaya had the chance to pursue this goal and collaborated with AFH to plan and paint a mural at Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center. “I gathered that the club was looking for depictions of influential tennis players,” Mattaya said after meeting with the team. “With this in mind, I created mockups incorporating influential black tennis players.” After a few rounds of feedback and revision, Mattaya, AFH and the club landed on the current design, which features Venus Williams and Arthur Ashe simulating a game of tennis. “Working with the teens, we blocked out colors in the mural and went back and forth in refining it.”

Mattaya expressed how excited she is to come back to work on a project with AFH as an alumni. Not only is she delighted to see so many familiar and new faces, but she is also thrilled to recognize growth in herself.

AFH mural with Mattaya at Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center in Dorchester.

“If you asked me as a teenager to try to do something like plan and lead a mural project, I would be terrified! Now, it’s exciting.”

Mattaya also thoroughly enjoys working with the teens in AFH’s Painting Studio and is continuously impressed with their skill and talent. “The teens are fun to work with!” she said. “They are creating some awesome and refreshing work.”

AFH’s 30 year anniversary this year stood out to Mattaya on the nonprofit’s social media. “It definitely makes me feel like time has flown by. It’s been cool to see the organization expand in so many ways!” she said. In the next 30 years, Mattaya hopes to see AFH expand in size, add more studios, and work with even more cool companies and organizations. “I definitely see the youth that are here doing big things as artists and non-artists,” Mattaya said. “I can’t wait for that to unfold.”

Images of artwork courtesy of Mattaya Fitts.

You can follow Mattaya and her work on her Instagram @mattayafitts

Written by Amy Chu and Casey Chiang.