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How Matt Fussell Turned His Love of Teaching Into an Art Empire

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Matt Fussel wearing a blue shirt, holding paint brushes, in front of a white background.
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Though he does it exceptionally well, Matt Fussell did not envision himself teaching for much of his adolescence. In fact, as the son of two teachers, he actively resisted entering the education field.

It was only after Fussell got a recommendation from his instructor-turned-mentor at his art school that he decided to pursue art education, graduating with his teaching certification and entering a school he would teach at for the next 10 years.

It was at that point that Fussell was able to do something extraordinary. He and his colleagues wrote a grant that awarded their administration $1.5 million so that they could turn that school into a visual and performing arts magnet high school.

Fussell was overjoyed, especially when he got the opportunity to help write a brand new curriculum for the brand new school and later become the lead art teacher for the entire school system, overseeing 120 K-12 art instructors.

While the full conversion of school and its curriculum was underway, Fussell was laying the bricks for his own little empire, long before he even knew that it would become one.

“A little bit before then, I was making videos anyway, because that was something that I enjoyed doing. I created painting videos and drawing videos in my garage and actually called it the ‘Art Garage.’ It was a lot of fun and my students enjoyed getting those DVDs.

“Plus, it was really easy to stand up in front of the class, and when I had a more in-depth demonstration to share with the students, I could just pop in that DVD and they could watch an oil painting developed from start to finish, where you can’t do that in a normal art classroom.”

Fussell posted these same videos onto his new website, which quickly gathered a large and dedicated following. Seeing the success of his website and the impact of his lessons on the greater public, Fussell understood that his career path was going to change.

He stepped down from his Lead Art Teacher position and re-entered the classroom at his magnet school, intending to teach there for a few more years before switching his full-time occupation to making content for his website.

The decision was not an easy one, according to Fussell, but it ultimately paid off.

“I ended up just being in the classroom for one more year and then I went in and quit my job, and that was very scary. That was about seven years ago—the website’s been my full-time job since then.

“Currently, we’ve got people from all over the world that visit. The site gets over 3 million visits a year, and we’ve got a huge number of users in our database that are members or have purchased a course.”

The website turned out to be a hit not only with art students and hobbyists but also with fellow visual art instructors, who Fussell catered to immediately.

He designed a year-long program for visual arts teachers called “The Ultimate Lesson Plan,” which has everything a teacher needs to teach a course, including handouts, examples, and even assessments.

With this dedication to serving the needs of art instructors, it comes as no surprise that Fussell thought of them first when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

“Part of being a teacher is sharing. When the pandemic started, I immediately thought of the teachers who were all of a sudden out of the classroom. Many of them are out of their element. They’re having to learn new technologies, and a lot of them depend on what I provide to aid in their instruction.

“I thought, ‘what can I give teachers so they can continue to give content to their students so their students can continue to benefit?’ And immediately I thought of opening up several live lessons series.”

Fussell, who has a popular YouTube channel where he posts art tutorials and relevant videos, posted a video on March 16, announcing that he was making a portion of his members-only courses, which amounted to over 25 hours of art lessons, free for anyone to access.

He specifically mentioned that art teachers could utilize these lessons with their students in order to make distance learning easier.

The response was overwhelming. Many, teachers and art hobbyists alike, were quick to both take advantage of this offer and praise Matt for his generosity and quick thinking.

After all, many teachers were given little time, some as few as two days, to completely readjust their curriculums for distance learning. Matt was overjoyed by the positive reception of his decision.

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“It turned out to be a great thing for everyone because people were able to benefit—there’s a lot of people that are stuck at home that aren’t teachers that have all this time on their hands now.

“Under normal circumstances, they like to kind of delay things that might make them happy or passions that they might want to pursue because they’re so wrapped up in work.

“Opening up those lessons for those folks too has helped them realize you only live one life, you only got one chance at this. We shouldn’t have to have a pandemic to make us realize that our lives can be more fulfilling if we just take the time to do the things that make us happy.”

While putting content together, Fussell did his best to think of all the obstacles teachers and students were facing.

He immediately recognized a major issue that many students and teachers would be dealing with: a lack of access to art materials, especially those materials for specialized mediums and tools that students rely on their teachers to supply them with.

Thinking ahead, the live lessons Fussell chose to make available use very basic materials like charcoal, oil pastels, and even things that everyone has around their house, such as pencils, pens, and so on.

This was so that viewers did not need the inventory and materials found within an art studio in order to succeed.

Since he has been a teacher for over 10 years, Fussell understands that there is a general lack of accessibility to both art supplies and art opportunities for many students across America and the world.

“Obviously there are students that you have in a classroom that fall into all different types of economic categories. If they’re on the lower end of the economic scale, that’s not their fault. They deserve to have the same access to the same materials as a student that might be a little bit better off financially.

“So I think that the playing field, as far as art materials go, is definitely leveled when you’re dealing with a student in a physical classroom.”

Fussell also recognizes, however, that there is an increasing lack of accessibility not only to art materials but also in art courses.

As academic budgets become increasingly strained and schools shift their course offerings to prioritize classes that require standardized testing, creative programs such as visual arts, music, and theatre are often the first to be cut.

These changes often occur at the elementary level, depriving hundreds of thousands of young students the opportunity to not only develop a passion for the arts, but also to refine their art skills in an academic setting.

The unfortunate result is that many grow up to see art as a hobby, and not a reasonable means of income. Fussell, of course, takes issue with this.

“If you ask a child what their favorite activity in school is when they’re in first and second grade, a lot of them are going to tell you that it’s drawing or coloring or some form of being creative. As we get older and as we develop, we start to become a little bit more self-conscious.

“We also have adults and people in authority tell us that anything that’s a creative form of expression is not going to lead to financial success, which totally is not true these days!

“If you look at the people who are most successful in the world right now, they are the creative people. They are the innovators. Look at all the apps that we use, all of the websites we visit; all of those things are designed by artists.

“This is a wonderful time to be an artist right now. The people who are cutting the art programs, the people who are making these decisions, just don’t understand how important being creative and being innovative is.”

Despite his valid critique of these curriculum mishaps and the general lack of adequate recognition for the value of art, Fussell is hopeful for the future.

Although the long-term impact of the pandemic on the American public is still hard to predict, many are speculating that life could be changed for years to come.

Some of the biggest concerns right now are school reopening plans for the upcoming academic year, and whether the move to remote teaching will become a more permanent one; at least while the threat of spreading and contracting COVID-19 still looms large.

Fussell believes it is possible that, as more creative programs begin being cut, they should start turning more towards virtual instruction, such as the type that he does himself; to give students access to high-quality art courses.

While these courses cannot replace the experience of in-class instruction, they offer school systems that are considering cutting creative programs and taking away their opportunity to use an economically-friendly alternative that ensures their students’ creative capacities are still nurtured.

Fussell also thinks that the stay-at-home period may have a long-term impact on Americans in that they’ll be more conscious of doing things that make them happy and actively improve their lives in the future.

“I think the pandemic is going to change all different aspects of the way that we live going forward. It’s my hope that there’s a greater appreciation for art, but I think the big thing here is not necessarily that.

“I think that people have been forced to slow down, and they’ve been forced to step out of their normal day-to-day routine. In my opinion, this is gonna sound harsh, but I think a lot of people kind of go through their life like zombies.

“They’re going to work each day and they’re coming home and going to sleep and getting up and going into work the next day. They basically live for the weekends. I think that we need, as a society, as the world, to invest ourselves in the things that we’re passionate about, the things that make us happy.

“These are the things that we should live for, not for the job that we hate. That’s my hope, that more people come to that realization. And I think that because of the pandemic, more people are realizing that.”

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Spotlight

‘Halloween Kills’ Cast & Crew Explain the Slasher

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(from left) Karen (Judy Greer), Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Allyson (Andi Matichak) in Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green.

Article by Riley Farrell

The cast and crew of Halloween Kills told Blendtw why the latest slasher’s gore is anything but gratuitous in a year like 2021. 

Jamie Lee Curtis, Andi Matichak, Anthony Michael Hall, Kyle Richards, Malek Akkad, David Gordon Green and Jason Blum tell horror fans to expect carnage. After all, Halloween Kills must live up to its title.

Chainsaws buzzing and bats swinging, Halloween Kills is a current-day cathartic catastrophe – and no character is safe – according to producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions.

Halloween Kills is the 12th movie in Michael Myers’ macrocosm, with the 13th, and allegedly final, movie coming out in 2022. When seriously injured Laurie Strode thought she killed Michael Myers after 42 years of trailing him, his annual bloodbath recommences. Sick of living at the mercy of “pure evil,” the town’s vigilantes revolt against the boogieman. 

 

“Subtlety is not this film,” said director David Gordon Green, on fitting in as much bloodshed as possible in 105 minutes.

 

The cast filmed Halloween Kills two years ago and shelved it due to the pandemic, until now.

Picking up where Halloween (2018) left off, the film explores the aftermath of collective trauma, said Green. Given everything that’s ensued in the last two years, viewers do not have to live in Haddonfield to understand suffering, and inversely, resilience. 

 

“We’ve taken a slasher movie and it’s landed in a time of cultural relevance because of our public consciousness,” said Green. “Though [the movie is] grotesque, there are moments when we feel the humanity underneath the surface of this movie monster.”

 

Halloween Kills brought back two characters from the 1978 Halloween in Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) and Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), the two children who Laurie babysat during Michael’s initial attack. Hall and Richards did not require much persuasion to hop on the franchise, said Green.

 

Halloween kills

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green

The callbacks of all-grown-up characters, of course, evokes nostalgia. But the twist on the trope is that, instead of running from Michael, the kids now face him head-on, said Richards. Hall, who described Halloween Kills as a “thrill ride” and “freight train,” said the slasher hinges on human resilience.

 

“We summoned something deep in themselves and decided to fight back, we’re not just survivors but fighters,” said Hall.

 

Resilience as a motif snugly fits within the cultural zeitgeist, even earning a title as Forbes’ 2021 word of the year. Though coincidental, the visceral and violent images in Halloween Kills harken to audiences’ nihilistic experiences of the past 18-months. Producer Malek Akkad said the slasher film can paradoxically be pertinent yet escapist for viewers who’ve experienced the horror genre by simply reading the news.

 

“It’s tough for everybody right now and this movie’s just a fun release,” said Akkad. “There’s nothing more cathartic for people watching than to see a final girl like Laurie.”

 

For reference, the final girl trope, pioneered by the character of Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween, represents the heroine left standing at the end of a horror movie who is charged with defeating the antagonist. Film theorist Carol J. Clover coined the term in her 1992 book, ‘Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.’ The final girl has been observed in many films, including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Alien, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream.

 Scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis said she was unaware of the meaning and dialogue surrounding the final girl until recently. She argued, even though the trope has immense cultural significance, the original idea of the final girl is uncomplicated.

 

“The term is just about the tenacity of women to survive because, the truth is, women have survived through a lot,” said Curtis.

 

No characters know survival better than the Strode women. Andi Matichak, who plays Laurie’s granddaughter, and Curtis agreed that their favorite behind-the-scenes moment centered on feminine resilience in spite of harsh conditions.

 

Halloween Kills

Michael Myers (aka The Shape) in Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green.

It was a frigid 4 a.m. shoot, and the three generations of Strode ladies were alone in a truck, coated in fake blood, with only each other and a camera rig for warmth, Matichak described. This moment was the last time Laurie, Karen and Allyson were on screen together.

 

“It was a powerful moment to lean on each other and feel the weight of the project,” Matichak said.

 

Cutting through the sweet moments is the slasher at the heart of the story, said Curtis on the “high octave, frenzied” plot of Halloween Kills. For audiences who’ve lived through the chaos of the past two years, Halloween Kills should match their fast pace of existence.

 

“The past is irrelevant, you’re so in the present moment,” said Curtis.

 

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Spotlight

Waving Through A Big Screen: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Cast Talks Film Adaptation

With Ben Platt reprising his Tony-winning role as the show’s titular character, a whole new Hollywood cast takes on Broadway.

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A boy and girl laughing

Content warning: mentions of anxiety, depression and suicide.

Article by Riley Farrell

All that it takes is a bit of reinvention for Dear Evan Hansen to move from the theatre to theaters, hitting eardrums on Sept. 24 this year.

With Ben Platt reprising his Tony-winning role as the show’s titular character, a whole new Hollywood cast takes on Broadway. Platt, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Amy Adams, Danny Pino, Kaitlyn Dever, Stephen Chbosky and Steven Levenson explained the movie’s newfound reach and relevance in an interview with BLENDtw, among other publications.

The Plot Thickens

A boy between two trees in a forest

Dear Evan Hansen

Begrudgingly in therapy for anxiety, high schooler Evan Hansen is tasked with writing daily letters to himself, hence the movie title. After Evan’s peer Connor Murphy kills himself with Evan’s letter in his backpack, Evan’s page is mistakenly thought to be a suicide note from Connor. 

Evan tells a well-meaning white lie that soon darkens with self-interest to get closer to the Murphy family, which includes Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and Connor’s mom and dad (Amy Adams and Danny Pino, respectively). Via fake emails and a fundraiser, what once began as a misunderstanding spirals into an operatic betrayal about teens and their screens. 

Oh, How Times Have Changed (Or Not)

A boy and woman sitting on a couch

Dear Evan Hansen

To address the obvious, it has been a long time since DEH initially premiered in 2015 – but the cast said the musical remains relevant. Things have changed: a pandemic rocked our worldviews and Ben Platt, shockingly, aged.

Platt, 27, played Evan in the original musical version. After the movie trailer dropped in 2021, Platt faced online backlash over playing a character a decade younger, even though he lost 15 pounds and changed his styling routine to appear youthful.

“As a parent, I saw a teenager in Ben’s demeanor,” Julianne Moore, who plays Evan’s mom, said in Platt’s defense.

Speaking of something that’s aged us all, COVID-19, the ideas explored about mental health in DEH six years ago seem timely today, said Dever.

“This film is about feeling isolated, after the pandemic, we’re looking to feel heard,” said the Booksmart actress.

A 2021 study from the National Institute of Health found that anxiety symptoms increased during the COVID shutdowns, making ordering delivery and asking peers to sign your cast daunting. This film was a refreshing counter-narrative on what anxiety looks like, demographically and behaviorally, said Stenberg, who shared an on-set story about the stakes of DEH.

Chbosky, the author of Perks of Being Wallflower, showed a letter to Stenberg that a teenager had written to him after reading the novel. The reader expressed how his suicidal ideation disappeared after reading Chbosky’s book. That book saved him, said Stenberg. After that experience, Stenberg said she felt the movie served as an opportunity for mental health representation, not tokenism.

 “I was excited to be playing a Black girl who is on medication,” Stenberg said of her high-achieving teen character, Alana Beck.

There’s no one face or behavior associated with anxiety, Stenberg said. Stenberg said she’s been prescribed medication as a teenager but has only recently come to terms with the shame she felt about mental health.

 

Movie Magic

A boy alone on a stage wearing a tie

Dear Evan Hansen

The year isn’t the only context that’s changed. The medium by which this sensitive story is delivered has transformed from the live stage to the screen. Freedoms of editing and re-filming takes helped storytelling, said Chbosky, who felt ‘obsessed’ with the spotlighting of each character.

Via camerawork, Chbosky and Levenson said they more innovatively explored symbolism and imagery. The film’s juxtaposition between social media and nature – contrasting screens with sunlight as motifs – is about duplicity in the dark and authenticity in the light, said Chbosky.

 “You can’t have truth without the lie,” said Chbosky.

The filmmaking medium aided in communicating the perils of presenting a fake self online, said Levenson. 

 “We wanted to play with the idea of how fast lies can spread online,” said Levenson. “How untrue things make you feel great and the complicated nature of that.”

Expanded audiences can enjoy the story now that it has transcended the Broadway medium. Though fans of the original musical will encounter changes to the original stage material, Platt said he thinks Evan’s move from the stage to the screen is a step towards accessibility. The message of DEH is magnified when more audience members are added to the conversation, said the Pitch Perfect actor.

 “No matter what, it’s important for me to communicate that there’s nothing that makes you unlovable,” said Platt.

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Spotlight

Meet Thais Drassinower: A Latinx Woman Film Creator in Hollywood Pushing for Diversity

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A black and white photo of Thais Drassinower wearing black hat and tank top.

This past year, the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) selected Thais Drassinower into the Newcomers program. Thais is based in L.A. as a female filmmaker. The year 2020 had the biggest turnout of women in the program and Thais was one of those representing female filmmakers!

This program offers career support and helps to new filmmakers in the industry. Apart from being welcomed into the program, Thais has a lot of history with filmmaking and in the film industry. We interviewed her to learn more about her history with film and any new projects she might be working on. 

1. Your hometown is Lima, Peru, what was it like coming to America and starting up in the film industry? What inspired you to pursue filmmaking as a career, and please tell me a bit about that journey. 

I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. I started writing stories as soon as I learned how to put two words together.

My grandma still keeps those early ones in her bedroom chest. I’ve also always loved film and would spend my free time as a teenager watching foreign film cycles at the local cultural center.

But as a young woman from a traditional family growing up in Lima – Peru, I never thought being a filmmaker was an option for me.

My diverse interests in story, psychology, and anthropology led me to advertising as a first step and it was then, working as a copywriter in Chicago, that I realized the power that audiovisual communication has on society and understood that there are archetypes in the collective consciousness that stories can portray in infinite ways.

That’s when I decided to become a filmmaker and assume the responsibility of sharing narratives that can shift our world into a more comprehensive, empathetic, and healthy place.

I started taking night classes at a local school after work and then decided to make the jump and apply for an MFA in Film which got me to NYC where I got my degree at Columbia University. That’s how it all started. 

2. Before transitioning to the film industry, you were a copywriter. Can you tell me what it was like making that transition to filmmaking? Did you encounter any major differences or have any difficulty with the transition to films? 

I was a copywriter for an advertising agency in Chicago which meant that, together with my partner, I came up with an idea for a commercial, wrote the script for it and then supervised the whole production and post-production process to make sure the idea was coming to life in the way we envisioned it.

The whole supervision part of the process was similar to being a film producer on a project. Being on set and watching the director work with the actors made me fall in love with the directing process. I think it has been a very organic transition and my years as a copywriter helped me build very important skills that I now use as a writer/director.

Film director and crew
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3. The entertainment industry can be cutthroat at times. Have you endured any hardships along the way? What did you do to overcome them? 

I’m still at the beginning of my career and it is definitely a challenging field. As a Latinx woman trying to break in, you have to work extremely hard and convince people that you deserve a seat at the table.

It’s an exciting time for minorities in Hollywood, the conversation is open and more studios are looking to champion diverse and underrepresented voices, but there is still a long way to go to achieve proper representation and I’m proud to be a part of this new generation pushing for change. 

4. You’ve directed three projects, “The Catch,” “Baby,” and “Memories of the Sea.” All of which are special in their own ways. Please tell me a bit about how you drew inspiration for these projects and how they are connected to you? 

Memories of The Sea was my first film which explores the sense of loss for a child. My dear friend and fellow filmmaker Sudarshan Suresh had written a beautiful script which we then worked on together to adapt for me to direct it.

I decided to set it in Brazil because that’s where I spent my first years of childhood and where I experienced a sense of loss myself.

I wanted to revisit the space and dive deep into the experience of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. This is a film about finding your own answers when adults don’t explain things to you. I think we often forget how intuitive and perceptive children are and this film attempts to remind us. 

Baby, my second film, explores what it means to grow up by messing up. It’s a film about a young woman who goes home for a weekend and has ​an unnerving encounter with her estranged father at a nightclub which reminds her that there are unhealed wounds.

Through a series of disturbing events that night, she will be forced to understand that the only person who can take care of her now is herself. I drew inspiration for this film from the memories of being that age and feeling lost at many points. Feeling like a grown up, but also like a child.

Feeling like I had all the answers, but then suddenly like I knew nothing. It’s a fascinating period in a person’s life and with this story and through this character I explore subjects such as sexuality and consent. 

Finally, The Catch, my latest film, tells the story of two trapeze artists whose trust is threatened right before the biggest performance of their careers. The script was written by another Peruvian making waves in the US, my dear friend Camila Zavala who also produced the film.

What attracted me to direct this movie was the opportunity to explore the concept of trust between a couple with such high stakes and the idea of dancing between public and private spaces in the magical world of a circus.

The film invites us to reflect on the power of a bond and what it takes to break it. 

5. Many young people are looking into the arts as careers, but of course, they may face obstacles along the way. What would you say to someone who would want to pursue a career such as filmmaking? What advice would you offer? 

I say GO FOR IT. This is a challenging career, but all good things in life require you to work hard for them. The enjoyment comes from the hours you put in day to day. I find that the most important things are consistency and your community.

Do the work, go out and shoot, sit down and write, even if you don’t end up showing that “thing” to anyone, practice makes a master. And surround yourself with a group of peers who will champion you and who you will champion. Help each other out.

Film is a collective art and you can’t do it alone, having a group of colleagues that you trust is crucial for your career. Find them. Either at school, at writing groups, at online forums. Find them and nurture those relationships. They are the most wonderful gift that a film career can give you. 

I started writing a blog for young female filmmakers who are working or hope to work on their first feature film. There you can find advice on how to embark in the journey both from my personal experience, and also from interviews that I make to first time female directors.

Check it out and hope you find it helpful, I’m always available through there for any questions you might have.  

Best of luck to you all! 

6. What are your plans for the future in filmmaking? Do you have genres or films you are particularly interested in? 

I’m currently working on my first feature film which I hope we can start pre-production for once we achieve a new normal after COVID-19. I am interested in telling stories through a female perspective in the genres of psychological thriller, psychological horror, and drama.

As I mentioned before, it is also very important for me to portray diversity on the screen through my narratives and I look forward to keep sharing stories that build empathy and hopefully invite the audience to reflect and discuss.

From growing up in Peru and moving to L.A, to transitioning from copywriting to filmmaking. Thais has achieved many great things that other young filmmakers aspire to achieve.

We hope that by reading this article, many young filmmakers or others wanting to join the industry can get some inspiration from Thais and perhaps one day join the Newcomers program like her.

Thank you Thais for your time and we wish you luck with your first feature film and your BAFTA Newcomers program!

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