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Artist Gail Magin talks about her work

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

April 15, 2012
By BRIAN BUSH ( , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

When Gail Magin looks at a matchstick, she sees patterns, order and potential. You might say that matches spark her creativity.

Magin, who lives in Linden, has been making matchstick art for close to 20 years. The initial inspiration for using matchsticks came to Magin in the early 1990s, when she visited the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. This was where she first encountered the work of artist Gerald Hawkes.

"The Visionary Art Museum had a lot of what I would call 'outsider art,' " Magin said. "I mean art made by people with drug problems, mental health problems, poverty problems and who were expressing that in their work. Hawkes was such a man and he worked with matchsticks. The first thing that caught my eye were these styrofoam heads for wigs that he covered with matchsticks. I saw matchsticks in a different way after seeing Hawkes' art. He's the one who made me pick up the match."

Article Photos

Gail Magin’s coffee table made out of matchsticks is shown. Magin, who lives in Linden, has been making matchstick art for close to 20 years.

According to Magin, Hawkes had a very specific philosophy behind his choice of medium. "For Hawkes, each matchstick represented a human being and when you put them all together, it showed the beauty of what human beings can do in unison," Magin explained.

Aside from Hawkes' example, Magin also gathered inspiration from the pastimes of her youth. "I did quilt-making when I was younger, so I was always interested in patterns," Magin said. "After getting the idea to work with matches, I wanted to make the matches look like a woven material or pattern. Essentially, I started making quilt patterns with matches."

Magin's art is also inspired by Native American art, which often contains triangular patterns of primary colors. "I've always had a vague notion of Native American art because my parents met and fell in love in New Mexico," Magin said. "I was always interested in those patterns and I grew up seeing them in my home."

Most of Magin's matchsticks end up on furniture: end tables, dinner tables, coffee tables, shelves and so on. She has also done smaller items like picture frames and boxes. "I do a lot of cigar boxes and I make them in all shapes and sizes," Magin said. "I guess partly because I figure I'll have better luck selling a box than a large piece of furniture."

But, to hear Magin tell it, selling her work is of secondary importance. In fact, the artist rarely makes her pieces available for sale. "I don't market my work that much," Magin said. "I went to the Pajama Factory and sold at their Christmas Fair in December, but I'm not actively involved or interested in selling."

Part of the reason Magin isn't especially interested in selling is because she has put so much time and effort into making her pieces. "I find it hard to part with them sometimes," Magin said. "If I put 100 hours into making something, it's hard to give it away. This is a labor-intensive artform."

As a result of Magin's unwillingness to part with her work, many of her pieces have taken up residence in her own home. "I probably have 20 pieces of furniture and 70 boxes. I've sold some furniture and several boxes, but I don't do it regularly. At the same time, I can appreciate getting rid of some of the larger pieces to make room," Magin said.

More than selling, Magin is interested in the effect her work has on people. "I get a great deal of satisfaction from someone walking into my house and being enthusiastic about my work. I enjoy having that person look at my work and seeing something particular that is interesting to them. I like it when they take notice and say, 'I like how you did this little thing here.' It means they've taken this one extra second to consider my work in a way that goes beyond their first impression. Honestly, that makes me feel better than selling my work. I'm not in this to make money. I'm in it because I enjoy it."

Anyone who has seen Magin's larger and more intricate pieces will have one question in mind: "How long did that take you to make?" But Magin said she doesn't keep track of the time she puts into her art. "I could figure it out if I really wanted to, but I don't keep track of the hours I spend making my work. I enjoy it, so I'm not aware of the time I put in. Still, everyone asks me that. If I had to guess I'd say between 50 and 100 hours, depending on the size of the piece."

Magin burns matches by the handful. Because matches tend to burn at different lengths, Magin cuts them to size before patterning. I asked her if she has a preferred matchstick brand. "I do, as a matter of fact. I strongly recommend the Diamond match brand. I like Diamond matches because the wood is sturdier. Other matches are so flimsy. When you burn a Diamond match, the end is squared off. It doesn't burn in a string and disintegrate like other brands."

About her working routine, Magin said it's an everyday endeavor. "These days, I like to make larger pieces. As an artist, I want to work on the bigger canvases. I work on my art in the early mornings and in the evenings when I come home from my day job. I'm self-employed and I work half-time so I can devote a lot of time to my art."

When she's not making art, Magin works as a proofreader and researcher of college textbooks, which means she's always learning about new subjects. "I read all kinds of different textbooks," Magin said. "A great deal of it is math, psychology and chemistry. As a delightful change, we've recently gotten drama and literature textbooks. I've been immersed in the history of drama, and I read 'Oedipus Rex' recently. I always knew about Oedipus, but reading the play is something else. It's wonderful."

When pressed, Magin said she will make her work available for sale again in the future. "I guess if I do, it'll be at the Pajama Factory because they have the space to display my larger pieces. If people are interested in the furniture, they should just contact me."

For more information about her work, email Magin at



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