Iron will

Alumnus Matagi Sorensen perseveres in his passion for art.

As a young boy, Matagi Sorensen believed it was unlikely he’d have the opportunity to attend a university. Raised in a family of modern-day nomads who travelled from hotel to hotel creating and selling art, Sorensen had to stay focused on contributing to the family income and helping his parents and siblings get by. Sometimes, this meant going hungry for days at a time, or sneaking into hotel rooms to get lower rates.

Amid the chaos, Sorensen clung to one factor that provided him a sense of control and sanctuary - creating artwork. In the hardships of his early life, Sorensen forged a passion that drove him to graduate from Northern Arizona University with honors and begin a successful career as a world-renowned metalsmither.

The first step

A member of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, Sorensen and his family moved to a tribally owned RV park on the reservation when he was 15. This newfound stability gave Sorensen the chance to enroll in a tribal summer program a year later. Observing his natural talent in art, the tribe's members encouraged Sorensen to seek higher education and earn a diploma, support that Sorensen explains was instrumental in his progression as an artist. 

“I got a lot of support from the Yavapai-Apache Nation, and then from Northern Arizona University with scholarships, being a first-generation student, and a single parent,” Sorensen says. “It made a big difference just to have that backbone I could rely on.”

Sorensen explains that while he knew general art degrees existed, he wasn’t aware that earning a degree in fine art was possible until he visited the university. This discovery opened a new world of possibility for him.

"My dream wasn't ever to be an artist - I didn't have a dream,” he says. “The whole idea of a degree was vague – to those around me, art was something you ‘do on the side.’ When I learned that art could be the emphasis at Northern Arizona University, and you could teach art, or get into galleries, that opened a lot of doors for me.  I was able to see there's a whole program to follow that could help me once I got out of school. The university helped me structure and realize a dream."

Not long after attending his first semester, Sorensen realized the benefit his education would have on refining his skill and creating a career out of metalsmithing.

“One of the really important things about a formal education versus just making art on your own is you learn how to finish the work and make it museum quality,” Sorensen says. “The other part was learning how to sell it and understanding the market. It is unusual for bachelor’s degree programs to go into the business aspect of art, and it helped a lot.”

Greatness emerges

Encouraged by his professors, Sorensen applied for and won the Whiteman Scholarship for Fine Art—the largest art scholarship offered to a Northern Arizona University student.

“My professors were very supportive with suggesting scholarships for me,” Sorensen says. “The financial aid from the Whiteman Scholarship allowed me to invest in my bachelor of fine arts show and create art, and helped me make that transition from student to artist. It tells you something about yourself and your work when you can get a scholarship, and gives you the kind of esteem that you really need.”

The Whiteman Scholarship provided Sorensen a boost in his confidence, and it, along with the capstone BFA show, boosted his recognition in the community.  Following the award, Sorensen was interviewed for SchoolArts magazine, the Lumberjack newspaper, and Mountain Living Magazine; he was also nominated for the Viola Awards, which recognize artistic excellence in the Flagstaff community, in the category of Best Emerging Artist.

Not long after, Sorensen launched his own website to feature his work, created an art program at his daughter’s school, and donated work for fundraising events. 

“Building the confidence to launch my career was huge,” he says. “The scholarship and the capstone project helped a lot, but on a personal level, my professors got me thinking about art as a means of discovery and problem solving. That idea has helped me in so many aspects of my life, especially as it relates to helping me help my daughter to learn in ways that work for her.”

Looking ahead

In 2011, Sorensen graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in metalsmithing. Since graduating, he has been in several juried shows, and continues to grow his business and perfect his craft.  He hopes his story will inspire another generation of artists who follow their passion and use their work to navigate through struggles in their lives.

“I think the biggest suggestion I have for others is to not quit,” Sorensen says. “It’s really easy to quit, but you have to keep working. It’s about putting yourself out there and not giving up.” 

Visit Matagi's website—Sorensen Silver Fine Art—and his online shop Matagi Fine Art.