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Visual art reveals unseen lives

Kelsey Campbell
Oct 28, 2017

As a father, Matt Appling has love and concern for his children’s future. As an art teacher, he hopes his students develop into creative and responsible adults. And as an artist, he hopes to raise awareness of poverty through his paintings.

It was after traveling with World Help and meeting orphans in Rwanda and Uganda a few years ago that Matt came back to America with a different worldview. He saw his students in a changed light. He viewed the blessings of his own children differently. The trip revitalized Matt’s life as an artist, as well.

After expending most of his creative energy through teaching, it was challenging for Matt to find a subject worth painting. But then he remembered the faces of the orphans he had met in Africa.

That is how his art exhibit, Unseen Lives: Humanitarianism in the Third World began.

“The project turned into a kind of meditation on Africa,” Matt said. “Spending hours looking into the faces of real children as you try to commit their images to paper or canvas creates a lot of soul-searching.” That soul-searching helped convey Matt’s heart for missions to those visiting his exhibit.

With the knowledge that many Americans haven’t been to a third-world country, the artist wanted others to understand the injustice of poverty. His paintings feature a woman hanging laundry out to dry, a child turning a tire into a makeshift toy, the beautiful faces of orphans, and other revelations on life without basic necessities.

Unseen Lives is an invitation to walk the streets of the third world and experience what life is like for an orphan or a refugee,” Matt explained.

His exhibit is currently on display at the Beggars Table Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, through November. With rich, fluid landscapes and compelling portraits, Matt has created a space where the audience comes face-to-face with poverty in slums and orphanages.

The image of a baby swaddled in a blue blanket in a small hospital bed, a number behind the child showing he or she is one of many.

The figure of a woman standing outside her tattered home having to clean her dishes in a basin with the meager amount of water she could collect.


Red roads with gaping ditches and crumbling buildings.

All of these paintings layered with deep colors transport the viewers into hurting villages.

But Matt wanted to provide people with more than an artistic experience through his exhibit. He wanted to give them the opportunity to do something about the poverty they were seeing. So he decided to sell his artwork at the exhibit and donate the proceeds to World Help’s distribution of lifesaving supplies to children in Uganda and Rwanda, where his passion began.

Matt also dedicated the exhibit’s walls to statistics on impoverished areas and ways humanitarian aid can improve the quality of life for those who need it most.

These thought-provoking methods also are used in Matt’s classroom where he teaches elementary art and high school art history. He provides insight for his students that there are millions of children who have to go without basic needs every day. He hopes to inspire his students to act with conviction and create with passion.

Matt’s heart for the underprivileged shines through in the pieces featured in Unseen Lives.

“Before they were even born, the deck was stacked against them,” Matt said of the orphans he encountered. As a parent, Matt often marvels at how his own children are blessed to have won the “cosmic lottery” by being born to middle-class parents living in America. He often questions why his children “deserve” that life and why so many orphans do not have that luxury.

It was those thoughts that prompted Matt to act. After his visit to Africa, Matt and his wife sponsored a few children from Rwanda. However, Matt still felt drawn to help the children he had met in the orphanages. What better way than to utilize his artistic gifts?

Matt’s artwork is not simply beautiful; it is a call to action.

“It takes all kinds of acts of justice to reshape the world,” Matt explained. “We need people adopting orphans. We need others sponsoring kids who can stay in their homelands. We need people building water wells and schools and churches. We need a short-term and long-term vision.”

Through this exhibit, Matt hopes others will be inspired to send help.

“I want them to come out of the exhibit inspired to make a difference for someone who is in need today,” he said.

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