Maine has long been associated with celebrated artists, from Winslow Homer to Edward Hopper, Katherine Porter, and Marsden Hartley.
However, that an artist was celebrated is but one measure of their accomplishments; in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” the poet Thomas Gray pointed out “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.”
That some worthy individuals are overlooked is a recurring theme in any field of creative endeavor. Other artists eschew the First Friday Art Walk-mindset, making a point to remain underground.
Ember, aka Matt Caron, was, in many ways, one such creative spirit.
A rapper, musician, Sanford metalhead, and most-notedly, an outsider street artist who specialized in graffiti, Ember was an early pillar of underground hip-hop in Maine. His January death, after a long battle with alcoholism, hit a local hip-hop scene still absorbing frenetic Portland rapper Hectic J’s passing in late 2019. The Hectic J tributes on Portland’s prominent graffiti spots – the back walls of Aura and Gorham Bike & Ski – had hardly dried before being painted over for Ember.
With COVID-19 preventing Ember’s memorial for the foreseeable future, this is an abridged oral history, as friends, fellow rappers, and graffiti peers react to a Legend of Sanford’s career, influence, and his (and Hectic J’s) loss in their own words.
Who was Ember?
“Ember was (Matt Caron’s) superhero. Ember was absolutely his essence, his soul. …To look at my brother, he could’ve been any other person in Sanford, but he would enter a different world and be loved and respected as Ember.” — Rachel Clarrage, sister.
“His graffiti art was recognized within the small community, but never at large. His family didn’t even know how respected he was, so that’s been really nice. … He always lived on the fringes in everything he did. He was not mainstream.” — Jen Raymond, close friend.
“For me, I cannot separate the art from the guy. … In terms of Portland, Maine graffiti he was really one of the first that did a real style. Like Rich and Ember. Guys trying to evolve graffiti from the very basics, and Ember was one from very early on who came out with dope style. So for me, if I’m asked about the one thing in graffiti that Ember really contributed, it was that early-on really top style.” — Tim Clorius, artist.
Ember: Graffiti king
“He was one of the nastiest graffiti writers out there. He always did his stuff super-choppy. Almost like how you see heavy metal t-shirts today, where everything had these crazy wings and razor-sharp points. It was shit that no one else was doing, but he did it in a way that had that New York City subway funk and lean to the letters, but with his own version of putting serifs on that kind of curved and come to a point. Doing all these crazy decisions in his lettering that no one else would dream of doing. Matt was a king, man. He was a style master.” — Mike Rich, spray paint artist.
“Ember, as an artist, I felt like he grasped that underground vibe. Whenever he would do any drawings or any painting he always would take a pause, come and talk to me about the past, the painting he used to do. The knowledge he had was amazing. … I think he would want people to remember him as staying underground.” — Ayden Rix, friend and co-owner of Logik Skate Park, an Ember-decorated shop in Sanford that will host a memorial for Ember, post-virus.
“Even the other painters, when we went out, always looked up to him. They looked up to Matty’s style because he always had perfect letters. That’s one thing he was known for. He always had a giant black book and he’d always be drawing and working on his letters and his hand-style. In graffiti he was known for having a super dope hand-style, which is a quicker, throw up style. He was known for having impeccable symmetry with his letters. His colors were really deep.” — Tim Boulard, aka oddoffal, friend and member of Dawn Nauts, with Ember, Boondocks and Rent.
“Styles for miles. That’s what most people remember of Matt as. Matt had hundreds of letter styles. Old-school, new-school, tech, electric, but if you really knew Matt you knew him because of his characters, and that used to make other artists fear Matt. Matt used to get invited to all kinds of events, like painting at the Asylum back in the 1990s, but because a lot of artists practice letters and do letters, we’re all letter artists, we don’t all have the ability to draw or have characters in our brains like that. Matt would show up on the spot, put out some letters, would do his name, like everyone else, but then he’d put some characters up and everyone else would be like, awww, man! Matt had characters for days and days. … Style for miles, and Matt did have style for miles. He could do a million characters and a million letter styles. It’s a terrible loss.” — Joshua Erickson, artist and friend.
“It would be great to see all the characters he ever painted in one big picture because he had that style since day one. … He perfected what he did in his style of characters. He could’ve made comic pages because of the way he did characters’ hands and faces. They’re always smoking a big blunt or … yeah, I guess usually just smoking a blunt. Maybe holding a forty. And he would draw anything. A fish. A person. Inanimate objects. They would have the same kind of makeup of their face, and how their limbs were moving. It was different, and that’s what graffiti is, taking normal art and making it a little askew.” — Mike Rich.
“Twisting the alphabet, Matt called it. Graffiti. He’d say, ‘I just want to go twist the alphabet.” — Jen Raymond.
The Ember piece that stayed with them
“I really liked his B-Boy pieces. There’s one in particular, the one there was a mosaic of at the memorial. It’s a little blue guy, blue baseball cap, and it’s just so Matt. They were all Matt, and it was interesting how his B-Boy changed and aged at the end.” — Jen Raymond.
“Hard to pick one, but he painted on the foundation of a friend’s house. You can’t see it anymore, it’s filled in. But it was the first time I saw someone my own age do something phenomenal. He created it so beautifully. There’d be sharp-sharp lines, but the colors are soft and vibrant. From one end of the spectrum to the other.” — Mandy Goodrich, artist and friend.
“The one he did on the Dogfish with everyone, and he had this weird fish-head character. The E and M B E and R, his letters and everything. The colors he used were crazy blues and even dark blues, and he outlined it with a hunter green or an olive green. That mural was on Dogfish for a long time and that one stands out. It was such crazy decisions, color-wise, but his outline was razor sharp at a time when no one was really good at using these special caps that would give you razor-sharp lines. He was just busting out crazy burners that looked like stickers. Some of his pieces looked like stickers, because a lot of spray paint artists like to cloud it out, dust it out.” — Mike Rich.
“The first time the Pleasant Street playground in Portland got painted. … It was a wall that everyone had wanted to paint, and a bunch of dudes had painted it on Saturday but Matt couldn’t get to Portland on Saturday for whatever reason, so we both showed up on Sunday and just started painting. We were told it was a legal spot. So we’re doing pieces. It’s fine. No one else is around. No other painters, just us. There were some neighborhood kids. And then this guy in his 40s came out and he was pissed, just super pissed and he’s yelling at us. We had been doing the Asylum and I had done a couple things with the city, so I knew a couple people, but this guy went ballistic, called the cops. The cops come in, I end up convincing them it was a legal wall, but I found out the next day it was completely not legal. (The cops) sent this guy home in the middle of the day ‘cause he was going crazy. Matt was freaking out, thinking that we were going to jail. We should’ve been going to jail, but it didn’t work out like that, which was the coolest thing ever. Matt was stoked, saying, man, we just did the sickest burn in downtown Portland in the middle of the day and we’re not going to jail.” — Eli Cayer, spray paint artist.
What’s an Ember?
“In my opinion, he’s still creating art. There’s no way that would ever end. Life can end, but his abundance of creativity, the colors he used, that kind of creativity doesn’t end when life stops. … When he passed, some people had taken the word Ember and made it ‘remEmber,’ but even back when I was younger, when I saw Ember, I would connect those words, in my head, for a split second, you know? And now that he’s gone it kind of clicked. And when you think of what an ember is. When the party’s over and that fire is sitting there, there’s that last ember, kind of just waiting to get reignited. Get that flame going again. That’s what I kind of hold onto with him.” — Mandy Goodrich.
Hectic J and the metal/hip-hop connection
“(The connection) stems from growing up on food stamps. Having one parent, a mother who drinks. So, whether it’s Eric B. & Rakim or Ozzy, you’re in your room listening to the radio and life sucks. The thing that hip-hop and metal have in common is that they’re from the streets. They’re raw and they’re not for everybody and real recognizes real. … Another connection, if you look at hardcore metal bands logos, there’s a lot of typography that goes into that. … Hectic was an extreme metalhead, but could spit bars like a mother. The dude was just rad. I think this year’s Maine Hip-Hop Summit, if there is one, should be about remembering Ember and Hectic J.” — Jason Sheppard, artist and friend.
“Hectic was one in a gazillion to be honest. Words escape me, dude. He was that kind of guy. He was a viking. … I would always talk to him at length. He had that magnetic personality. I had a party at my house, probably a hundred people, and I spent the majority of it talking to Hectic J. … He was a freight train and the brakes are gone, he’s chugglin’. Didn’t matter who you were or what you said or whatever. He was coming full-bore.” — Mike Rich.
“He was just a crazy bastard. We knew Hectic through LabSeven. Dawn Nauts played shows with LabSeven. … He was doing beatboxing into metal, before anybody was. He could always free-style, which I held in high regard. Matt and I would see him at a lot of the metal shows. We’d laugh, because we’d go to metal shows and see all the hip-hop kids.” — oddoffal.
“(Around 16 years ago) I painted portraits at the Free Street Taverna, the most notorious (local) rappers at the time. … I painted portraits of Ember and Hectic. The two of them, with microphones. I think of it now, what a crazy thing that these two guys, within a couple months from each other, both died. And I think of them, and only those two, on the wall, facing each other as if to say, let’s rap.” — Tim Clorius.
“The scene keeps changing and morphing, so I don’t know if their loss inspires or tears away more at the people in the scene, their peers. But (Hectic and Ember), it can’t be understated how much they added, and how many people they touched.” — oddoffal.
Rick Wormwood is a freelance writer and musician.