When artist Matthew Pleva staged a one-day show at Kingston’s Arcane Video store, it took time for some visitors to realize exactly where to look. Displayed on shelves housing the store’s video cassette collection, were Pleva’s creations — an assortment of beta max cassettes, each embedded with a miniature scene of the film they contained.
In a beta max of Aliens a tiny cut-out figure, smaller than an eyelash, battled a minuscule but menacing extraterrestrial. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, two petite figures, meticulously crafted to scale with tweezers, toothpicks and exacto knives, transported an even smaller ark. Some of the cassettes played snippets of music from the films, prompting surprised cries of delight.
The idea for Pleva’s beta max creations was born of his desire to own a rare red VHS cassette for the film The Hunt for Red October, but after landing a copy he realized the dimensions did not fit a new art concept he wanted to explore — movie details embedded within the actual physical embodiment of the movie.
“Ultimately VHS tapes have two windows, one on either side, and they’re a weird shape,” said Pleva. “One side is curved and then there’s a backwards C. It was an odd shape to work in so I put the idea away.”
Then he saw a beta max cassette online. Popular from the mid-70s to the late 80s, outdated beta max cassettes are no longer being produced. However, Pleva realized the single circle that centered these cassettes was the perfect framework for his scaled-down pop culture-inspired art.
“I did a Little Shop of Horrors, and it turned out pretty good,” said Pleva, of the miniature that features a fleshy green plant gobbling up morsels.
The lifelong Kingston resident has been working on a tiny scale for decades. He began making dioramas in shoe boxes when he was a child, eventually downsizing to even smaller containers, but one of the drawbacks of miniature art is acquainting people with what he does. Introducing art that fits into a pocket requires personal interaction.
“You have to do a lot of it to get it out there,” said Pleva. “Or it takes time.”
Pleva’s art is also on display in his John Street studio/shop, a place he calls his “ego showroom,” although he’s only being modest.
“I have this window here and my space is very small, it’s only five feet wide,” said Pleva “I’ve been here for three or four years and just keep it out there. People may pass it five times until they see it. Then they’ll come up to you and say, oh, I just saw your work in the window. I walk by it all the time and I’ve never seen it.”
Until he took his art to a massive new scale by participating in Kingston’s annual O+ Festival, many of his acquaintances did not even know he was an artist.
“After I did the first mural in 2014, it blew up, then everybody knew, because I was out in public doing the piece,” said Pleva. “I was on the scaffolding. With the small stuff, you kind of have to let people walk by and then it clicks and they come back.”
His first mural for O+, located at Peace Park on the corner of North Front and Crown Streets, portrays a goblin on the spire of Old Dutch Church. It references a local tale about a supernatural creature sighted on the spire during its transport to Kingston. He did a second mural for the O+ Festival in 2017, a 28 by 50 feet river-inspired mural that graces the boat building school at the Hudson River Maritime Museum on Kingston’s Rondout.
Going big was a challenge, as the scale required techniques he had little experience in. However, he forged ahead.
“You can’t have any fear,” he said. “I just went for it, didn’t think about it. At night I worked on a regular drawing of it, worked on the shading aspect of it. So, when I was ready to work on the wall I already had a template. I never stepped away from it. If I started to think about it, it would all fall apart.”
Although he feels lucky to have done two O+ murals, if possible he would like to do one in midtown Kingston.
“One for each neighborhood,” he said.
Between the scale of his tiny tiny art and his expansive building-wide murals, Pleva also creates art of different sizes in various mediums, from crafting a Moby Dick custom watch to modeling store window displays, painting a bike store garage door and designing stained glass windows.
He does commission work, but all things considered would prefer to give his art away. It’s just not a practical move for an artist trying to make a living.
“I just like making things,” said Pleva. “I would love to hand it out but I can’t. That’s why I love the murals. I’m able to do something for the community. I’m not a volunteer kind of person but I feel like the murals fill my volunteer bank account of goodwill because they take a long time to execute, they are basically big drawings. It makes me happy.”
Pleva hopes to customize future beta max cassettes, since he has dozens left to work on. Not all the titles provide personal inspiration, but every film has its fans.
“I want people to be able to come in and pick the title if they want one. To say, oh I love the Aliens piece but do you have a Stand By Me on beta max? I’d much rather have that. I have Karate Kid on beta max but I would never make Karate Kid because I am not as big a fan as other people.”
Pleva has been involved in Kingston’s art scene since he graduated from college two decades ago, supporting his artwork for many years by working as a jeweler. It can be difficult making a living as an artist but the one thing that keeps him going, beside the sheer joy of making things, is a post it note sent by his mom.
“She probably sent it on some New York Times article that she had to get to me before she got savvy on Facebook and started linking everything. She had a post it on it that said ‘Matt, keep doing what you love.’ It’s covered in dust, and it’s fallen a couple of times, but its still there. I know it’s going to sit in my bedroom on a bookshelf forever. I tape it back up when it falls down. I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to do this.”
Whether his artwork is miniature or massive, being able to create works that charm people is no small accomplishment.
This story was originally published in Hudson Valley Magazine.