CADILLAC — Cadillac High School art teacher Beth Stebbins said Matt Hicks doesn't like to paint ... he needs to paint.
Hicks attended Stebbins' class as a sophomore two years ago. At the time, he didn't leave much of an impression. During his junior year, he started to show some promise and by his senior year, it was obvious Hicks was on a whole different level from his classmates.
"I've never had another one like this go through the program," said Stebbins, who has taught art at the school for 14 years.
Hicks, who is 18 years old, recently graduated from Cadillac High School and will have some pieces displayed at the Cadillac Festival of the Arts this weekend.
Up North Arts recently awarded Hicks a $1,000 scholarship to go toward furthering his education as a painter.
Mary Kidder, with Up North Arts, described Hicks' work as the opposite of conservative landscape or portraits.
Hicks' other art teacher at Cadillac High School, Julie Cieslak, has described the paintings as "abstract expressionism."
Hicks said it's hard for him to describe the paintings himself, as he simply tries to illustrate how he is feeling at the moment.
"The thing I like about art is that it can be whatever I want it to be," Hicks said.
While developing his style, Hicks was drawn to the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose influential paintings combined elements of graffiti art, abstraction, and social commentary.
Before Hicks discovered Basquiat, he said his work was starting to edge in a similar direction.
"When I started doing things I liked, everybody seemed to like it a lot better," Hicks said. "I just let myself do whatever I wanted."
Growing up, Hicks said he was always doing "artish" stuff but didn't seriously get into painting until his senior year, when he was able to spend almost the entire day in the art classroom, as he had already completed the majority of credits he needed to graduate.
Stebbins said Hicks became almost like an assistant teacher, helping to mentor the other students while working on his paintings.
"A lot of the students liked to watch him work but he was never a distraction," Stebbins said. "I sort of gave up on making him finish the normal classwork but I think the other students understood."
That isn't to say Hicks wasn't a good student. Stebbins said he took his studies seriously and applied what he learned to his pieces, several of which are hanging up in the school.
One of the larger works is hanging in the hallway connecting the junior high school to the high school.
At one point in the year, Hicks' paintings lined the entire passageway, prompting him to dub it the "Matt Hicks Hallway."
"I've never seen someone so prolific," Stebbins said. "I would be getting texts every day saying he's done with another painting."
This fall, Hicks will be enrolled in the art program at Northern Michigan College. His plan is to take advantage of the partnerships NMC has formed with other colleges to advance his studies.
He would like to one day make a living as a studio artist.
"It's a gut feeling I have," Hicks said. "He doesn't just want to paint, he needs to paint. I think he would be happiest as a studio artist and I think he can do it. I'll miss him tremendously."
It might be a long shot, but Hicks said he wants to become the best painter in the world.
"I'll aim high and see what I get," Hicks said.