A Lesson On the Things We Hide with Matthew Chavez

July 3, 2020

A Lesson On the Things We Hide with Matthew Chavez

Matthew “Levee” Chavez (our first male guest!) believes his art and creative tools can grow community dialogue and encourage positive activism. His Subway Therapy project started with only a table and two chairs, a table where New Yorkers would sit and share secrets while they were waiting for the subway.

Matthew “Levee” Chavez (our first male guest!) believes his art and creative tools can grow community dialogue and encourage positive activism. His Subway Therapy project started with only a table and two chairs, a table where New Yorkers would sit and share secrets while they were waiting for the subway. The day after the 2016 election, he brought sticky notes and what happened at that table went viral.

 a-voice-lesson-on-The-Things-We-Hide-with-Matthew-ChavezMatthew Chavez is the creator of Subway Therapy, an ongoing immersive project in the subway stations of New York City that received the 2017 Brendan Gill Prize and earned Chavez the Demos Transforming America Award. He recently started Art Plus People to support innovative participatory public works. As an author and speaker, Chavez aims to empower and inspire others. He works part time as a teaching artist at The Door, an org that provides transformative youth development for the underserved in NYC.



  • The Subway Therapy movement and Matthew’s nonlinear past that helped him spark the idea
  • The Secret Keeper and why secrets are meant to be released
  • Combining social service with performance art
  • Conflict resolution and how people deal with conflict
  • The one sticky note that stood out to Matthew and why
  • *Violence in school and it’s direct relationship to the Trump campaign
  • How do you see both sides and hold space for all while still having a stance?
  • Navigating the rapid spread of a movement
  • The difference between fake power and what power could be
  • How do you take care of the caretaker?
  • The Secret Telephone installation
  • The liminal space between male and female in creativity and leadership


(4:05) I was a sophomore in high school and I would go and talk to middle schools about the transition between junior high and high school. And then in college, I was a peer counselor. In that liminal space between high school and college, I really liked it. You’re active, you’re there, you help people to transition. And so I started kind of developing this ideological framework around me being like the bag, like if you’re a goldfish and you’re going from the pet store to home, you need that bag that like scoops up the water you’re in and then takes you to the new tank. And then you have to sit in the water for a little bit. Like that bag is super important for the fish, not feeling shocked when it transfers from the temperature water that it’s in, into the new temperature water, even though the water is relatively the same. Always wanting to be in that liminal space, like the transition place between things really is what my mind was so interested in like always.

(11:55) So I had that up and then I just sat there and invited people to write. I wrote express yourself. And then like thousands of people wrote, starting around two o’clock in the afternoon until midnight. There were about 3,000 people that wrote on sticky notes.

(12:45) I guessed that people were going to write, but I didn’t actually think that people were gonna write with such fervor. And so I didn’t want to leave cause I didn’t want to risk somebody vandalizing it or trashing it or whatever. And so I kind of wanted to be like gardener of that garden that I had started.

(21:03) I know the moment where it felt like I had really done something and it was that same night…it’s midnight. I’m trying to figure out what to do. And I stood back and I was just sort of trying to figure out how to process what had just happened. It just got interviewed by like New York One. There were all these notes. And I was just looking at it and I, the way that people had put the sticky notes on the wall actually had formed this shape. That looked like two wings that were coming from the table. And it like angel wings. I had that thought and I had this really, really strong, wash of emotion and I’m feeling it right now. And it was so powerful. Whoa, I don’t really know what just happened, but it’s definitely beyond me. Like, something really wonderful has happened that I channeled or like open the doorway for is really, really wonderful. Yeah. It’s like a natural shape. You could think of the way people stick things to places. It kind of like there’s this density right at the center. And then it kind of like shapes up to where people’s arms are. And so it looked just like wings. It’s really wild.

(27:21) I think the goal has changed over time. When I was doing subway therapy, I was very much in the front seat driving and people could see me driving and really what I’m trying to create now are installations and opportunities for people to be the driver. If writing is the thing and that’s the only experience that allows people to share themselves with other people, then they create the work by writing. And if I’m sitting at the table, people are asking me for permission to do it. And I actually don’t like that. I don’t want people to do that. I want them just to do it. And so I’ve been trying to find ways to eliminate myself from my public works so they can exist without me.

(32:02) I think there’s something so fun about secrets and it’s childish. And a lot of people have secrets that they have accrued over a lifetime and I respect that. I think people have like a few that they don’t even think of as secrets until they’re presented with an opportunity to share one. So when you hear stuff that you wouldn’t normally hear, it provides like something really interesting as like a human experience. I do think we like unearthing hidden stuff. And so that’s very exciting.

(34:55) I think about my role now, what I’d really like to do is create more of that. If we take a design perspective and look at some of the challenges that we have as a society and what we’re missing, there’s all this knowledge in religion and in ancestral knowledge and in different cultures that can give us and provide us with all the things that we need in terms of like connection and ritual and daily experience. And we just aren’t using it. And I think how do you create that moment of connection randomly? The sticky note project is a really good version of it with subway therapy, being able to talk to a random therapist, that’s sitting there, it’s like obviously BS, but, but also like really serious stuff like marital problems and suicide and all these different things. And then secret telephone is like such a fun thing, but it does let you jump into someone’s life for a second. And I think that regular experience creates empathy and it creates community and it creates connection. And you can imagine what those people’s lives are like. And therefore it makes you a more well rounded person and better at making connections when you have the opportunity to make them with people. So that’s sort of my mission now is to drive society towards connection and towards understanding by creating different experiences.

(47:25) I think we are in profound need of what is considered feminine because it has been so diminished. And with this particular President has brought up all of the fire. I mean, femininity is fierce, right? It’s brought it up in a new…and the moon moves the tides. So there’s lots of things that in this moment are… it’s interesting, the way that you’re leading, because you’re again, holding space for both sides, which I do consider feminine.

(50:04) I am so lucky to have that because I know I have a lot of friends who are men who can’t process the world in that way. And I just feel immeasurably lucky to have whatever it is that allows me to hold that space and be comfortable in that feminine energy. It’s such a blessing and I feel so good about it. If I could restart my life… I think about being a woman all the time. I dream as a woman. And I just think about it a lot. I would trade if I had the opportunity to…I know that I’m very privileged to live in like a white male society is like the power absorber. I’m a little envious of how powerful women are, not in contrast to men, but just to have like all, like I have like 50% or less, I have like a tiny piece, but to have like that whole feminine energy and fire and fierceness and power, that is just incredible. So in all of a lot of the people that are out protesting and doing different things and different arenas, it’s like, man, look at all those warriors out there being fierce and powerful and awesome.



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A Lesson On the Things We Hide with Matthew Chavez


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