Matches fire a Washington Sq. artist’s creativity


By Ashley Winchester

Although he’s not a Parks Department employee, every day, weather permitting, James Gallman works in Washington Sq. Park.

One by one, Gallman, 63, methodically removes a match from a small pile and strikes it, allowing it to burn only moments before quickly blowing it out. Wiping away excess char, Gallman pierces the match with an Xacto knife, applies a small amount of wood glue and, with focused precision, places the match on a picture frame.

Barely aware of the passing lunch crowd, Gallman looks up only to check his progress, holding his art at arm’s length before readjusting a clamp and continuing the strike-and-glue process. A framed article to Gallman’s right proclaims him as the “Matchstick Man,” known throughout the neighborhood, and the world, for his wooden wonders.

“I hung out in the Village and got bored, so I decided to do this,” Gallman said as he examined his work. “My friends laughed at me and continued to laugh until they saw what I had made.”

The South Carolina native has been working with wood in one form or another since elementary school, when he crafted a fighter jet for his teacher. Gallman’s father was also in woodcraft, and made furniture, but the son preferred art.

“In school, I couldn’t play basketball or baseball, I was no good at sports, but I could do what other guys couldn’t do,” Gallman said. “I was born with the gift to be an artist, a gift from God to do what I do best and enjoy what I do till the day I die.”

He began using matches about eight years ago after retiring from a custodial job. After seeing a man in Boston create a jewelry box out of matchsticks, Gallman was inspired to try on his own.

“I didn’t do well at first, and learned from my mistakes as I went,” Gallman said. “I gave the box to a friend in Boston and continued to practice.”

Since then, Gallman has created on commission hundreds of things out of matchsticks, from bracelets to broaches, earrings to initials, cosmetic cases to boxes. Gallman never tires of his hobby, but he will never rush an order. The picture frame, this season’s most popular request, will take the self-taught artist several days to create. A jewelry box occupies his time for about two weeks.

“It gets better because I can do it quicker, but if I can’t put my best in it, I can’t do it,” he said of his matchstick craft.

Gallman’s art has earned him a reputation around the world, he said. A close-up of his hands as he works on a jewelry box is featured in AAA’s guidebook to New York, and his largest commission, a chest, is now on display at the South Carolina State Museum.

“Tourists come from all different countries and say, ‘Is that you?’ ” Gallman said. “They come from Italy, Russia, everywhere to see my work, sometimes [they] commission things more than once. They’d seen my work and asked for it for an art show, took it on loan and decided to keep it…. God gives you a gift to change the world, and I’m doing that same thing.”

At the end of the day, or during the winter, Gallman returns to his Upper West Side home, turns on “Judge Judy” or the news, and continues to work.

“When it gets so I have to put my hands in my pockets, I go home and work, but I never catch up,” Gallman said. “I’ve been waiting for someone to come by and commission something that I cannot do.”

James Gallman at work on another creation in Washington Sq. Park