Mathieu Lefevre was born in Edmonton on Friday, March 13, 1981, to French immigrants Alain and Erika Lefevre. Aside from the superstitious date, recalls Erika, a university instructor, “it was a typical March day.” Mathieu, however, would be far from typical himself. “He was a boy of many interests,” says Erika, “or what I like to call a free-range, organic child.” The second of four children, Mathieu spent his early years exploring the outdoors on his family’s sprawling acreage near the Alberta hamlet of New Sarepta, “tinkering with things,” says Erika, “pounding nails, playing soccer [his father, an accountant, was his long-time coach] and drawing animals.” By the time he was seven, he had completed one of many art projects to come: a series of animal sketches that his parents framed and displayed in the house. “I hung them all up,” says Erika, “so I could tell people I only had original art hanging in my house.”
At primary school, Mathieu was a polymath, excelling not only in visual arts but in literature as well. A lover of ancient myth, by age nine he’d written several storybooks about Greek and Arthurian legends, one of which he called “A Quest for Eternal Life.” “It was about the Holy Grail,” says Erika. “He always loved history.” He loved pranks, too: April Fool’s Day was a big deal at the Lefevre residence, where every year Mathieu (whose schoolteacher called him “Asterix” after the cunning French cartoon character) would booby-trap the whole house with water balloons and cover all the doorknobs with Vaseline. During the summer he and his brothers, Joel and David, would catch frogs in the woods and make them race each other. “He called it the ‘Frog Olympics,’ ” says Erika.
Although a merry prankster, or “little leprechaun”—as some of his friends called him—Mathieu approached his artistic projects very “intensely.” In high school he was particularly active in the student band, playing both clarinet and saxophone, and though he wouldn’t study visual art until much later, he was always drawing and painting. In 1999, Mathieu graduated from high school on the honour roll and enrolled at Laval University in Quebec City to study political science. He thrived in class discussions but become disillusioned with the partisan politics endemic on his campus. One year shy of getting his degree, he left Laval and enrolled in a fine arts program at the Université du Québec à Montreal.
What followed was swift recognition from professors and artists alike for his tongue-in-cheek conceptual art (a recent work, entitled Faceplant, is a canvas hanging backwards on a wall). In 2003, he met Juliana Berger, a design student who hung out in the apartment upstairs. “As soon as I met him, it was immediate,” says Juliana. “We were dating.” They married at city hall nine months later and collaborated on a French-language art book about fusing pranks with artistic expression.
Nearly all of Mathieu’s work from that point on was ironic and playful. An avid cyclist—“Mathieu has always been a bike rider for as long as I’ve known him,” says Juliana—one of his most famous installations, My Bike Disguised as Contemporary Art, featured his bicycle fastened to a canvas with a lock. Playing off his fear of bees, he plasticized a cluster of dead ones he collected at a bee farm and created an artificial swarm. “He had ideas nobody else had,” says Erika. He made a name for himself very quickly, with shows at notable Montreal galleries like Skol and Division, and in 2007 he was one of 25 artists selected to take part in the International Contemporary Art Symposium of Baie-Saint-Paul in Quebec.
But as time passed, and after he and Juliana split up, Mathieu found himself looking for new horizons. “He was really ambitious,” says his girlfriend, 24-year-old Chieu-Ann Le Van. “He wanted to pursue his career in New York.” In March 2010, after receiving a substantial Canada Council grant, Mathieu left Montreal for Brooklyn, and began showing at the Hole Gallery in New York’s Bowery district. As usual his work was well-received; he was scheduled to have two shows this November.
Despite the city’s relentless traffic, Mathieu continued to ride his bike. On Oct, 18, he was riding along Morgan Avenue in Brooklyn, near his group studio, when he was hit by a flatbed truck making a right turn. He was killed almost immediately. Mathieu was 30.