Stylus Magazine: Under the Covers - William Schaff

Take Cover: William Schaff

The following interview is from Copper Press magazine, issue # 22. 2004. Interview by Royce Deans.

William Schaff is not a man to shy away from some of the weightier matters of life. Throughout history, life has thrown us some heavy ones, and it continues to lob them at us at regular intervals. I suspect things are not likely to change anytime soon. Neither do I suspect that this resident of the smallest state in the union will cease to dive headlong into the arena of topics many of us would just as soon leave lay undisturbed.

Whether depictions of Holocaust victims or skull-faced beauty queens, it is obvious that you are not afraid to tackle subjects that we as humans can’t help but have deep feelings about, and in turn tend to guard them most heavily. If how people react to your work plays into the equation at all, what do you weigh out in your mind as you consider addressing an issue?

I guess the first thing that might get me to address an issue is how heavily it is weighing on my own mind. So much of my time spent in the studio is me figuring things out. Things that I find difficult to speak about in social settings. Also, to be honest, I am just not as articulate as I would wish when it comes to addressing certain things, and I find working on something visually often helps me figure out how to say things I want to orally.

You have been compared to a modern day Goya. How does that comparison make you feel?

Makes me feel a heck of a lot better than if I was compared to a modern day Bob Ross. I think Goya’s work was fantastic, powerful and poignant. So to have such a comparison made is very much appreciated.

Your Father has influenced your life and your art in many ways. Talk about him a little bit.

He died some four years ago, and his absence has made as much an impression on my life as his presence did. A very interesting man – complex like so many people. He was capable of amazing sensitivity, yet he seemed very tired at times with being patient and hopeful, falling back heavily on a sort of reactionary bitterness. He was a man of strong ideals who was an optimist at his core, yet that core seemed to be subjected to tests he had not counted on, and thus his optimism was not very present for a lot of my earlier memories of him. His attitude towards me changed a lot as he got older (he died at 57). I don’t know what did it, but it certainly opened me up to a man whom I found to be very impressive, creative, loving, as well as difficult. One thing he and my family have always been is very supportive of my efforts, even when it goes against things they think to be sensible, or when the images leave them confused or a bit concerned. He was an admirable man.

He was a military historian? As a profession or hobby?

By profession he was a musician (among other things). But his military knowledge and passion for its history was far more than a hobby. He collected mostly US World War II memorabilia. The entire top floor of our house had been taken over by him, and was always referred to as “the museum”, as it housed his collection of over thirty years. He had an extreme love for his country and those who served it. Impressively enough, he managed this without ever being jingoistic. I think I learned from his admiration and knowledge of these times the meaning of the word “sacrifice” in some of its greatest and most heart wrenching forms.

It is so interesting to be gripped with memories of an event that you didn’t personally live through. Granted, the Holocaust is one of those events that transcends all barriers of generations and time, and its impact doesn’t seem to lessen at all through the years. This is a good thing. There are so many places that one can go t learn about it and see images of the ugliness of it all. What was it about your experience with the Holocaust that you felt you need to share through your art?

Although I wasn’t aware of it at first (my first attempts at dealing with Holocaust memory was when I was around twenty years old) I think what I felt I needed to share was “my experience”. Not with the event itself, because as you said, I didn’t live through it, but my experience with al this memory – this overwhelming, crushing amount of documentation and memory is collected from those times. And then, of course, it became very entwined with the present as I would look all around and through out the rest of the 20th century, now into the 21st. I see echoes and repetitions of those times, both on a grand scale, and on the individual level. . When I read about the death of one, so graphically, so unfairly, the death of any others hit me just as strongly. It is life taken – it doesn’t matter whose, and many times the reasons are irrelevant.

The acceptance of death has become so ingrained in our minds that it means little to us. Even as I type this, there are those being killed in the Middle East, those starving in Asia, those dying of AIDS in Africa, those being beaten and raped in the U.S., and on and on it goes. Like old King Solomon said, “What has been done, will be done again”.

I sense that you are coming at all these difficult issues from a sense of respect rather than exploitation. It is so easy to find work that almost seems to celebrate what happened. What is your take on art that takes tragic moments and glorifies or revels in the inhumanity and or make light of the situation ?

I am not fully sure I understand the question, but thank you for the kind words about coming at all this from respect. I have found myself worried at times that this will not been seen. Humor is a necessity to our survival, but it has to be a wise person that can wield it at such times. While it can help us to survive, it can also diminish the pain of those around us, so I am not sure. I know such things as Roberto Benini’s film, Life is Beautiful, really bothered me. But that might have more to do with the fact that so many people my age (and younger) have any real knowledge or understanding of those times. So to have something like that film be one of the few representations of man’s suffering in the camps truly annoys me. . I thought the first half of the film was fantastic, and actually pretty accurate of how the Italian’s seemed to deal with Hitler’s demands that they enact the racial laws from Germany. The second half seemed dangerously inaccurate to me. Simplistic. Not to say there wasn’t gallows humor that was present in those imprisoned in the camps, but that humor was surrounded by a horror that the film came nowhere near to showing. As for people who revel in it, or glorify inhumanity, I would imagine that could be for so many different reasons. Some are just people sadly uninformed, innocently, yet tragically mislead about the value of everyone’s life. I feel pretty strongly that we, as a species, are extremely self destructive.

As long as we started out with the heavy hand, we may as well continue in the vein for a bit more. The drawings having to do with cancer are nearly as disturbing as “The Study in Memory” drawings. Though the pain and suffering is not inflicted by another human, the uncertainty and the surprising nature of this disease in all of its many faces is most haunting. Especially to those whose family members and loved ones have gone through the ordeal. The drawings that you did of your father are really special. How did doing them help you to deal with seeing your dad having to go through all the suffering?

The first ones I did when I spent the night in the hospital with him. It was a disturbing and difficult night. I remember thinking that I wanted to be awake if he ended up needing something through-out the night, so not knowing what else to do, I started drawing him. I continued doing that as he continued to decline in health. I just didn’t know what else to do when I was around him. I have always turned to drawing when I was sad, so I guess that it just makes sense that I was doing that when I was staying by his bedside. The cancer overcame him pretty quickly (five months from diagnosis to death), so by the time I started drawing him he was asleep a lot, or doped up from the medicines. When he was awake, he spoke little, and – at least around me – fairly incoherently. I seem to remember he was saying bizarre things a lot, and it was told to me that the cancer had probably reached his brain and was screwing up what he said when he tried to speak sometime. I am not very good at sitting still all the time, but I wanted to be near him when I was there, so drawing just made sense.

Did you share the drawings you did with him? If so, what did he think of them?

No, I don’t remember doing that. But, again, he was pretty out of it but the time I started drawing him. I miss him, very much.

Another theme that is most apparent in your work is that of your dog, or dogs. How do dogs figure so heavily into your art?

Well, they are starting to more and more. For the most part, they are such an everyday part of my life that they show up like all the other things do. The things I draw are really just what is around me, so it only makes sense the dogs are in there, too. One thing that excites me about when the dogs show up is that they are something that I truly love and am happy to see them in the works. They always seem to be offering something comforting to the figure in the pieces. For so many years, I have never felt a compulsion to draw things that made me feel happy. If I am happy, I can just tell you about it, so it doesn’t seem to make sense to me to spend time in the studio doing so. But once, while I was away on a trip, I was really missing the dogs. So I drew pictures of them to make me smile, and it worked! I was surprised and excited. I have since started several series focusing on the dogs, or friends and their dogs.

Though not all whimsical, there is an air of lightness, not unlike the Mexican All Saints Day celebrations in your skeleton collages. People dancing about with skull masks and other boney protrusions conjure up visions of evil spirits flitting about. What is going on in this portion of the great body of your work?

Different things. For the most part they are a more whimsical look at people and death (both spiritual and physical) I see existing with us. Are they funny or actually kind of sad? We are left to wonder if this is a celebration of the thing that everyone, no matter who they are, shares, or a nervous laugh in Death’s face, stemming from our own fears about this unstoppable event. I remember once looking at a photo of my dad shortly after he died and wondering if he had cancer in the photo. Imagine if when the photo had been developed he came out with a skull face. Or imagine if when you’re in an elevator if you are standing next to someone so sad they are planning on how to kill themselves that night. I kind of imagine that death has such a hold on them at that point that there is a skull on their face.

Admittedly, not all of the pieces are that weighty in their intent. Some of them are just kind of to bring a chuckle to me. They have also proven to be “bread and butter” pieces for me, as most of them don’t take long to make and thus can be sold cheaply. When you are looking at one of those pieces, think of yourself having a vision that no one else has, and therefore can see this. Then, ask yourself, how does death have a hold on this person, or how is the person causing death to another?

What is your spiritual or religious background?

I am a Christian. As for my background, I have spent most of my life looking at and listening to many religions, and became a Christian sometime around 8th grade. I have since spent the rest of my days trying to live up to what that means. I fail a lot.

You have done a lot of work on scratchboard. It looks like you continue to use that style as a mediumatic thread that runs though all of the different chapters of your artwork. What keeps you coming back to scratchboards?

I am just really fond of the medium. It is affordable and allows me to be really obsessive with the lines. I originally started doing it because of its affordability, and I could carry it in my bag as I would bike to work. Over the years I have started doing larger and larger boards and hope someday to be doing life sized boards. I have not become so crazy as to take that on yet. That’s a lot of little lines.

Do you make your own boards or do you buy commercially available boards?

I buy commercially available boards. As embarrassed as I am to admit it, I am just too lazy when it comes to making my own boards. I guess I am going to have to start, though, if I ever want to do those life sized ones I was talking about.

I must say that you have taken this art form, a favorite of many elementary school art students, to a very much higher level. Where do the characters come from?

The people in my images just come from what I see around me. Over the years I have focused in on certain repeating visual motifs (skulls in the eyes, bodies pouring out of orifices, etc., etc.) But honestly, when I look at a finished piece, I just see what I see outside my window, or in my mirror. Instead of just showing what I see, I try to show what I feel is actually there as well, maybe just not seen by everyone at first. Listen to kids who have grown up in ghettos in this country. Listen to them speak, and ask yourself, is it not a kind of death they are talking? Or Donald Rumsfeld, as he spoke before the Senate and House Armed services committee. That man was speaking about nothing but death – again, spiritual and physical – and each word may as well have been a body that he and all of us are responsible for.

The Sketchbook is something that an artist should never be too far away from. They are different things to different artists. What role does your sketchbook play in your life?

It goes in cycles. There will be periods where I do a lot of work in it, there will be periods where I don’t. For the most part, I write thoughts in it. Those words I mentioned earlier that don’t come out easily for me – writing them out helps me to figure out what I wish to say. Also, when I first come across things that I don’t know what to do with, sketching them in my book helps me to figure out which direction I might wish to go with them. Finally, there are times I just wish to draw some gorgeous flower I see, yet feel I don’t need to make a piece of it. My sketchbook gets a lot of birds, flowers and people I see sitting around me.

I don’t see a direct connection to Egon Schiele, but in some of your figure drawings the similarity is undeniable. What other artist have been important in shaping what you have become as an artist?

Ahhhh, the list! ‘Tis a dreaded list. One either goes on too lon, or just doesn’t include everyone. Schiele, Klimt, Beckmann – they taught me a lot about line and the figure. Sue Coe, Art Spielman, Sam Bak, Rene Magritte, Kathe Kollwitz – they have taught me a lot about content. Norman Rockwell, Ron English, Japanese painters and woodblock artist – they have taught me a lot about attention to detail. CW Roelle, Dan Blakeslee, Brian Chippendale, Jungil Hong, and Brian Ralph have taught me a lot about dedication. Diego Rivera, Stanley Spencer and old religious icons have taught me about composition. The list cold go on and on and I would probably bore you before I finished. And that’s just the 2D visual artists!

How important is it, in your opinion, for artists to be able to draw well? Even if they are going to be doing unrealistic work or collage?

I think it is very important. Art, if taken seriously, is a discipline. Before one can expand on a discipline, they need to know what they are expanding on. Imagine being able to speak a language, but not write it, or vice versa. Eventually, you will always run into limitations.

How has being able to draw the human figure helped you?

It has helped me very much. Knowing what to do and how to do it I feel has given me a better command over the figure when I start messing around with it, distorting it and the such. Since the figure is central to 98% of my work, I would be lost if I didn’t have som sort of aptitude at drawing it.

The art you have done for public consumption in the form of “little books” and envelopes is most engaging. On your website, you actually ask peole to write you and you say you will write them back. How important is the written word these days?

Very important. But when I say that, I actually mean to trade mail art with me – however they define that. Some folks actually write, which is nice, but most just send a decorated envelope with an address so I can send one back. It is an awful lot of fun and is one escape from all the weighty stuff I do.

Has e-mail made a mess of all this or has it made us more aware?

It has changed it, but I don’t know if I would say it has made a mess of it. I think the phone, and especially the cell phone has done more to mess with letter writing. At least Americans seem to always be willing to take the quicker, easier route if they can. I would think a writer could answer this better than me. I love letter writing, but have found it hard to find the time to sit down and write as much as many as I would like. Most of my mail art is just that – decorated envelopes with some images inside.

And the spoken word… your resume’ not only lists many, many shows and accomplishments, but you have spoken at universities as well as the United States Air Force Academy. What are you speaking about at these institutions?

I speak on whatever topic they want me to. My favorite so far was at the art school I went to. They had me back to give a talk about being an “artist” after art school. I got to stand there and see who was willing to work at Kinko’s, or be a pizza delivery boy. Stuff like that. It was funny to watch all the smiles in the room take a turn for the floor. Mostly in the talks I try to get the audience talking. Questioning them about art and interpretation, about how they might try and show something that I have dealt with I don’t feel I am all that different from most folks. People sometimes seem to think I am becuase of the imagery I use to represent my thoughts, but it is always interesting to see how folks would show something if given the chance to.

As if your seemingly bottomless collection of work wasn’t enough, you have ventured into the time consuming world of stop-animation. What took you in that direction?

A friend of mine came over one night with a camera that had a button for stop animation. I was very excited and she let me borrow it for the night. That first night was when “Pim Goes to the Park” was made. I was super excited by the medium and made the other Pim films based on some things I was dealing with at the time. But then she stopped lending me her camera. Plus, I don’t know how to use the editing program. I think I was becoming a hassle for her, constantly asking if we could sit down and edit this or that. I worked out a half hour long sequel to the three shorts, but have never been able to shoot it. So if you know anyone that wants to donate a camera, please put them in touch with me. I can figure out the editing part afterwards.

Is Pim you? Or is he the common man?

Both. I am he common man.