The Impossible, Beautiful World of William Schaff


William Schaff makes beautiful art. The Rhode Island-based artist and musician is best known for his album covers for bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Okkervil River, but he builds and shapes his distinctive firmament across prints, paintings, embroidery, wood cuts, sculptures, and more.

Engaging with Schaff’s artwork is unusual because it doesn’t look like anything else. Schaff’s pieces acknowledge the intrinsic power of the image and its essentially supernatural effectiveness, providing an antidote to the great mass of contemporary corporate advertising, which tends to aspire no further than to convey a competent neutrality through its images.

Following this conceptual path — or, really, walking this walk — can have interesting effects on an artist and, for Schaff, it’s especially true. His artwork is not quite in our world. Clearly Schaff’s pieces do exist in our time but they live far outside of what Ernst Jünger called the zeitstil, the style of our times. Instead, Schaff’s work makes its home in the interstitial space between our waking life and our dream life, firmly mining the psychedelic landscapes of fairy tale and myth, where opaque, bizarre, and cruel rules gnarl and twist bodies and emotions into odd shapes. Every detail is meaningful regardless of how well understood its relationship is to any other detail.

“Cornered Eagle”

Schaff’s work is sticky and hard to shake, parasitic in the best possible sense, a wilderness governed by things that seem familiar but you can’t quite place. Contradictions and impossibilities are rife. Of course, this mirrors art’s role in our culture and our lives too — it’s never completely systematized nor integrated. People mobilize one norm for one occasion and an opposing norm for another occasion, undisturbed by their contradictory storylines. In the same way, Schaff leads us to everywhere, inside and outside, with bloom and wilt, with love and pain, to show us ourselves.

He was kind enough to chat with us from his studio.

What are you working on today?
I just finished an embroidery for the upcoming release of Brown Bird‘s final album.

What does make the rest of your day look like?
Kind of confusing at the moment! I have a bunch of projects I’m supposed to be doing and I’m trying to figure out which one to jump into.

How does that process work? Do you have an organized process when you are in this situation or do you take an ad hoc, kind of by feel approach?
Yeah, it’s probably the latter. If it’s a commissioned piece that I’m working on, then I take them in order of who put down the down payment first. For the most part. There’s one guy who put his down payment down last year and I still haven’t started his piece! Every time I go to start it, I think I want to try something else, so in the end, it just hasn’t been started.

It’s now just projects that I’m behind on, that I owe for people who have joined the mail order club or print of the month club, so I should probably start working on those.

How do you address promotion or marketing?
Probably not well. I’ve been wanting an agent for awhile now, but two problems come up with that. Most any agent that you could approach and would say yes is probably not worth his salt. The other problem is that I have really particular terms when I work with people and I don’t know if an agent would want to work with those terms.


What are the terms?
The first sentence to anything that I send out is that I don’t do illustration. Meaning if they have an idea they can picture me doing, I’m not their guy because I’ll never be able to see what’s inside their head. Basically, it gets to the point of saying you contacted because you know my stuff and you like it, so trust that you’ll like what I do for you. And I’m willing to take themes, but I just really try to stay away from being someone else’s hands, where they can picture something perfectly but they want me to do it.

That makes it difficult for some jobs because I also don’t send sketches either. Especially with commercial clients, they want to see what you’re thinking. But I won’t send sketches and they’ll see the piece when it’s done. They give me half down and, if they like what’s done, then they pay the other half and they get the image.

Has your approach evolved over time or was that always the approach you’ve taken?
No. I came to that after doing commercial illustrations for a few years for magazines. I just hated the process so much and what you were getting paid was never worth the time and revisions and all this jazz. And I was always left with all this work I didn’t care about after the piece was finished, stuff that I would never show anyone. So I decided I’m only going to do stuff that I’m okay with if I still have it.

what_is_humanInteresting. It’s almost both a personal and a political act, because those are not the terms the commercial industry operates on.
Yeah, and it’s lost me jobs. I’ve had people approach me when I’ve sent them my terms who say “Thanks, we can’t work with this.” But for me, again, I’d rather not have that job because I remember that too often you’ll spend however long working on a drawing and send it in and someone says, “That’s great, but can you change this?” And it’s like I could if redrew the whole damn picture but now I’m doing two pictures for one!

You know, when you them send sketches —  my sketches are loose lines that I recognize — but most people don’t see what I’m seeing in it. It just becomes a real hassle.

Do you feel that’s because each of your pieces is so personal?
I think there’s a lot of that. I think the pieces are far stronger when the people just let me do what’s coming out of my head as opposed to, like I said, trying to illustrate an idea that I don’t have any attachment to.

Switching gears. Do you practice? How do you stay sharp?
I just don’t stop. Even if I’m drawing a blank on what I should be doing with a piece or how to start a piece, I’ll just go do something like mail art, which for the most part is whimsical and, you know, fairly meaningless, but it’s fun to do and it keeps me drawing. So I just never have a day where I’m not drawing.

So how do you unwind? Do you unwind through the same way you create, just at a different scale?
That’s a good question. I don’t think so. For me, when I’m feeling tired, I’ll just go to sleep and then wake up and start again. And then on those days when I feel like I’ve done enough, maybe I’ll just go to the bar. I’ll be working at the bar and — I guess I do unwind slowly. I’m always drawing something.

maybe_we_make_God_Sad_and_LonelyDo you have favorite tools?
Not really. I have tools I prefer to use over others, but none that scream the word favorite.

What’s your studio like?
It used to be a bar. It’s basically 20ft x 40ft. It’s kind of broken into two rooms, one larger than the other. In the back room we do screen printing and stenciling. In the front, it’s got my work desk and a few other work spaces and then a big open space with pieces of mine that haven’t sold yet.

You receive visitors there regularly?
That’s happening now. As a matter of fact, I have someone who is here for the week. I did a fundraising campaign a few months back and — I was in foreclosure again, this building has gone into foreclosure three times now — getting sick of constantly going into foreclosure and getting out of foreclosure and always being behind, I did a fundraising campaign to basically fund the building. One, get me out of foreclosure, and two, create enough of a stock that I never have to worry about falling into foreclosure.

And god bless the people who responded, because it worked.

Some of the levels you could contribute at, the rewards you would get would be to either spend a day here where we work together or some people spend a weekend. The person who’s here now is here for the week. Depending on how much you paid, you could stay longer and we work together.

Congratulations. Has that led to some interesting collaborations with people in your studio?
No, not so much collaborations. I rarely collaborate. This is more people who had been in involved in the arts at one point, got out of it, but wanted to spend a time really focusing on it. Some who are young, emerging artists who just wanted to see how I worked, so they’d be working on their own pieces while I’d be working on mine.

“Salt for Salt”

In terms of collaboration, you’ve worked with a number of musicians over the years. Has your approach to collaborating with them changed over time?
No, because the collaboration that exists is really just the merging of the visuals with the music. Except for Will Sheff of Okkervil River, I never really collaborate with the musicians in the sense of other than asking for them for a theme they’d like me to think on while I make my piece. That’s it. Then I go ahead listening to their music over and over again while I’m working on the piece, which often amazes me how many of these records stand up to being heard 30, 40 times in a row.

songs_ohia_owl_pieceI would say that’s certainly true for Songs:Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co. (right) and Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy. So what is in it for you?
What’s in it for me? Doing art?

Yes. What do you get out of it?
Probably a more sane life than I’d get if I wasn’t doing it. For me, it originally was — and I still get to do this more than if I was at another job — a way to figure shit out. If I had a question about something, while I was working on a piece regarding that something, it’s like mulling it over in your mind and hopefully coming up with better questions to maybe get closer to a decent answer.

Big themes and big questions or even small themes and small questions?
I guess it depends. What do you consider a small theme?

Fair enough! What if others wanted to be like you? What skills should they develop?
There’s a lot of technical craft that I’ve practiced over the years to get to what I’m doing now. So start with the foundations and learn them. I think it’s amazing when you see people that do art that really aren’t schooled and, you know, that’s great. But at the same point, I think some of the people who can break the rules the best are those who know what the rules are. If you look at the greats from the past, no matter what direction they went in, they all started originally just learning how to do their craft.

That would be the only thing I’d recommend, because anything else about my life is really not worth repeating. No one should want to do that!

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Eric Meltzer is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.