Thursday, June 17, 2010

Portrait Swap #2: William Schaff

At two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, Will Schaff was drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes and drawing me. He had a good-sized piece of paper set up on and easel and worked on the portrait with a lot of energy. His eyes flicked rapidly between my face and the pencil portrait he was creating. He stepped back to study me for a second or two then lunged forward to make more marks.

“Boy, I’m out of practice,” He said. “It’s been ten years since I did this. I use to draw from models all the time, but I never do any more.”

I had asked Will to do this portrait swap as a way of getting to know him better as an artist. I think of him as a young artist and wanted to compare him to myself as an old artist. I also hold the opinion that he is one of the best artists in Rhode Island. I’m going to describe some of his work, but there is no substitute for looking at it. I urge you to visit his website.

When I described to Will what I wanted to do, he said, “I’m 37 so you are older, but I’m living fast. The way I live is hard on my body. I smoke a lot and drink a lot and I don’t see that changing. My father died from lung cancer when he was 56. You could out live me.”

We met in his studio in Warren. The storefront space is also Will’s gallery and apartment. Every square inch of wall is taken up with his artwork. Adding to the visual intensity of the room are collections of esoteric objects that often find their way into all the forms Will’s art making takes: drawings, paintings, embroideries, scratchboards, dioramas, and books. Prominent among the objects that Will surrounds himself with are bones, skulls in particular, religious statues from a variety of faiths, keys, masks, and toys.

It was my impression that Will brought the same level of intensity that he showed while drawing me to everything he did. However, when it was my turn to draw him, he was a surprisingly good model. Who would have thought that a guy with so much electricity running through his circuits could calm himself down and sit so still?

In any meeting with Will there are bigger paradoxes than this to resolve.

I said to Will, “It seems to me there is less separation between you life and your art than with anyone else I know.”

He muttered something I didn’t quite get. He may have said, “That explains a lot.”

It wasn’t until a later meeting that I asked him to clarify what he had said.

“It could explain why I’m broke, why I’m cranky, why I’m socially inept.”

Before Will made the decision to do his art full time, without back-up employment, he had been a parking lot attendant, a pizza delivery man, a construction worker, a photocopy guy at Kinkos and, for ten years, a bouncer and head of security at Lupo’s.

“My mother was happier,” he said. “Sometimes I even had health insurance, but I was always broke and I wasn’t making much art. So I decided I might as well be broke and make all the art I want to.”

For most of my life I have been a part time artist, very consistent, very dedicated, but only doing it a couple of days a week. While I have made art my whole life, I also had a career in public education, raised a family, and worked on political causes. I lacked the singularity of purpose that Will brings to his work. With no sense of regret, I sometimes speculate what my life would have been like if I had opted in 1967 to move to Avenue C, paint all day, and hang out at Max’s Kansas City all night. Maybe I would have been buddies with Larry Rivers, Richard Serra, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Maybe, one night after a Patti Smith concert, I would have slept with Dorthea Rockham or Carolee Schneeman or Ray Johnson or Robert Mapplethorpe, maybe with all of them, maybe with all of them at the same time. Maybe by now museums would be lining up to pay Gagosian six figures for my rooster paintings.

I’ll never know what would have happened if I had thrown myself into art making in NYC, in 1967, with the same energy and single mindedness that Will puts into his now.

I told Will this fantasy of an alternative life and asked him if he had any. He said, “Yeah. I’d like to live in a little house in the woods. Forty-five minutes from whiskey and cigarettes. No nearer. No further.”

There is a reoccurring image in Will’s artwork. It is of a cascade of corpses or skeletons, clearly echoing the piles of dead bodies familiar to us from the holocaust and all the other genocides that have occurred since the invention of photography. Will studied the Nazi genocide of World War II. His arms are tattooed with the names of the death camps. He also did deep studies of atrocities in Cambodia and Vietnam. In many paintings and drawings he shows the dead pouring forth from the orifices of a central figure. They are vomited from wide-open mouths, spurt from ears, noses, and eye sockets. In some particularly powerful images, pregnant women give birth to streams of carnage. It is as though the subject of the drawing, who is often themselves mangled or deformed, has been force-fed on atrocities and can no longer hold them in. A kind of projectile purging takes place, but there is no end to the sorrow and horror that pours forth.

Will is a Christian. He is deeply thoughtful about his faith. It is imperative to him to pay attention to man’s inhumanity to man. He said, “Everyone should have my tattoos. Pick your genocide. It doesn’t matter which one. There are so many to choose from. The important thing is never to forget.”

This is the same guy who regularly dresses up as “Chop Chop the Chimp” and beats drums while marching through the streets with an eighteen-piece brass band named What Cheer? Brigade. The group does up to three performances a weekend and will be touring in Europe soon. This is not your average marching band. Their latest album is entitle, “We Blow, You Suck.” Injuries have occurred. Lungs have collapsed. Will explained, “I can get away with so much more as a cute drumming chimp than I could as me.”

Will is given to making misanthropic statements like, “I don’t really like people.” When I said that my experience with him was different than that, he said, “This isn’t easy for me. This is work.”

Will has mentored one of my high school students all year. He uses her as a studio assistant, but also gives her time, space and materials to do her own work. He is gentle and encouraging to her, like the best big brother you can imagine. From week to week you can see her artwork gain confidence and complexity.

Later in the conversation about misanthropy, Will said, “Maybe I say things like that to lower peoples expectations. I know I can be an asshole. When people find that out, I don’t want them to be disappointed.”

Will’s most tender and loving drawings are of his late dog, Corrina. She came into his life at a rough time, just after a divorce he didn’t see coming. He had her for six years before she died of a tick born blood disease. He said that with Corrina, “I never thought I was alone. If I took her to the bar, I wasn’t drinking alone. If she was in my bed, I wasn’t sleeping alone.”

There are several portraits of Corrina done in cut paper. Like all of Will’s work, they are wonderfully observed and executed with great skill and commitment, but beyond the technical level, they have an unquestionable intimacy that is very moving. Great pictures of a great dog.

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