© Ward Schumaker and Figure/Ground Communication
Ward Schumaker was interviewed by Dr. Julia Schwartz on November 21st, 2012
Ward Schumaker has shown in New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, UC Berkeley, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.. His work is included in the collections of painters Eric Fischl + April Gornick; novelist Isabel Allende; television commentator Rachel Maddow + photographer Susan Mikula; sculptor Cris Gianakos; and gallerists Ivan Karp + Marilyn Gelfman Karp. In Los Angeles Schumaker is represented by the George Lawson Gallery; in Nashville by Zeitgeist; and in Shanghai by Stir. His current show, Dumb Boxes, is on view at George Lawson Gallery in Los Angeles from 17 November until 22 December 2012. He currently lives in New York with his wife, the artist Vivienne Flesher.
What attracted you to the arts? What were your earliest experiences of making art?
There was never a time that I didn’t identify with being an artist; it seems to have been an inborn identity. As early as the first or second grade I
would request permission to skip recess in order to paint, and in third grade I would remain after school to make pictures because my teacher’s husband made it his habit to pick her up each night and at that time he would critique my work. His words fell on thirsty ears, as my father was not one to compliment his sons. I wanted so much to please this guy and I assumed that as a man he would enjoy “pretty women.” I didn’t know how to draw “pretty women” but I did know how to draw bunnies, so I drew bunnies in harem costumes. Scores of them. Perhaps hundreds. When he hung one in their kitchen, I felt I had truly made it.
Can you describe your firsts projects/exhibitions?
In 1965 I was 22 years old and I needed $400 for the tuition of my last semester of school. I chanced upon a notice in the art department: The Nebraska Governor’s Art Competition, $400 Purchase Prize. I somehow immediately knew I would win. At the same time, I realized the one-color paintings I’d been doing wouldn’t pass muster in such a contest, so I recreated some Renaissance masterpieces in a pop art style (which had just hit the Mid-West). One of them was judged first-place but after the judges had left the state, officials and the governor decided my painting of one figure actually contained three figures, and that the three were committing depraved sexual acts. It was suggested I might prefer removing my work from the competition rather than be jailed for attempting to sell pornography. Out of the kindness of their hearts, the officials offered to pay me the $400, and an extra $25. (Was that some kind of tip?) I accepted their offer, finished school, and left the state. For the most part I also stopped doing, or at least stopped showing, my personal art for the next thirty-five years. At the age of 35 I did, however, begin illustrating for a living, a field akin to art; it wasn’t what I’d imagined for myself when I was young, but at least I got to draw full-time, and I was relatively successful. When I hit the age of 57, my second wife, artist Vivienne Flesher, and my son Matthew suggested I begin painting again. A gallerist from Shanghai saw some of the work and offered me a show.
Can you describe your rituals or routines in the studio––i.e. daily painting versus sporadic, music, etc?
A few months before my son was born, I hosted a meditation group in our house. That’s when I learned to meditate and I’ve done it almost daily
ever since, about 40 years. It seems to me that my best work has been done when I’ve been most successfully involved with my meditation practice, though I’m open to idea that it’s actually the other way around: that the joy I get from successful painting may be the author of successful meditation. The two seem bound together tightly. Not to say that I have an unflagging faith in either. I am filled with doubts about both.
Most often, my meditation consists of sitting each day for twenty minutes, eyes shut, spine upright, repeating a phrase I deem particularly appealing, benevolent, even sacred (the words vary from time to time). Or walking. Much of my best work has been done during periods of daily walking meditation of about one-hour’s duration, repeating a mantra or prayer of some sort.
I do not necessarily believe in God, certainly not a god I can define, and I don’t know what it is that happens when I meditate. It could be I simply reach a deeper part of my Self; or perhaps there is actually Something-Else-Out-There, listening and helping. I would love to know the answer, but I don’t expect to understand, ever. Some things you just do because they work.
What would you say is the impact of your personal life on your work? What about other external influences? Place, politics, family, etc.
I can’t explain what has caused my work to change so much this year, but it has coincided with moving from San Francisco to Manhattan. New York, for me, has been like waking up; I’d lived in California 45 years; perhaps I come to take too much for granted. The move also coincided with a decision to complete sculptures I’d first mocked up in 1966, in my first apartment, in San Francisco; they became the project I’d work upon in my first New York studio. So it’s been a time of completion, as well as change. I find New York to be one of the most generous places I’ve ever lived, similar to the way San Francisco appeared to me in the 60s. People here are considerate and polite, there’s so much intelligence––and funny, New Yorkers are really funny. It’s a joy to live here with them. And there is no escape; in New York, one is always with them. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to my artwork if we return to San Francisco in 2013 (as was the original plan).
Can you describe what you’re working on now?
The wood sculptures I call dumb boxes were first started 46 years ago! At that time I created them in cardboard, with pins and tape and press-type. When I revisited the forms this last year (after all this time, I remembered the exact measurements!) I had them constructed out of wood and I covered the surfaces with gesso, paint, transfers, and type made from hand-cut stencils. It was a time in which we had not only moved across the country to New York, but also one in which I lost a brother, and, temporarily, the vision in one eye––so I was emotionally fraught at times. As I approached each dumb (that is, mute) form, I revisited emotionally heightened events: our family’s battle with another brother’s polio, the death of a young aunt due to leukemia, early (and unwise) religious teachings; plus other types of events, too: the joy of the music of Nino Rota and the films of Federico Fellini, the quiet of meditation, the wonders of 20thcentury art. The intention was to invest these dumb forms with emotion. I enjoy their squat solidity, their refusal to show off, their quiet speech. For me, they work. I hope they do for others, as well.
With the move to New York, my painting has changed, too––it’s smaller and cleaner––and I’m trying to figure out where to go with that. I miss the large messiness of the past, but I’m intrigued by the more tightly defined imagery that seems to want to be painted right now. And text: it seems to be disappearing. I don’t know why. But I’m the last to predict what comes next, as I’ve been so wrong, so often, in the past.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is that my wife and I are trying to decide: can we really leave New York? At the same time: are we ready to give up San Francisco? Many people have told us that to live in New York one must be ready to give up so much. Others have cautioned that to live anywhere else, one has to give up New York. What’s one to do?
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