Yearly Archives: 2009

Just Like Heaven

100 years at Ox-Bow School of Art.

I’m driving back from Saugatuck now, leaving the forested dunes of the Michigan coastline, rounding the southern shore of the Great Lake.

At I-90 the traffic builds and the pace thickens. 70mph turns to 80-sometimes-90 and the familiar industrial landscape returns. Steel mills, chemical plants, and refineries belch like giant robots mired on an oily beach. The pavement begins to beat with an anxious pulse, past Bethlehem Steel and the Cal Sag Channel. In the distance, the thumping Metropolis of Chicago emerges from its hazy horizon.

But behind me lays a lush green secret and hidden place, a forested Artist’s Haven called Ox-Bow School of Art. The main building at Ox-Bow is an old Inn, secluded on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. The Inn is sheltered by the massive sand dunes behind Oval Beach on one side, and a fortuitous Ox-Bow-shaped lagoon on the other.

You know how there are some places so mystical, so unbelievably cool, so authentic and so real, that you hesitate to even tell people about it because you think those people will just put it on TV and make it all crowded and ruined? Well Ox-Bow School is one of those places. And I’m telling you about it now only because I know you are an Art Lover and worthy of knowing. And you are now similarly sworn to protect the secret, so please share it only with others who are worthy.

Ox-Bow School was originally founded in 1910, by two Artists from the Art Institute of Chicago. After a century of careful guidance and donations from generous Benefactors, Patrons, Artists, and Art Lovers, the original Inn (which dates back to Civil War days), and 115 acres of virgin forest are preserved and transformed into a modern day compound of cabins, workshops, and state-of-the-art Artist’s studios. The entire compound is now protected under the stewardship of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
from, the poshest parts of the Saugatuck resort area.

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Collecting Art …the flaws that make it perfect.

Peter Mars Interviews Philadelphia Pop Artist Jeff Schaller

Peter Mars: People are always asking me, “What other artists do you like?” or, ” Whose work do you collect?” so let me just say here, My collection is real eclectic and diverse. I buy what I like, and then once I know it, i want more of of that same artist. Sometimes repeatedly and obsessively and right up and until my wife takes away my credit card. But i think alot of collectors will relate to me here, some work is so powerful, you just feel like “too much” could never be enough.

Right now, I’m into Patricia Ryan, Wesley Willis, Howard Finster, Lee Godie, Jeff Schaller, Jay Ryan, Paul Garner, Ed Paschke, RA Miller, Mark Shepherd, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth. There are many others I want to add, but collecting is a lifelong passion, so I still have time. Collecting pop art is an Art form of its own. Bringing new Art into your house is so much fun. And good Art just ages like a fine wine, it only gets better.

Jeff Schaller is a pop artist whose work I just love. He lives in Philadelphia. I met Jeff because his friend Burton Morris is a fellow pop artist, shows at the same New York gallery that I do. And Schaller and I and Burton Morris did some collaborative pop art works together as well. You can see some background on Jeff at

Here is my interview of Jeff Schaller.

PM: To me, perfection in art is as boring as it is in real life. And I like to see the real heart, the real hand of the artist in a painting. Pablo Picasso’s observation that, “Computers are useless because they can only give you answers.” really rings true for me in art. The flaw of the computer being its very own flawlessness. But what are your thoughts on perfection?
Jeff Schaller: Ahhh, the unachievable perfection that drives me nuts. Actually, I like perfection and strive for it. It’s the faults, gestures, and steps to achieve perfection that I really like. In a way it is keeping track of the failures. When I make pop art I like to keep the brush strokes, marks, and scratches in there. It is a way of recording the journey to perfection. It’s the flaws that make it perfect!

PM: I love any art that looks so easy to do that the viewer doesn’t even realize the difficulty level. The same viewer that watches an Olympic athlete “effortlessly” jump a high bar, and thinks “my kid could do that,” will look at a successful painting, and think that same thought. And if the athlete or artist is skilled enough, the moves look deceptively graceful and easy. And sure with 20 or 30 years of practice, maybe their kid could do it… in any case, on the surface it just looks that easy. I love that, it gives me a rush to see that in pop art, and I see that in your art. Is it something that you consciously study or aspire to?
Jeff Schaller: Yes, I think it is important to make it look effortless, especially with encaustics. A painting can get really thick and built up quickly. It’s the confidence of making a mark with the brush that gives me a rush. It’s just making sure that every continuous brush mark there after looks as confident. Sometimes the best paintings are the ones that were the easiest and took the least amount of time. Well, that is, the least amount of time on the easel. There is 39 years of practice and confidence that moves the hand to make that mark. When some say to me, “I could of done that, I reply, but you didn’t and I did. Now you can’t because I did and that would be copying”.

PM: Good answer! On the other end of that scale, you do use a lot amazing techniques in your work, and your paintings also give me that wonderful, “how the hell did he do that?” chill running down my back. Tell me about some of your favorite techniques.
Jeff Schaller: Ha! That goes back to making it look easy. It’s a mixture of practice and not knowing what I’m doing. One time while teaching an encaustics class a student commented that I paint like I’m using oils. She said she never thought of painting encaustics like that. I never knew that there was a right or wrong way to paint with encaustics. I just love the medium. Oh, I could go on and on about how I love encaustics but we probably don’t have enough time. One of my favorite techniques is painting with a thin layer of wax and a little bit of pigment, kind of like glazing in oils. See there I go again, I don’t know the difference.

PM: Describe your studio, what do you think makes the ideal environment for making paintings?
Jeff Schaller: My studio looks like a barn. It has the red metal roof with a cupola and a board and batten front stone patio. It fits right into the “country” feel. But don’t let the appearance fool you. It’s all brand new. When we bought the house 5 years ago it was my dream to build a studio. I wanted lots of room, open space, and lots of windows so I could look outside. My painting area is small (about 8 x 10) but I have the space to lay things out, step back, and dance around. The beauty of it is that the studio is close enough that I can leave projects out and let them sit while I contemplate them at the house. Since the distance is so minute I can easily return to my art to contemplate some more with the work in front of me.

PM: How did you get started making pop art?
Jeff Schaller: I think I knew I wanted to make art in kindergarten. It was, and still is the only thing I am really good at. In school I learned I could get good grades on bad reports if I had a great cover. So I drew great covers. I realized that all the bullies on the play yard wore jean jackets. I painted images on the backs of them like “Iron Maiden” and skulls, and things then charged them for it! College was the same, but then I was dealing with groups and clubs. I realized that if I designed a club’s logo, t-shirt, or poster, I could make some extra cash. So I kept making art. and i guess at the time i didn’t really realize it was “pop art”

PM: Tell me about your years of study in London.
Jeff Schaller: Oh, London was great. When I was over there for the semester the students boycotted the school and it was shut down. I had class for about 2 weeks before it closed. It reopened a few weeks before the semester was out, so the school work was easy. The greatest piece of advice I got was from the art teacher. He said, “don’t take the tube to school. Walk or take the bus, you’ll see more”. He was right.

PM: How do you decide when an artwork is “done”?
Jeff Schaller: This is the biggest problem. It seems like I’m always one brush stroke away from either a masterpiece or a disaster. I guess it’s that feeling that you can’t do anything else to it. There are some paintings that scream, “I’m done”. Those are the best. When there is not one more brush stroke that would make it any better, I sign my name right away. There are others that sit and wait. Eventually they will get touched up or I add my signature “word”. It’s always the text that I add last this seems to bring it all together. Signing the piece really finalizes it for me.

PM: Describe what it is like being the center of attention at a big show in Switzerland.
Jeff Schaller: I compare it to David Hasseloff in Germany. Here in the U.S. he is on Baywatch. In Germany he sings and he’s a rock star, but we don’t know that. Switzerland is great. They really appreciate the beauty of the wax and the difficulty of the process. I actually have people waiting in lines for openings. That totally blows my mind.

PM: Well, the surfaces of your works are really wonderful so I can easily understand that kind of hype, but tell me, do you have a final vision of work before you start it or are you kind of just making it up as you go along?
Jeff Schaller: I make it up as I go along. Wow! (an honest answer) I find an image I like and feel inspired to paint it. The process of moving colored wax around to replicate the image is a fun part of the journey to a completed painting. The best part is adding “the word”. That gives me the Aha! Moment. When the association of word and image come together the meaning of the image can change entirely. When it’s placed accordingly it makes the whole composition come together. Hopefully after that, the painting is done and the journey is over. Then it’s time to pick up another board and start again.

PM: Even though there certainly is a dark side to this new era of Global war, terrorism and uncertainty. Sure I’m a product of my environment, but I see the Pop Artists as maybe providing the comic relief, our way reassuring people to stay hopeful. What do you think about this?
Jeff Schaller: Yes, I agree. I try not to involve politics or worldly affairs into my art. I really just paint what I like. Just look at my paintings and you’ll know what I like.

PM: One of my favorite gallery owners (Bruce Cutean of Thirdstone) once told me he believes that artworks contain a type of magic, that is put into them by the energy of the artist’s hands, and that energy stays inside the painting forever. What do you think about this?
Jeff Schaller: Is he still around? Is he looking for a new artist? I think it’s in the viewer. If they can see the magic in the painting then it really works. They are looking at a compilation of my thoughts, my experience, my brush strokes, and yes, the energy I put into it.

PM: I spent a lot of time working with some of these artists like Howard Finster and Wesley Willis who were untrained, Outsider, or whatever you want to call it. How do you explain that parts of making art are simply innate, and already “in us” and then other parts are learned and take many years of intense practice to master?
Jeff Schaller: It’s the talent that’s “in us” that creates the art. It’s the mastery of the tools that allows us to make art. Four years of art school doesn’t make you an artist it teaches you how to use the tools.

Peter Mars: Many musicians, dancers and visual artists describe entering a trancelike state of mind during periods of performing or making art. Does this happen to you?
Jeff Schaller: Yeah, I love it! I think it’s called “flow” when everything is going right. It’s a perfect flight of continuously perfect brush strokes. I really think I’m addicted to it. It is one of the reasons that I go to the easel and paint. Sometimes I swear it’s a fairy that comes by with magic dust. I really have to figure out her schedule.


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Let Them Eat Cake

When Studio Manager Kim Shay and I went looking for advice on developing a new inventory system, we immediately thought of calling Rebecca Williams. Rebecca worked for us at The Gallery for several years and now works for the The Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most incredible museums on earth.

On a daily basis Rebecca keeps tabs on the comings and goings of hundreds of the most beautiful and historically important art objects in the entire world. Each priceless item must be carefully tracked as it is loaned out to another museum, or becomes part of a traveling show, or is simply grouped for display within its home museum. We wanted to learn some of her secrets for keeping track of such important art objects. So we took a tour of her office and then walked out into the exhibition spaces to look at some of her recently installed exhibitions.

Marie Antoinette's dinnerplates

We saw incredible Biedermeier furniture, gorgeous objects of every description, silver, porcelain, glass, and gold. Objects that clearly belonged to royalty. Then she showed us one showstopper. A plate actually owned by Marie Antoinette, that caused me to think back to those wild days of the French Revolution, when Marie Antoinette and her doomed King briefly escaped Paris in a horse driven carriage. We all know what happened next, but just to be standing next to one of the plates these people ate dinner off, is really a trip. This little dinner plate was at The Revolution. And this one plate is just inventory “item number such-and-such” in a huge database of thousands of other noteworthy items, that the museum has to keep a close eye on.

Since we manage an inventory of contemporary paintings, the systems for handling these inventories have alot in common and colleagues can learn alot by sharing ideas in place in galleries, museums, and private collections.

So Thank You Rebecca for showing us around, we promise to come back and take you out for lunch as soon as the weather gets nice!

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Walking with Elvis

The next morning I eat breakfast at a diner, and start to walk down to Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley recorded his first two gold records. As I walk the same streets of Memphis that Elvis walked, it is easy to understand why so many fans report that Elvis is as alive as ever. His presence is simply too powerful to fade.

Throughout these visits to Memphis and in the paintings I’m making, I literally feel that Elvis is walking with me, taking me down the side streets down Monroe Street. He shows me the old Wonder Bread Bakery, and Walker’s Radiator Works, and tells me stories as we stop and watch the trolleys pass Orleans Station. At 706 Union Ave. we come to the door of a very modest little building. This little storefront is the legendary Sun Studio, the original office of the “Memphis Recording Service.”

Elvis tells me that he first entered this door in 1953, a nervous unknown teenager with a cheap guitar. I walk over and grab hold of the doorknob to the office. Its staggering history pulses through me.

Other members of the Million Dollar Quartet, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash also touched this doorknob. Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, BB King, Little Milton, Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas, Howlin, Wolf, all held this same doorknob, opened it, and entered History by recording many of the most iconic tracks of their era in the small recording studio inside. Inspired record producer Sam Phillips, opened Sun Studio in 1950. With his patient ear he created a nurturing environment for the artists to come in and work their magic. After Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner recorded Rocket 88 at Sun in 1951, Sun Studio was widely acclaimed as the birthplace of Rock and Roll.

In an era when most big-city recording dates were run military-style, typically four cuts in three hours. The clock did not bind Phillips. He owned the studio and the label. And would roll tape until he caught magic.

Country, Blues and Rockabilly stars also recorded there. The list of names is shocking. Little Milton, Junior Parker, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, B.B. King, James Cotton and Rosco Gordon all recorded there in the early 1950s. Others like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Feathers, Ray Harris, Warren Smith, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis, signed to the Sun Records label and recorded there throughout the latter 1950s.

I had to get back to Graceland for a meeting so I bid them all farewell, and called a cab from the gas station.’

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Home of The King

I love Memphis but the cab ride is cold, and I’m headed for a two-star hotel downtown, so I keep my fingers crossed. I’m back in town to do an exhibit at Graceland Mansion, another at Jay Etkin Gallery downtown, and a second Sirius Satellite Radio interview.

The lobby is low frills. It has the feel of an airport rental-car counter. A uniformed valet sleeps in an armchair near the door, pretending to read a magazine that now flops on his knee. Across the courtyard I notice a rib joint all glassed in with big windows all steamy and inviting looking. Is it just a mirage? The vision of a real Memphis Bar-b-que joint, right in the carport of my hotel really looks too good to be true.

I give the menu board a dazed stare, when a pretty little hostess touches my arm and says something that ends with “Baby.” My mind trips a switch and I’m back in the years I lived in New Orleans. I miss these simple little southern kindnesses, so rarely heard in the northern cities, These Baby, Darlin things. “Pardon Me?”

“What can i get for you, Sugar?” she smiles, pulling my mind back into the room. In the City of Broad Shoulders, they don’t play it that way. You’re more likely to get the thousand-yard stare, which is supposed to mean something like, “what do you need, hurry up, there’s a bunch of other people behind you, and you’re workin my nerves”. But this is Memphis now. And certain social graces apply. Of all the things I miss about living in the South, these social graces and this “What can I get you Baby-Darlin-Sugar” stuff is right up there near the top of the list. I miss that a lot.

“I just want some ribs or a sandwich or something, what’s really good tonight?” “Well the ribs are always good” she replies in the same melodious drawl. The aroma in the place testifies mightily to her claim about the ribs, and I needed no further persuasion there, but I venture further. “What kind of sandwich is good?” “Try the pork shoulder sandwich, you’re gonna like it.” I liked the sound of her confidence in that sandwich, so I order it with the slaw on the side and sit down in a booth to watch the goings on.

A pack of young cops in two booths toward the back finish their meals and horse around with the owner, putting each other in headlocks and shit. Across the room a panhandler chats with a man in a wheelchair, while a guy that looks to be a deliveryman sorts through order tickets and brown paper bags, stacking them in rows. Another group jokes with a waitress? they seem to know. It’s kind of hard to tell exactly who works here, and who is just hanging out. But that seems to be part of the charm of the place.

Most just seem to be happy to be warm and inside. And the rich aroma of down home Bar-B-Que in the place is heavenly.

I look back toward the hotel lobby across a cold empty swimming pool. Scattered leaves and a old lawn chair line the bottom of the empty pool, and add a nice touch to the broke-down atmosphere of the old hotel.

But back inside the rib joint is full of life. The Chefs jostle and joke and hammer away at the pots and pans. Everyone seems to be buzzing off the action of the kitchen and jamming to a crackly jukebox. Most seem to know each other and are in no rush to go anywhere at all. Besides, the temperature was like 20 degrees outside. Who needs to rush out into that? We have everything we could possibly want right here in the rib joint.

The edges of black vinyl-letters spelling out “R Ribs” curl away from the moist plate glass. The place is bereft of conventional charm, but leftover bits of decoration still work their half-hearted magic. Fragments of glitter and ribbon, from happy parties long past, do their best to bring us cheer. And a half-tattered Santa flutters gaily under a heating duct. It kind of worked.

Lost in my daydream, I don’t hear my order being called. But someone waves at me, and I snatch it up with a quick nod and make the journey back across the carport. Past the vacant swimming pool, a few lonely coke machines, and up to my 9th floor room.

The Bar-B-Que is heavenly. I flip open the City Magazine on the desk of the room. This one is called “Memphis Downtowner” and right away I see a photo of one of my paintings in there, and an article about the show at Jay Etkin Gallery, which opens tomorrow night! I’m starting to feel at home here in Memphis!

Jay Etkin Gallery

The Sirius Radio interview is a blast. A good-vibe DJ named Argo, interviews me and even lets me cue up and play a couple of Elvis songs on the broadcast. My licensing agent Steve Scebelo is in there, along with Media Assistant Alicia Dean and Archivist Robert Dye Jr. both from (EPE) Elvis Presley Enterprises. We clown around in the studio, and Dye’s camera is flashing. Robert Dye Jr. is a historian and archivist for Elvis Presley Enterprises. He’s one of these people with a dream job. Photography Manager for the Elvis Presley Archive, basically the gatekeeper to images of the most photographed man in history.

Robert Dye Jr. with Peter Mars

Dye is an amazing photographer in his own right. His father, Robert Dye Sr. was one of the very first professional photographers to ever take pictures of Elvis. These very, very early photos of Elvis are riveting to look at. They show candid, unscripted backstage photos of Elvis flashing that million dollar smile taken so early on in Elvis’ career, you can still see the rough-around-the-edges Elvis posing and flashing his bad-boy sneer. There is freshness in the Robert Dye Sr. photos that can’t be beat. You can even still see the rough rope-knots that Elvis has on a makeshift guitar strap. They show a fresh-faced Elvis right out of High School, before the money came. At the time Elvis is playing local fairs and nightclubs. The Dye photos foretell big things to come for Elvis.

The interview breaks up and we walk back across the street toward Graceland and the EPE offices to have some meetings and look through a set of images of Elvis taken during the years he played Las Vegas. Robert also shows me a whole set of thumbnails of the Gold Lame Outfit. These are very cool. We look at a ton of photos and have a couple more meetings and then people are starting to fade from hunger so we hop into someone’s SUV to go get some dinner with Iris Houston, the Licensing manager at Elvis Presley Enterprises. Iris takes us to dinner at Pearl’ Oyster House. A very tasty spot just a block or so from the Jay Etkin Gallery. The lunch was awesome. Iris Houston has a quiet and quick sense of humor. One of those people whose wit kind of sneaks up on you, till all of a sudden you’re laughing till your stomach hurts.

Iris Houston and Peter Mars at Elvis Presley offices.

From Pearl’s Oyster House, we walk the couple blocks over to Jay Etkin Gallery, and see that Jay has done a beautiful job of installing the show. Jay Etkin is a tall distinguished looking guy with a lot of cool Memphis stories. He’s more or less the Mayor of the this ultra-hip neighborhood that grew up around his gallery at 409 S Main St. The gallery itself is a huge vintage loft and really looks like a movie set. In fact it was the set of a Hollywood movie, (I forget which one), but Jay Etkin himself is really fun and down-to-earth and his beautiful gallery is surrounded by some very good restaurants and very hip night spots. The opening is a smashing success, Jay seems to know everyone in town, and the crowds just keep pouring in.

Around 10 o’clock, Steve, Robert Dye Jr., and I head out to catch a late night dinner at another restaurant just north of the Gallery, and are lucky to score a table in the jam-packed place. We just kick back, have a few beers, some delicious seafood, talk about Memphis history, and are soon ready to hit the pillows back at the hotel. Steve and I both have 6am flights so we will be weary travelers. Memphis is just plain cool. I can’t wait to come back here.

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