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 www.jeffschaller.com
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.