For a number of years, Rhode Island-based artist William Schaff has been producing album cover art — a name which I feel doesn’t quite do it justice — for such bands as Okkervil River, Songs: Ohia, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Fans of those bands will agree that Schaff’s brand of art is nothing short of distinctive, haunting, and unflinching in its pursuit of self-identity — art which can’t be unseen and will impact on a visceral level.
Working in a multitude of different artistic disciplines, including drawings, paintings, embroidery and scratchboards, his works frequently touch upon such themes as The Holocaust and stories from the Old Testament, subjecting the audience (in the best possible way) to feelings of isolation, death and misery and an aesthetical landscape that I, for one, do not wish to traverse.
I recently asked William Schaff about his artistic process (below):
LM: The political landscape (notably the election of Donald Trump) in the US is in a fragile state and is causing concern for a great deal of people all over the world. Given that your work has recurring themes and characters, do you allow politics and history to affect your work in any way? Are any of your pieces a reaction to something which has happened in the world or are they more personal?
William Schaff: Certainly I do. I find it hard to exclude what is going on around me, from the joyous to the mind-numbingly disquieting political situation. What is happening around the world is personal to me, so it is not a matter of one or the other in my work. It is a matter of trying to show how both affect the other. Obviously I can’t touch on everything going on in the world, and there are certain issues over others that I focus on. Still, I believe one should not separate the two. That goes for history as well.
LM: I can imagine that many people struggle to separate an artist from his work. As you have themes of death and isolation in your works, I was wondering whether any fans have ever found it difficult to approach or speak to you because of the striking, albeit sometimes distressing, imagery that you present in your art?
WS: I can’t speak for people who haven’t approached me — I don’t know what they are thinking. There is part of me that wishes people worked harder at separating me from my work, just focusing on the work. But I understand folks don’t. I have noticed with some people that contact me that they come forward with some (to me) mildly amusing preconceived notions about me. Hopefully after speaking with me for a bit, they can see I’m not really different than most others they may want to talk with.
LM: You work in a variety of different disciplines, e.g. scratchboard, embroidery, painting, etc. Is there a particular technique or medium which you are looking to explore in the future, or do you feel comfortable in your current choices for the foreseeable future?
WS: There are several I would like to, but to date I don’t really feel I have the financial freedom to do so. Most days are spent working in a commission to make sure that month’s bills are covered. If I could choose one dream, it would be to afford a 3D printer, and the time to learn to use it. That seems like it would be a lot of fun to see my work come to life in that way.
LM: You are well known for creating cover art for such bands as Okkervil River and Songs: Ohia. I read that you listen to an album repeatedly while working on its cover art. When you are not working on a musical project, but rather a commissioned work, do you still listen to music for inspiration? If so, what type of stuff do you listen to?
WS: I do, and the music varies. Sometimes I make up playlists to listen to while working on certain pieces; other times I’ll pick an album. My musical tastes are as varied as the mediums I work in. I’ve been working in a piece before sitting down to write. I’ve been listening to Rachel’s and the Boston Symphony while creating it.
LM: How much of an artist’s success do you think is down to ability and how much do you think is down to being in the right place at the right time? Is getting a break in the industry as important as someone’s ability?
WS: It most certainly is. I cannot deny my own history of “right place, right time” situations. And while there are some who have proven to find success in their field, does not always come down to a traditional (or even good) ability. I am a believer in understanding the rules before you go breaking them. So I’m a big proponent of learning one’s craft first, and bringing that knowledge into whatever you do.
If you would like to become a patron of William Schaff’s art, please head over to http://patreon.com/williamschaff, where you will receive updates from the man himself and “will continue to see the quality of work that has been created all these years”.