We spoke with William Schaff about baseball card forgery, working with Jason Molina, how crowdfunding has kept him afloat in hard times and the qualities he picked up from each member of his family.
I am often amazed at how much I still enjoy many of the albums I have created cover art for, after listening to them up to twenty or thirty times in a row.
You’ve designed album art for a murderer’s row of artists over the years, including Songs: Ohia, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Okkervil River. Is there a single piece you’ve done for any artist you’ve worked with that holds the most personal or sentimental significance for you? If so, why?
My first thought is that I like the phrase “a murderer’s row.” I’ve to admit, I’ve never heard that one before! My next thought would be the artwork for Magnolia Electric Co. by Songs: Ohia, because I was going through some of the heaviest heartbreak in my life at the time I made that. It then dawned on me that in all of my work I have done for bands, I’ve put more of my own sense of what’s going on in my life at the moment than most people being commissioned to do this sort of thing would be allowed. So Jason Molina’s stands out because of the particular event of mine captured in it. That said, I feel very connected to almost all of my pieces for one reason or another, due to what was going on when I was making the different images.
Many people have said that your work feels iconic – the crying owl on the front of Magnolia Electric Co., the intricate map of Meriden, New Hampshire included with Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium. While I understand that icons and legendary art play a big piece in the puzzle, what other influences are in the stew when you sit down to create?
As mentioned above, it’s whatever is going on in my life at the time I am creating said work. I have very particular terms I send to prospective clients who want to work with me. If they don’t agree to them before working, I suggest other artists. So really, I am making a piece like I would every day, but this time a particular band’s music is adding to the influence.
Certainly the music can direct me away from some things I am thinking on or feeling, but ultimately, I try not to change my approach to making album art than I do with any of my other work. I find it exciting sometimes when I am introduced to an artist I didn’t know, or that their music might not be something I normally would veer towards, as my work gets to exist in a different world for that time I am working on the record.
At times, I will listen to a record on repeat while I’m creating art for it. I am often amazed at how much I still enjoy many of the albums I have created cover art for, after listening to them up to twenty or thirty times in a row.
Could you take a high-quality picture of an unfinished piece you are currently working on?
It seems that half of winning in this life is just treading water until the proverbial lifeboat is found.
I’m interested in how our families influence us – not just in our personal tastes but in our unconscious behavior and the way we comport ourselves. Can you describe how each member of your immediate family influences your daily life? Perhaps with a quick sketch or graph?
I don’t think I could, only because this is such a great question. I don’t know how I would simplify all the thoughts this question brings up. My immediate family consists of my mother, my late father, my older sister, and my wife. As I look at my life and how I approach it, I realize each have influenced me – both in strong positive ways and some not-so-great qualities too. I remember my mother always being very encouraging of my art, and my father being – well, not discouraging, but encouraging in his own way.
But I learned – especially from my mother – that if you want something, of course you are going to try for it. She came over to the United States as a young adult from Italy, having grown up her whole life believing this is where she was meant to be. Even back in the 1960s, getting over here was not an easy thing, as she stood tall in the face of both bureaucratic difficulties and personal tragedies. So for her it wasn’t a matter of trying – instead, it was like ”this is where I am supposed to be, so how do I get there?” Looking back, I see a lot of that in my choice to follow art as a career, attempting to make a living off of something that can be difficult to put a price on, when its main purpose it to elicit an emotional response.
My sister has always been the smarter of the two of us – better in school, better behaved, more sensible in many of her life decisions. As I think on it, I realize there has always been a part of me trying to prove myself to be as admirable as she has shown herself to be. I say that in a good way. We don’t talk as often as we should, but the bond of love I feel for her pushes me to be as stalwart as I perceive her to be. My wife continues to teach me to see the glories in differences we all have. The amount of joy she brings into my life, even by her just being around, makes me a far less cranky, self-destructive cuss than I was before meeting her. She brings a new understanding of hope into my mind, all without her trying!
From my father, I feel I have picked up less desirable qualities. A fear of failure that is often in the back of my mind, a penchant for cutting myself off from others, and an optimism that is often outlined by a feeling of being overwhelmed.
But from him – my mom, too – I also learned the beauty of collecting objects of importance and studying the details that are to be found in every creation. From him, I learned an obsessiveness in the importance of documentation.
Maybe not in a straightforward, accounting sort of way, but in that way that objects hold a spirit that shows so much more than just the physicality of the object itself. That is what each item in my work is – a collection of objects holding more than just what we see at first glance. From my whole family, I learned a love or music that rides alongside me today. Really, music and visual art are inseparable to me. All of these qualities are with me in the studio while I am working.
Could you provide us with a childhood photo of yourself? What would you tell the kid in that photo about the life ahead of him?
This is a photo of me. I think I am six, maybe, in one of my favorite Halloween costumes. I would tell him to not give up just because it would make more sense to. It seems that half of winning in this life is just treading water until the proverbial lifeboat is found. That said, being the kid I was, I probably wouldn’t listen to older me. I would tell him to get to know your grandparents and their lives before you better. I am a big fan of understanding history to help take us out of ourselves and see how we affect each other.
Can you describe an average day in your life from waking up to going to bed? How does it transpire, roughly hour-by-hour?
Routine has always been missing from my adult life. Even when I have held straight jobs, I would find some way to mess up whatever schedule I was on. As I now make my living, entirely self-employed, things have only gotten more unpredictable. I go through rather long cycles, like the moon, where I go to bed later and later at night, until that turns into earlier and earlier in the morning, until I sit for a while on what others might call a normal schedule. These days I am usually in bed between 4am and 8am, waking anywhere from 11am to 1pm.
My days begin with the following: I wake up and go out back to have a cigarette while I read the news. Then I come into the studio, turn on the computer and get to work. Sometimes that work is picking up where I left off before going to bed, other times it is checking emails and the such. I have to admit, there are so many different avenues to get in touch with people these days that I will go days sometimes before taking a deep breath and diving into the different accounts people write me messages through.
Twice a week, I try to put a few hours aside to write letters to friends and correspondence, usually writing a first draft one day and then a second the other. I don’t leave the house that often, other than for errands and the like, so really my days are just spent always working. Even when the missus and I sit down to eat, sometimes I will have some piece of mail art or what have you at the dinner table, working on it while we eat. On the one hand, I can see this as a great work ethic. On the other hand, it has often led me to ignore some of the practical, important things needing attention day to day.
Had my supporters not been there for me, the bank would now have a beautiful building that was falling apart around its ears.
I understand that a few years back, there was a crowdfunding campaign to save your studio – dryly called Fort Foreclosure. I’m not sure what has occurred since then, but it speaks to a larger issue for me in regard to the indifference shown to concert venues, studios and creative spaces. Those locations are what keep our culture running. As a whole, do you think we should collectively readjust our thinking to show these places the support they deserve?
I do think we should. All the support people have shown Fort Foreclosure and my work has been a humbling experience for me. I think part of the trick is reminding people that it doesn’t need to be a lot to support something you love. I mean, it literally could be just a dollar! If the thousands of folks who follow my work through social media would donate a dollar a month, that would make this an entirely different ballgame! Part of the problem of being an underground show space, or an artist making a living off of their work, is that the income is seldom steady. There is no week-to-week paycheck for what I do. I have started a Patreon account and I am so encouraged to see how folks who support the work have been helping me stay afloat in those months when I haven’t covered my bills with my art. And it could literally be for a dollar, if enough folks do it. And folks are doing it!
Right now my supporters are showing a huge amount of selflessness, as they are not even guaranteed to get something in return, like so many crowdsourcing sites promote. Instead, the continuation of the work being created is their reward. I do try to get them things here and there, but as with the Save the Fort Campaign, the campaigns themselves become a full time job if one is not careful. Thus, no work is actually getting done because you are trying to fulfill, or create the rewards to thank the people who supported you to make work to begin with! So I am super grateful to the supporters of my work who have been so patient with me all these years, as I am horribly slow about getting people their “rewards.”
Patreon has made it so that I — at least now — always have my rent covered each month. It has been a lifesaver. And as for the Save the Fort Campaign, it was a success! The fort was taken out of foreclosure, I was able to put a new roof on the building, and I was able to do big repairs to the basement this summer. Had my supporters not been there, the bank would now have a beautiful building that was falling apart around its ears.
Please briefly meditate on these three objects – castles, rivers and tea. What mental image arises from this word combination?
After a bit of meditation, what comes to mind is the now defunct band The Iditarod. They were a Providence, RI, duo that I toured and recorded with for a short bit. It was beautiful music, but I would often joke that it was “hobbit rock” because the lyrics often referred to castles, rivers and other Elvish sounding themes. As for tea, Carin Wagner – now Sloan – was a big tea drinker. Me, I take real issue with hot drinks, thus I never really drink tea. If you don’t know The Iditarod, I highly recommend them. I have read that they have been credited as an early example of the “wyrd folk” genre. It’s beautiful stuff.
WILLIAM SCHAFF’S FIRST & NEXT YEARS
We asked William to describe the first five years of his life, followed by what he supposes will happen in the next five.
I have a horrible memory, so the only year from those first five you listed that stands out to me is 1981. I remember that year because Topps released baseball cards that had the player’s signatures on them. Being the little miscreant that I was back then, I decided to start forging the autographs onto baseballs, and bringing them to school, claiming I was at Fenway that weekend and I got so-and-so to sign the baseball. I would then sell the baseball to my fellow classmates. Now, I sometimes sift through eBay looking at the signed baseballs and wondering ”Did I do that one?”
I just plan to continue doing what I am doing. My wife’s and my marriage is relatively new – almost three years now! – and I have a fair amount of health issues due to particular lifestyle choices I made in the past. After meeting her, I found myself wanting more years with her. So these days, I really hope to continue to take care of myself enough to enjoy many more years with her, all while making art and continuing to live a life directed by this practiced ability I have.
I need to stress again that thanks to those who support the work, this looks more and more possible. I really could not be doing what I am doing now without everyone’s support – my mom’s, too. That poor woman has become my biggest patron over all these years. She had no clue what she was in for when I was born. It would be nice if in 2018 I hit the lottery, and I can start giving all my art away for free. I would really like to be able to do that!
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: August 23, 2017
Total questions: 9
Word count: 2664
Reading time: Ten minutes
Fort foreclosed? No
Recommendation: The Iditarod
Baseball cards: Forged
Hobbit rock: Yes
2018, Adam Tracy, album, artist, autograph, avenue, baseball cards, basement, building, castles, cigarette, correspondence, cover art, cranky, crowdfunding, cuss, draft, Fenway, forgery, Fort Foreclosure, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, health, history, hobbit, icon, image, Jason Molina, living, lottery, Magnolia Electric Co., mail, marriage, miscreant, murderer’s row, Okkervil River, Patreon, river, rock, self-destructive, self-employment, selflessness, Songs: Ohia, studio, tea, The Iditarod, thirty, Topps, twenty, William Schaff, work
Related conversations W