Inspired to Stitch — William Schaff

Inspired to Stitch, Exploring The Creative Journey with Olisa Corcoran

I remember gasping a little when I saw the piece What Centaur? by New England artist William Schaff. It was the first time I experienced sound coming out of an embroidery. It was as if I could hear the wail of a trumpet and the thump of hooves.


William Schaff - What Centaur?What Centaur? Hand embroidery on cotton. 2013.

Through his lush fill stitch and his energetic composition and use of color, William somehow conveyed a kind of musical energy. The piece felt like a Fauvist scene. It brought to mind Latin American religious iconography, like a frenetic spin on a Virgin of Guadeloupe.

Immediately, I wanted to see more of the artist s work, so I surfed his flickr stream.


William Schaff - Cancer. Hand embroidery on cotton. 2010Cancer. Hand embroidery on cotton. 2010.

There I found wildly intense drawings and illustrations, on paper, fabric and flesh – of demons, wolves, suffering beings and flames – interspersed with photos of a book-filled studio, with masked people in what appeared to be a kind of tableaux vivants.


William Schaff - Under the Quicksand. Hand embroidery on black cotton. 2008.Under the Quicksand. Hand embroidery on black cotton. 2008.

All I could say was, damn. And then, damn again. This artist is amazing.

What I’ve learned about William: He studied figurative drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He plays in 20-piece drum and brass band called What Cheer? His artwork finds its way into many tattoos. His religious faith and desire to be a good person in a chaotic world underpins his imagery. He stitches in front of the TV and in a local bar. He surrounds himself with music.


William Schaff - An Embroidered Jesus, Being a Carpenter. Hand embroidery. 2006An Embroidered Jesus, Being a Carpenter. Hand embroidery. 2006.

When asked about how he made the leap from drawing to stitch, he blames it on binge watching a boxed DVD set of the X Files and needing to have something useful to do while in front of the TV, which, with all due respect to William, doesn t quite sound like a sufficient explanation for his amazing artistry with thread and needle. But there you go.

What follows is an interview we conducted via email over about six weeks.


William Schaff - Dinner and I. 2013Dinner and I. 2013.

How do you gather source materials and ideas for drawings and embroideries? Do you take photographs? Keep a sketchbook? Are your designs in response to specific commissions from musicians and other artists?


All of the above. The greatest source is really the life I live, and the questions and responses I have towards that life. Sometimes, things are just drawn out of my head and other times, researched on the Internet.



William Schaff - Whiskey Mit Cola, Please. Hand embroidery. 2007.Whiskey Mit Cola, Please. Hand embroidery. 2007.

My process (for embroideries) is probably pretty basic and similar to others. I draw the image onto a piece of fabric that I stretch over a picture frame. (I prefer those to hoops, which never hold together very well for me.) Staple the fabric in and start digging through my threads, looking for which colors will work best for what I am doing.

The ideas usually are either religious in nature (a sort of devotional practice for me), or I try to find images that one would not expect to see in an embroidery.


William Schaff - St. Rita of Cascia. Hand embroidery. 2009St. Rita of Cascia. Hand embroidery. 2009.

For instance I am currently working on a sampler style piece from a US Marine cadence that goes as follows…

Bomb the village

Kill the people

throw some napalm on the square

Do it on a Sunday morning

Kill them on the way to prayer.

Ring the Bell inside the schoolhouse

Watch the kiddies gather ’round

Lock and load with your 240

Mow those motherfuckers down

In the middle of it all, I am embroidering a child suffering from the effects of having been burned by flames from a bombing.


William Schaff - Fly me to the Moon. Hand embroidery on cotton. 2009.Fly me to the Moon. Hand embroidery on cotton. 2009.

Please tell us about the first time that you embroidered a piece that you feel was a successful artwork in stitch. Describe the piece?

The first piece I did was on a jacket of mine, an image of my dog. It’s nothing great, but I was pleased with myself enough to keep going.


William Schaff - Corinna. First embroidery. 2005.Corinna. First embroidery. 2005.

In your flickr stream there are many images that I d call tableaux vivants. They are photographs of people, often in hand-drawn masks, taken in what appears to be a large studio filled with books, art objects and work tables. Can you tell us about that space and about these photographs? Is that where you do most of your design work and embroidery?

Those are photographs of my studio. Most of those masked people you see are me. (I am not keen on having my face on the internet). This is where I do most of my work, although a fair amount of it (including embroideries) is done at the bar across the street from me, too.


William Schaff - What is Human? Hand embroidery on linen. 2007/2008.What is Human? Hand embroidery on linen. 2007/2008.

Can you tell us the story behind What Centaur? and What is Human? Where did the imagery come from?

Both come from very different places. What Centaur? Was a request. I am in a 20-piece drum and brass band, and I have made a lot of patches for the members in the band for their uniforms. This was for one of our trumpet players. He specifically requested a Centaur playing a trumpet. Since the name of the band is What Cheer? I called the piece, What Centaur?


William Schaff - What Is Human? - Hand EmbroideryWhat is Human? (detail)

What is Human? came more from my daily struggles of trying to be a good Christian, a good man and just a generally useful part of this society. So it is kind of like a little snapshot of a moment of me thinking on that question, what is human? Granted a little snap shot that took a heck of a long time to make.

You mentioned that the way you live your life as a great source of material for you. What role does the music you listen to play in your creative process? Do you listen to music while you draw or stitch?



William Schaff - Thinking on Josh. Mixed media diorama. 2013.Thinking on Josh. Mixed media diorama. 2013.

Mostly while stitching I watch television, actually. I find embroidery to be such a monotonous task (especially for the larger pieces) that I do it while doing other things, like watching TV, or sitting at the bar. While I am not very into the process, I like the finished product so much that I just want to do them when I can. Sadly, they don’t sell all that often, so I am not able to take the time I need to do them, as much as I would like.


Otherwise, music plays a huge part in my life, and while making all other pieces. It helps me stay in the mood of the work I am doing.


William Schaff - Six Star General album artwork. Ink and spray paint on paper. 2013

Six Star General album artwork. Ink and spray paint on paper. 2013.

Please tell us a little about what you’re currently working on. What projects in the near future are you excited about.


I am working on a bunch of stuff (it always seems to be that way). I am currently working on a bunch of dioramas, mostly, for an upcoming exhibit with Rhode Island artist, Meredith Younger. I am so excited for this as I am a big fan of her work.

Also working on some embroideries for a show in Texas, in 2014 that is an embroidery show. I am also excited about this as I am getting to show with Penny Nickels, who is an embroiderer I really, really like!



William Schaff - Artwork for an upcoming Casket Girls release. Hand embroidery on silk. 2013.Artwork for an upcoming Casket Girls release. Hand embroidery on silk. 2013.

So that’s fun, but it is tough to find the time to do the work when I am also trying to do commissions I need to do to pay the bills. Otherwise, I am just trying to stay sane and pay a few bills.

In my off time (or when I am procrastinating) I have been transforming the back hallway in my house with large reproductions of my work.


William Schaff in his studio. Masked. 2013.William Schaff in his studio. Masked. 2013.


Read the interview with William that Jamie Chalmers did for eMbroidery for this blog to learn more about his work.

And treat yourself to a wonderful immersion in William s creations by turning on your favorite tunes and watching a slideshow of his flickr stream, with your sketchbook open and pencil in hand.

I m afraid that, faced with his imagery and artwork, I m still half-inarticulate, shaking my head in respect and repeating, damn, damn, damn.