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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.