Most nights you can find artist, musician and perpetual thinker William Schaff bantering over a backgammon board at Jack’s Bar in Warren. A visit to his studio across the street is akin to stepping inside a surrealist cabinet of curiosities, with flowers and vines trying to overgrow the ceiling, shelves of taxidermy and trinkets, walls covered in artwork and album covers, his dog Dinner greeting guests and a soundtrack of musical poetics constantly filling the room. Schaff’s collection of masks and Pez figurines peer out from the loft, and the skull-covered faces of his artwork watch from the walls. It is a space full of open-ended conversations, always ready to pick up where one left off.
Schaff’s aesthetic is bold and questioning. He describes his work as a process of discovery, “thinking on a question with each pen stroke” and “getting closer to an answer or more likely another question.” What sorts of questions? Big ones: life, death and resilience, often seen through satire-tinted lenses. Schaff’s work re-frames questions that artists and thinkers alike have been asking for centuries in black ink and wite out, paper cuts and scratchboards.
Two recurrent trademarks come to mind when visualizing Schaff’s work: black and white penned pieces that evoke Picasso’s Guernica reimagined by famed gothic illustrationist Edward Gorey, and his skull-faced, quotation-bubbled paintings and reappropriated photographs. I ask about the latter and Schaff pulls out an old Life magazine. He flips to an iconic image of President Lyndon Johnson in conversation with an unemployed man and his two young sons. “Which would you put a skull on?” Schaff asks. I choose one of the boys and he gets to work with the wite-out pen. Thirty seconds later the message of the photograph has morphed. “Context matters with each piece,” Schaff tells me. My pick has refocused the already somber image. The story is no longer about a father trying to feed his family, but his son facing his own mortality and imminent tragedy. In context, Schaff’s work is a reminder of the silent strife facing the person in line in front of you at the corner store, and raises the thought whether art should imitate life or life should imitate art.
Whether designing the most recent album covers for friends and neighbors, music duo Brown Bird, penning a map of his East Bay home base as an artisan swap with fellow craftsman Todd Moen of Sweettrade leatherworks, customizing envelopes for his mail art of the month club, or collaborating on tattoo commissions; Schaff’s art is about con- nection and exchanging perspectives. His studio, Fort Foreclosure, frequently plays host to intimate acoustic shows, visiting artists and friends. The door is always open.
While I’m visiting, some folks stop by, and Schaff sends them each away with a pack of playing cards. The cards came about from a discussion Schaff had with fellow What Cheer? Brigade (WCB) member, Greg, who plays tuba in the band and works in merchandising (Schaff is WCB’s drummer). He designed a card a day, and the result is a pack that is as frameable as it is playable, and serves as a handheld catalogue of Schaff’s work, with each suit thinking on a theme: spades are skulls, hearts are band art, diamonds are portraits and clubs look at militarization and abuses of power. The deck’s box reads prodotto di qualità, recalling Schaff’s childhood memories visiting his grandparents in Italy and bridging the language gap over a game of cards.
It’s art that brings people around the table together, and creates context for more creating, which is what really sets Schaff apart as an artist and a person. In his own understated way he plays an intricate part in catalyzing art, life, music and movement in whatever company he keeps, which is exactly what keeps the questions coming.