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Art AND: Bill Schmidt

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Bill Schmidt will tell you he is a miniaturist. Standing in his cavernous Greektown studio and looking up at him from my 5’11” vantage point, I know without even asking that Schmidt is the kind of very tall person from whom strangers request help reaching a grocery store’s top shelf and then inquire if you played on the basketball team in high school—I’m that kind of very tall too. Yet, the artist’s largest recent work measures only 16 inches square, and most works are smaller, with 12 inches square being a favorite size. Part of the generation that favored first the 12” LP record and then the jewel-cased CD, Schmidt, who is also a musician, came to the square form long before Instagram’s immortalization of the shape. 

Schmidt’s preferred medium of the last eighteen years has been gouache, a water medium composed of pigment, gum arabic as a binder, and a chalk-like additive that makes it more opaque than its better-known sibling, watercolor. It is generally accepted that water media are best for smaller-scale projects and lend themselves to great detail achieved with the application of layers of paint and small brushes. Glancing down at my facial expression and sensing that I am not buying that his abstractions on wood panel are primarily miniature in nature, Schmidt offers that he works at this scale because he wants viewers to have to get close to the work and really look at it, to have an intimate and “one-on-one relationship with the surfaces” of his works. Bingo.

 

Bill Schmidt, Nest #2, 2020, gouache on panel, 12 x 12 inches
Bill Schmidt, Figures and Fragments IV, 2021, gouache on panel, 10 x 10 inches

Getting close to one of Schmidt’s paintings is worth it. Up close, the details divulge themselves but moreover, the sequence of the painting starts to make sense and becomes a narrative. Layers of paint that were pushed and pulled across the gessoed surface to create illusions of space suggest themselves as three-dimensional while remaining virtually flat. 

But it’s the edges of shapes where it gets really exciting. There, the years Schmidt has spent studying not only painting but specifically gouache, are really apparent. The paintings consistently glow and create an afterimage of sorts that could be a reference to the atmospheric haze of the horizon at dawn or the afterglow you get after staring at your phone for too long, or something else altogether. These halos separate the figure and ground in the paintings and also solidify a focal point. The paintings are about systems and structures, but Schmidt has carefully chosen his colors with optics in mind—the same painting would be completely different with alternate colors. Staring at the studio wall, I’m reminded I am a human having a visual experience—I’ve missed that during the pandemic, when I’m mostly seeing art online.

The retired director of MICA’s now-defunct Post-Bac program, Schmidt is the kind of painter who wants to talk about the surface of a painting and the best gouache (Holbein’s artist gouache for anyone taking notes). He leads visitors around his studio showing not only his works in progress but also their studies, which rest in piles on a flat file, mockups on his tablet, and a worn ruler to which he has attached small pieces of wood and plastic to make a paint edger—a tool for creating those fine straight lines in his paintings. In short, fifty years after earning his MFA at MICA’s Hoffberger School of Painting, he is an artist who is still thrilled every morning to wake up and head to the studio. 

Schmidt has achieved what few artists ever do: the permanent sabbatical of retirement, or what he calls with a smile, “Freedom. I call it wonderful.” He worked throughout his life at various jobs in the arts and academia and then, with financial planning and a small inheritance, he was able to retire a few years ago and focus on his twin passions of playing Old Time String Band music and painting. 

For Schmidt, visual art and music are interconnected by “the notion of phrasing,” he explains. Musicians and painters both have to consider problems, Schmidt says, such as, “How do the parts fit together? Where are the spaces between them? How would you structure that? How do you vary things?” Both art forms have elements of repetition, improvisation, and layering, and both reward people who lavish time exploring their depths. That Schmidt is getting that time now can only make a studio visitor smile.

SUBJECT: Bill Schmidt, 74
WEARING: A thrifted dress shirt from L.L. Bean with someone else’s monogram on the pocket, khaki shorts, and low-top black Chucks
PLACE: Greektown

 

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Bill Schmidt: I recently reread The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951 -1955. Grace was my mentor in grad school and I had read her biography Restless Ambition right after it came out. I think I bought the journals with the biography. I had been meaning to read Ninth Street Women, so this seemed like the perfect time to do so. I’m about halfway through it at this point. It’s a very compelling account of an incredible time in the art world and the significant contributions of Lee Krasner, Elaine DeKooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, so-called Second Generation Abstract Expressionists. 

Over the years, people would ask me what I learned from Grace and I struggled to come up with a good answer since she was not a conventional teacher. At some point I realized that what I learned, mostly from her example, is that if you are serious about being an artist, you are choosing a life. The extent to which she and her compatriots did exactly this in extreme and courageous ways resonates throughout these books.

What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist? 

I’ve been here for over 50 years and during that time I’ve seen the art community grow incredibly. I lived in Fells Point in the ‘70s and there was a great, fun, but small art scene happening then. You knew everyone. I had my first solo show at the old Fells Point Gallery in the mid-70s. It was a wonderful and productive time. But if someone then had described to me the current scene, I’d have found it hard to believe. There are so many terrific artists working in all manner of disciplines and approaches. Baltimore artists tend to be mutually supportive; the scene here is not cutthroat and competitive. The proliferation of artist-run galleries has helped make for a rich scene, as well. And these are not the “I know kids, let’s put on a show!” kind of ventures, but rather professional, well-curated operations. The many local and regional art awards (Sondheim, Baker, Trawick, and Bethesda Painting Awards) are an added plus.

In many ways, Baltimore, in spite of its obvious challenges, is a manageable, relatively inexpensive place to live. I used to say that the availability of cheap studio space made Baltimore particularly hospitable to artists. Sadly, with the on-going mania for development, large, affordable studio space may no longer be a given.

You were a college educator for many years, first as an adjunct and then as the director of MICA’s Post-Bac program. What advice did you end up repeating the most for students? 

Since many of my Post-Bac students were new to art school and had limited experience with the critique, I tried to help them use that process to their advantage and get the most of what was said about their work. I advocated taking an active role in a crit, to engage with the visiting artist or faculty member and make it a conversation. And I warned them that not everything they’d hear from a visiting artist would resonate, make sense, or seem useful. My advice was: don’t reject anything out of hand, but rather find a way to file away seemingly irrelevant or confusing comments. Store them somewhere in your head. A good crit could have what I heard a colleague call “time-release value”: what didn’t seem helpful in the moment might have relevance in a week, a month, a year, or even decades later. 

 

Bill Schmidt, OTP.42, 2021, gouache on panel, 12 x 9 inches

In your experience as the director of the Post-Bac program for 18 years, did you observe a shift in higher education? Have students changed over the years?

I can certainly speak to the changes in the Post-Bac Program. Over the years, most of my students had their sights set on grad school. Some had previously been unsuccessful in that quest, others just knew they needed a year of intense, focused work to become competitive. But because of the crazy proliferation of MFA programs during my two decades with Post-Bac, getting into grad school became easier and easier. Also, applications to grad school have been declining, which contributes to this new, less competitive environment.

Many people who applied to our program were also applying to grad school, and their Post-Bac application was a “fall-back” strategy. Obviously, in this new landscape, the “grad school prep” function of the program was no longer a selling point and enrollment gradually declined to an unsustainable point. I’d like to add that we did have some students who weren’t interested in getting an MFA; they came to MICA to grow as artists, and inevitably they did, as did most of the people who were on the grad school track. There were some students, however, who were so focused on their MFA aspirations that their personal growth took a backseat to their quest for a higher degree. 

For a time before you were hired as the director, you were teaching part-time in both the undergraduate school and Post-Bac. What was the experience like for you, working with freshmen at the same time as almost-graduate students? 

I would sometimes say that I was working at both ends of the food chain, teaching freshman drawing and [helping run] the Post-Bac Program. It made for an interestingly balanced teaching load with different rewards in each area. Drawing is an important part of my practice and I was committed to conveying my enthusiasm for it. I had great drawing teachers as an undergrad and I tried to follow their example. Freshmen tend to be “clean slates” and a good group who were hungry and open would push each other to do their best work. This could also be the case with Post-Bac students. 

But because of the typical diversity of interests, prior experience, and personal goals, I had to give individualized attention to my Post-Bac students. It was really much more of a mentoring situation. My job was to create an environment where students felt free to experiment, take chances, try new approaches and modes of working. I tried to practice a kind of benign neglect, giving them tacit permission to do what they already knew they needed to do, and staying out of their way while they did it. This isn’t to say that nudging, prodding, and other forms of “encouragement” weren’t occasionally needed! When this worked, as it often did, the rewards were significant (for all involved).

How have you defined success for yourself as an artist? Has this definition shifted at all with time?

I’ve never, for better or worse, been a “careerist.” In the 50 (!) years since getting my MFA, my focus has always been about sustaining my studio practice: making work and showing it whenever possible. Success for me is being able to keep the work moving, alive, and vital in such a way that I want to go to the studio every day and make more. That said, my career, such as it is, has had some high points. I’ve gotten grants, done residencies, and won a few big awards. 

 

What were Baltimore and MICA like in the 1970s?

I arrived in Baltimore in 1969, a year or so after the riots. There was no Harbor Place then (it opened in 1980). MICA wasn’t yet “MICA,” it was “the Institute”—it was a small regional school with under 1,000 students. There were only two graduate programs in 1969: the Hoffberger School of Painting and the Rinehart School of Sculpture. There are now more graduate programs than there were first-year grad students when I arrived. But under the leadership of Bud Leake, president from 1961 to 1974, the school began its ascent to a national reputation.

To give an idea of how loosey-goosey things were then, I played in a blues-rock band with some undergrads. We were kind of the band in residence. We commandeered a room in the catacomb-like space in the Station Building under the sculpture department and stashed our amps there. We’d go down there every Tuesday night and wail away. Nobody cared or complained. Nothing like that would be possible today at MICA. 

You’re a fellow tall person, yet you make smaller work. How did that happen?

I think I’ve always been a miniaturist at heart. I was an avid model maker as a kid and would spend hours with an X-Acto knife in my hand and my nose inches away from a piece of balsa wood. Close, detailed work has always appealed to me. I have made big paintings but things really shifted when I started painting in gouache in 2004. It’s a medium that, I think, works best at a small scale. Hell, it comes in tiny tubes! Someone told me that Max Doerner in his book Materials of the Artist referred to gouache as a “meager” medium. That sounds pejorative, doesn’t it? But of course, that was translated from German.

Working on a panel a foot or so square is an intimate and often mesmerizing process during which time my world is effectively reduced to that small area in front of my face. I don’t think it’s naive to believe that the viewer of one’s work is likely to have an experience that mirrors that of the artist’s when the work is being made. My paintings (hopefully) will engage someone from a distance, but they come alive when viewed from a foot or even a few inches away. The quiet power of this kind of close interaction is key to what my work is about.

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it? 

My wife, Ann, and I are big fans of the Silver Queen Cafe in Hamilton, where we live. It has a great neighborhood vibe and the food is made with love and care. They’ve made it through the pandemic and now have a liquor license. I highly recommend it!

 

You’re a musician of old-time American music. What draws you to that specific genre and what makes it different from, say, bluegrass or country music?

I play what is called Old Time String Band music. This is the body of traditional, rural music out of which bluegrass and modern country music evolved. It was recorded on 78 rpm records in the 1920s, as well as on archival recordings made by folklorists and the musicians themselves. The instrumentation, typically fiddle, banjo, and guitar, is similar to bluegrass, but stylistically somewhat different. Old Time Music is an ensemble style, which is to say that usually no one takes a solo. The fiddle plays the tune, the banjo supports and echoes the tune, and the guitar provides the “bottom” with everyone maintaining those roles throughout the tune. Solo breaks are the norm in Bluegrass, and the playing tends to be a bit jazzy, deviating from the melody in a way you typically wouldn’t hear in Old Time music. It’s hard to make generalizations—there are many bands, both old and new, that blend styles and approaches and have a kind of hybrid sound.

I discovered this music as a teenager during the folk music revival of the 1960s. I’m from New Jersey, so this music is certainly not part of my background or heritage. This may be part of what drew me to it. I think it was a quiet act of rebellion to embrace this esoteric stuff that most of my contemporaries didn’t know about or understand. And the raw energy and honesty of the music captivated me—and still does 50 years later. 

What bands exemplify this kind of music? 

I was a founding member of the Double Decker String Band and played with them off and on for decades. None of our recordings remain in print, but there are a few things out there on YouTube. My other bands, the Vacutones and its predecessor, the Hoover Uprights, will be harder to find, sorry to say. 

Here in Baltimore there is a thriving Old Time scene driven by Ken and Brad Kolodner. Brad’s band Charm City Junction put a contemporary spin on the music and are quite active. The second Baltimore Old Time Festival, a Kolodner venture, will be held at the Creative Alliance in November. 

My favorite band playing today is the Ozark Highballers from Fayetteville, Arkansas. They take a very traditional approach and mostly play music from their region. You can find them on YouTube.

You have a lot of fellow artist friends in Baltimore and DC, including a painting group called the Ab8 with Dan Dudrow, Jo Smail, Timothy App, Carolyn Case, Michael Weiss, and Carol Miller Frost that you’ve been meeting with for a decade. Why is it important for artists to find and nurture community?

For a painter, in some sense, your community is every painter who has preceded you. You are in conversation with the history of painting, consciously or not. But this isn’t the same as having a cohort of like-minded contemporaries. Art-making is a solitary activity, in most cases, and you need to find a way to not feel alone in that pursuit. As a matter of survival, one needs the interaction of fellow artists for support, conversation, and validation.

Ab8 has been so important to me and the development of my work. I think I have a better understanding of what I’m about thanks to the group’s response to my work over the years. I’m so grateful to have such smart, perceptive friends, all of whom are great painters. 

 

What are the last three emojis you used? 

I have no idea. I will say, though, that the martini emoji is my favorite (I’m a martini drinker), but I use it only when appropriate and meaningful! 

Who do you see as your contemporaries? Whose art is yours in conversation with? If there aren’t any other artists whose work you see your own in, are there structures, places, or other notable influences on you? 

[In addition to my friends in Ab8,] there are a few painters in New York that have become friends and whose work resonates with me: Sarah Walker, Gordon Moore, and Erick Johnson. And my friend and former colleague, Ken Tisa, is always an inspiration for me just as he was for my students who took his “Personal Narrative” class. 

With regard to other influences, my paintings are very much about my visual world. They are the product of a process that I call indirect observation. Things that I notice in my travels—structures, shapes, relationships—are internalized and find their way into the work, often emerging in unexpected ways. There is a feedback loop between my studio and this visual world: I notice things that look like what I’ve painted and I tend to paint things that look like what I notice. And, no surprise, Baltimore is the center of my visual world. The careful viewer will see many Formstone-like moments in my paintings. 

Do you believe in astrology, and if so what insights can your sign give our readers into your personality and mindset?

I’m not sure that I believe in it exactly, but having said that, I’m a Virgo and exhibit many of the traits associated with that sign; I tend to be logical, practical, systematic, and meticulous. And, like most Virgos, perfectionism is both a driving force and Achilles heel. I should also add that I’m the son of a Virgo and, given my German genes, I come by these traits thanks to nature and nurture.

Who are your art or career heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why were/are they the coolest? 

Tom Noskowski, who passed away in 2019, is one of my favorite painters. I never got to meet him, although a few of my former students studied with him at Rutgers. Not only was he a great (and influential) painter, he was renowned for his intelligence, generosity, and humility. The way he talked about art and life was as brilliant as it was down-to-earth. He could also be very funny in a wry and understated way. 

What have you learned the hard way?

I think that pretty much everything of value to me I learned the hard way, which is to say that I learned by doing. Someone can tell you how to do something and even demonstrate it, but you have to go through the process, fail, try again, and repeat until it becomes natural and you don’t have to think about it. With regard to my music, I’ve never taken a formal lesson. I play fiddle, guitar, and banjo and learned each one by listening, watching, and playing with people a step or two ahead of me. 

What would your teenage self think of you today? 

Holy shit! You/I did it!

 

 

*****

Bill Schmidt and Jan Razauskas have a two-person show up at Mono Practice called Spatial Fabrications. The show is up through October 23, 2021.

 

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