Interview with artist Ward Schumaker

Books by Ward Schumaker

What goes into making your book editions? What are the steps? Do you make a sample first or do make it up as you produce all of them?

First off, I’m not sure I’ll ever make another edition like these five. I began because I had enjoyed making an edition of small stenciled paintings-on-wood for Dusk Editions in Brooklyn and wanted to know if I could extend editions work into my books. I figured I’d  make one stencil for color for each page and paint ten pages with each stencil. But because I use such gloppy paint  to get the effect I want, each time I use a stencil, I destroy it. So I have to make ten stencils for each color for each page for an edition of ten books: do the math. I enjoyed it, mind you, but it took six months to prepare this group of five titles.

I begin by tearing and folding the paper into folios (8 pages per folio, 5 per book) and numbering them very lightly in pencil. Then I begin to work.

Sometimes I have a shape or color I wish to use, and most often the first few pages suggest a title or theme to follow.

Books in process

The work I need to do then appears fairly obvious to me: I want to tell a story about Golem: these colors, those shapes seem required to me. Want to talk about death: how could you not include overlays done in such-and-such a manner?

I don’t make a sample in advance, I don’t work sequentially (from front to back), I work as some voice inside my head directs.

I love most when that voice seems not my own. In the best of times, I do not feel I am the author of the work.

How does working on paper differ from working on canvas or wood?

Paper is so easily managed: pick it up to send the paint dripping downward; use a sponge to wash off everything you thought so certain of yesterday but today realize is no good; cut out words and paste them down: no big deal.

Canvas finds me more serious; I can’t throw a canvas around the room as easily as a piece of paper.

Wood makes me very serious because I have to sand instead of sponging away mistakes.

How has your experience as a graphic designer influenced your work as an artist?

I use Photoshop to set up my type before I cut them as stencils; the program does very bad letter-spacing and kerning, so that keeps me from being design-y—design is great in a brochure but a consciously designed painting is a short-lived love.

Ward Schumaker

What is it like to be an artist in San Francisco?

My wife and I don’t know many artists, our friendships aren't based on that, so living in San Francisco is most important because of the weather, which can’t be beat. And proximity to family.

Our tastes are not ruled by the taste of San Francisco; we find the work we like all over the world: on the web, or on trips, in museums. Frankly, we find a lot on Facebook.

Spending almost every hour of every day looking and creating has sharpened our likes and dislikes to such a fine point that we end up enjoying very little. Still, what we do enjoy, we enjoy very very much.

What are your main influences?

DeKooning. Kurt Weill. Bruno Schulz. Bach-Beethoven-not Brahms. Leos Janacek. Poulenc, definitely. And above all, Shostakovich. Composers have effected me as much as painters. 

Books in Process

How do ideas of play come to inform or influence your work?

Do my dreams count as ideas?  Because that’s where most of my input come from. I wake at three in the morning with instructions: write down this sentence and add it to the painting you are working on. Write down this dream because it’s to be your next book. You just dreamed you were climbing an escarpment in Mali; go make a wood sculpture that feels like that climb.

Where do the titles come from? The text inside?

Dreams, again. Almost always dreams, for both text and titles. I’ve had dreams in which I’ve taken dictation that when typed out created five pages of continuous text. I love that. I love being used.

The Carpathians work on birch featured in Geography Lessons

How do the books fit in with your larger pieces? Do you see them as potential studies for larger work?

Both feed into and onto each other. One’s not more important, one is not first or last, it’s all a continuum. For example: I make small wood sculptures and then make one the same shape but ten times larger; but the small one’s not a maquette, it’s an individual with all the rights and privileges which pertain to any of us. Know what I mean?


You can look through Schumaker's book editions on his blog: Coffin Laughter, Owl Soup, Golem Likes a Pretty Face, G.Lekeu, Libretto

Call or e-mail Zeitgeist for more info.