Painter John Paul Schafer Feature Profile

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Twenty-five years ago, at age nineteen, John Paul Schafer decided to become a professional painter. “I’ve been all kinds of different artists. I’ve been a commercial artist as a way of making a living, but always a very serious painter. I always said I was a studio painter first who worked to support it.”

John Paul Schafer at work in his studio.

John Paul Schafer at work in his studio.

Before that, John considered the funeral business. He saw a lot of positives in that line of work. Funeral directors were well-respected in the community. They seemed to do well financially, and they served their communities by providing a necessary service to grieving families. He was also attracted to the artistic side of the job, the presentation involved in making the experience positive for those who grieved. A very frank conversation with the local funeral director, however, steered him away from that path. “He did not pull any punches at all. He told me one graphic story after another after another about the kinds of things I would be dealing with, and by the time I left that meeting, it’s like, okay, this perhaps is not really what I want. [Laughter]”

Ultimately, John knew that art was his true calling. It was obvious to others as well. John grew up in Independence, Iowa, a small farming community that didn’t generally employ career artists. Still, his family, in spite of having their fair share of trouble, always encouraged the development of his gifts. They believed his abilities were God-given and should be nurtured.

“Art for me, all through my childhood, was really kind of a saving grace, because there were other challenges. […] Alcoholism was all around me. As a child, I spent a lot of time in bars, hanging out while the adults drank and played pool. But I had my drawing pad, and I had my pencils and my markers and crayons, and that’s where I would create my own existence. That really kind of worked–that helped me get through some difficult periods as a child.”

“To be clear, my dad was sober through it all and worked hard running his own business, which took really good care of my mother and my brother and me. Even during the eighties when Dad’s business suffered and he was forced into bankruptcy, my parents sacrificed, but my brother and I went on eating steak and lobster when we went out for dinner.

“It’s because of Tom Schafer, who’s actually my adopted father, that I insist on being self-employed. Dad taught me the value of owning your own business: being your own man, answering to no one except your customers and the people who depend on you. My large scissors painting painting called “Provider” is a tribute to my dad. These scissors are an old pair of his upholstery shears, which I have long-since used to cut canvas in my studio visit their website.”

John was also helped along by a great art teacher in high school. Because of this, he believes arts education in public schools is essential. “You throw away more and more humanness when you eliminate arts funding. Because art, and the expression of art, is a vehicle that keeps our humanity alive. I’m very passionate about that!”

With no formal art education post-high school, many of John’s skills were gained on-the-job or developed simply by working daily in his studio. He landed his first Art Director position at a local toy company at the age of 24. This was in 1994, when graphic design software programs like Illustrator and Photoshop were exploding onto the market. John knew that knowledge of these products would be necessary, and he didn’t have the first clue how to use them. “What I had was an innate ability to bullshit. I mean, that’s how I got the job in the first place!” (He had been working as a screen printer before.) “I was lucky enough that the guy who was hiring me for the job didn’t know any more than I did.”

“I had enough smarts to know that if I don’t know what Illustrator is, then I better damned well hire somebody who does!” John eventually hired five other staff who became, in his words, “a well-oiled machine”. “That was my education in graphic design/commercial illustration, and I learned it all on the job, off the backs of all these kids who may still be paying off their student loans, for all I know. I got all this education at no charge, and I was getting paid. I recognized that privilege and I was grateful for it.”

The job, however, didn’t come without challenges. John was at the time a closet homosexual. (He is now out; he and his husband Brian have been together fourteen years.) The company he worked for was run by a conservative Christian who was very much against homosexuality. In fact, the business office doubled as the boss’s ministry. “And so you always had this layered kind of propaganda machine at work,” remembers John, “at the same time that we’re making and selling toys!”

The toughest part about that situation was that John knew he couldn’t keep his job and be honest about his sexuality. He never believed that his employer wasn’t entitled to his opinion or the right to express it. “But then,” he says, “to find myself subjected to a situation where I had to take it without giving it back or without defending anything was hard! And I think that I would often [over some design issue] find myself getting really angry and really reactive about it. And I think I wasn’t aware of it then, but as I look back on it, it’s pretty clear I was overcompensating for some anger I was feeling on the other end that I couldn’t express.”

Regardless of the challenges, John viewed that job and others that came after (art director at a start-up video game company, commercial illustrator at The Gazette, for example) as learning opportunities that would inform his work as a painter. Though he now is able to paint full-time, he is grateful for those experiences.

“There’s always been this long-held contention […] this separation between commercial artists over here and fine artists over here. One camp is academic; the other camp is applied. And that somehow polarizes the two. […] I’m one of the artists who blurs the line between being a commercial artist and a total fine artist. And I enjoy blurring the lines. I’m not afraid of that.”

Accord, by John Paul Schafer

“Accord”

Not only does John blur lines between commercial and fine art, he also ignores boundaries between most categories that humans create for life. For example, adjacent to his art studio is a small room dedicated to Reiki/healing touch and meditation.

“I have a lot of interests. I have spiritual interests. I have musical interests. I enjoy gardening. I like being out in nature. I’m interested in science, specifically quantum physics. That occupies a lot of my thinking these days. I’m hungry for that kind of information. I don’t pretend to understand it, but it challenges me, my thought process, which all feeds back into my art.”

John’s painting reflects this diversity of interests, and also this tension between freedom and boundaries. One body of his work consists of tightly-rendered, realistic still life images that capture and reflect on memories from his life. A memoir in paint. Alongside that is what John describes as “an almost manic departure: incredibly vivacious, raw, energetic abstract paintings called ‘Urban Scrawl’”.

Ever Expanding, by John Paul Schafer

Ever Expanding

When asked what some of his favorite pieces have been over the last twenty-five years, John was reluctant to answer. “At the moment, my favorite work is what I’m currently doing, because it’s what’s really holding my attention right now. It what has me excited right now.”

Later, he elaborates. “Both [realism and abstract paintings] are really true expressions of who I am. One tends to lean more on the sentimental side, the introspective side. The other is maybe my alter ego. So, as a way of ‘whole-ing’, I have been wanting to bring these together somehow. […] It’s taken twenty-five years–I recognize that now. It has taken twenty-five years to get to this point. It’s been painful. It’s been frustrating. There have been many times throughout it when I thought I had made my last painting and vowed ‘never again’, but you know, the next morning I would be back at it. So, it takes that much time. It just does. […But] this new work is opening up a completely new channel.”

The new work John refers to is still in progress. He says it might not be revealed to the public for at least another year. So, I asked again for highlights from his body of past work. Below are some images provided by John, along descriptions of each piece.

You can also visit John’s website, studiojohnpaul.com, to see portfolios of his work and read more about him.

-Interviewed by Courtney T. Ball. All photos courtesy of John Paul Schafer.

 

“Dissolution in a Shifting Paradigm”

Artist’s statement: This conceptual installation piece was created exclusively for an exhibit of new work in the Iowa Hall Gallery at Kirkwood Community College. I enjoy creating art for spaces — site-specific art, as I like to call it. Here was an opportunity to use the corner of the room, making an assemblage of abstract paintings that initially began as a new series. However, after reviewing the space, I was inspired to connect what would have been separate paintings with blocks of black voids. The abrupt contrasts and juxtapositions speak to the relationships between things, events or experiences that are both seen and unseen. Just because some phenomena are unseen doesn’t mean they don’t exist. This image also represents my current fascination with Quantum Physics, Philosophy, Spirituality and related esoteric/metaphysical studies.

 

"Review" (2003) oil on canvas with mixed-media collage on canvas (diptych) Overall dimensions: 60 inches (h) x 120 inches (w)

“Review” (2003)

Artist’s statement: This diptych (meaning a single artwork comprised of two panels) is among my ongoing, “lifelong” series of autobigraphical works that I call “Remnants of Being.” This painting is an expanded self portrait that speaks to the struggles of balancing my work and my identity between the realms of commercial art and studio fine art. Although I spent much of my career working as a commercial artist and illustrator as a way of earning a living, I have always claimed that I am a painter first. I made this painting while I was still employed as the newsroom artist at The Cedar Rapids Gazette (1999-2007) Half of this image is made up of a collage of tearsheets from the newspaper depicting a variety of hand-rendered features and editorial illustrations. The other half is a painted image of myself in office attire looking on. I deliberately depicted myself standing away without a head as a way of expressing the lack or perhaps “loss” of identity I often struggled with while trying to balance my sensabilities as both a commercial illustrator and a studio fine artist. There’s been a long-standing attitude that the two do not belong in the same camp, but I challenge that notion because in my experience both have served me well and both serve to inform and influence the other.

"In Concert"

“In Concert”

 

My greatest joys and feelings of accomplishment involve my various public art projects. Heartland Acres was the first of it’s kind and it ushered me into self-employment. My favorite public art projects are found at the Independence Public Library and at the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown C.R. (“In Concert”, on display at the U.S. Cellular Center, is pictured here).

 

 

 

 

 

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