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I thought it would be fun to change it up today and interview a prolific and successful male artist. Gabriel Shaffer grew up in an artist family and has exhibited and sold his work all over the country. His work has been seen in dozens of magazines and he also has since begun creating public murals in various places, including museums. Gabriel is influenced by cityscapes and mythologies, and often paints totems, masks, and portraits in a folk art style. I have seen Gabriel’s work several times in person at galleries as was always struck by his sincere sense of motivation and passion to his craft.
Tell us a little about your background and childhood. It must have been pretty awesome to have a renowned visionary/folk artist (Cher Shaffer) as your Mom. How did that influence you?
I was raised in Parkersburg WV most of my life. Parkersburg is a very strange, creepy, poor, and depressing small city. My first teacher was a dwarf nun and I spent a lot of my early childhood playing with my three-legged Rotweiller, who was my best friend, exploring the woods in our subdivision and breaking into houses. I also spent a lot of time in my Mom’s art studio which was at the top floor of an old building downtown across from my Dad's office. Both of my parents are eccentric people with complicated personalities and both of them had equal impacts in forming who I am. My mom gets all the attention because she's famous. To try and convey the epic scale of her personality and experiences would require a novel. Aside from being my Mom, she is one of the most spiritually exceptional persons I know. In fact I would go do far as to say my mom is otherworldly.
I was really blessed to grow up exposed to the bulk of the early great southern and Appalachian pioneers in American folk and outsider art. In addition to meeting a lot of these artists, my parents managed to gain an impressive collection of their works. So, it's not an egotistical statement to say I understand this particular genre better than most people. My Mom was always working, so I was also exposed to not only watching her create, but she also exposed me to her major influences. One of my first words was Picasso, so I was taught to have the same regard for the great masters as some people have towards religious icons. Dubuffet, Basquiat and Keith Harring were just as familiar to me as Howard Finster and Grandma Moses. I have also always been obsessed with comic books and science fiction/fantasy, which also is a huge influence in my work. I think besides the exposure to the process and influences, it was invaluable for me to see my Mom’s successful career as well. She had an agent from Beverly Hills that sold her work constantly, so it was never considered a pipe dream, making a living creatively.
I am always fascinated about learning how a painter gets from step A to Complete. What techniques and process do you use to create?
My process is always evolving and attempting to mutate new elements each time I start a new wave of work. I feel like I'm usually playing Dr. Frankenstein Rockstar, harnessing a lot of lightning, chaos, and emotion into a distilled object. This distillation process goes through multiple frequencies before settling into its final form. I don't view my works as intimate objects, to me they are living organic psychic projections that have the ability to effect the environment they are placed in with varying results.
Technically speaking it all starts with brainstorming. I never start out worrying about highly rendered sketches when I come up with an idea, because I feel like the weight of worrying about the rendering can construct the flow of a good idea, so I work with a lot of notes and crude compositions until I have an idea I feel good about. Once the idea is ready to be born, it goes through a multilayered process that incorporates many kinds of recycled vintage paper, paint, inks and stains. I work in different variables with many results but the core of it always is collage/mixed media. I feel a strong bond to collage and the cut up method not only technically but ethically as well. This is what leads me to constantly finding ways to mutate styles and mongrelize them into new breeds.
What are your favorite art materials to use?
I have a liking for most of the medias I work with, however I would say recycled materials specifically paper I enjoy working with the most. Growing up around folk and outsider art I was exposed to a lot of alternative surfaces. I especially enjoy salvaging surfaces from alleys or dumpsters. I also actively hunt recycled paper work, such as old letters and financial forms. I also have a collection of vintage children's art. I feel like these surfaces and materials already carry an energy with them and this energy can be amplified and mutated.
You strike me as very motivated and prolific. What drives you? What is your ultimate goal with all of this?
It's hard to find me in a moment when I'm not thinking about art. Especially now that I'm single, all I do is make art, anywhere from 60-70 hours every week. I can only imagine the total hours I have put in the studio. At this point there are two things driving me. The first is I have an insatiable desire to be a great American artist. Not because I think I'm something special, I honestly could care less about my personal identity, but because I want to see the world, experience making art in other countries, see how it effects people everywhere and hopefully expose them to a greater understanding of themselves and appreciate the mystery and beauty of the world that surrounds them. I'm not interested in fame, only complete mastery and freedom. I want to die an old man inside my studio with a brush in my hands, a dog at my feet and a satisfied feeling knowing I gave my heart and soul to art and the people I connected with through it. The second reason I make art is for survival. Not just to pay rent and feed myself, but I literally would not be able to cope without it. That's not a dramatic statement, it's truth. It's the one thing that helps me make sense of the messed up cycles the human race perpetuates.
If you had to name one thing (attitude, experience) that has brought you success what would it be?
I'd say one of the things that has brought me success is my refusal to stop making work and my willingness to learn and adapt as I go along. Selling and exhibiting art can be a very tricky process, like learning a new language. I have tried to make a point since I started exhibiting and selling my work, to not just become a better artist technically, but to also draw importance to learning the mechanisms of how this work is sold and shown. I've seen too many artists taken advantage of in their lifetimes, I'm not going to be one of those artists.
Do you think it’s easier for male artists? Do you think women and men think differently about creating?
I don't know how to answer this question. In some ways from observing my Mom things have been more difficult for her because she is a female artist, however I've also seen other cases where it has been an advantage. I have no doubt there are differences in the creative processes amongst men and women. For me art is a venue where are I can channel energies that cannot be utilized for creating life forms. In other words I can't carry a child in my body but I can create a piece of art. This is the closest I can experience the process of creation, whereas women can actually give birth.
Tell us about the folk/outside art world. What do you love about it? What is challenging?
This is a question I could probably answer for hours and hours and days on end. I suppose the thing I love the most about folk and outsider art, is I believe it's one of the only true American visual art forms. Meaning it represents an American history with minimal interference from foreign influences, is typically made by untrained and poor people and has no interest in pleasing what would be considered the fine art world. As much as I love art itself I have an extreme distaste for the gatekeepers and mechanisms that animate the art world. To me most art galleries, art dealers, art writers, and even a lot of patrons are like shadows created by the light that the artists emanate. Folk and outsider art is an art form created for everyone, mainly for poor people, people that suffer and the common man. It is not an elitist art form. I love the characters in the stories of the artists particularly, their experiences, inspirations and their adversities continually inform my work. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that American folk and outsider art will be considered equally as important as anything that has occurred in New York City or Los Angeles. In some ways it's more important to me, because it hasn’t had the advantages of all the resources and influences citied usually have. The challenging part of this art form in the past was most of the artists that were represented by this art form, were completely manipulated and taken advantage of by the art dealers and gallery owners that represented them. The few old schoolers that are around to this day are still experiencing very similar circumstances. I also feel one of the other greater challenges is in cracking the membrane of the higher art genres such as the museum systems and major art fairs. There is a lot of prejudice against untrained art that still exists.
I believe that the direction of the genre is a lot like Rock'n Roll music. Old-school folk an outsider art to me is a visual equivalent of blues. Whereas you have a new generation of untrained artists now influenced by other art forms, but completely fascinated and in love with the original strains of folk and outsider art. Much like the way blues was mutated into Rock'n Roll music. I have the utmost confidence in the continued growth of awareness and interest in this art form.
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