Sam Schanwald talks the future of queer art and why Sasha Velour is so important.



Artist of the Week: Sam Schanwald

Sam Schanwald’s studio in Industry City, Brooklyn radiates with an energy totally akin to its inhabitant. Colored sticky notes line the walls, and light pours in from the third story windows while Frida Kahlo looks down on the room like the eyes of a teacher on her student. It was here where MILK.XYZ sat down with illustrator, visual artist, director, actor and writer Sam Schanwald to chat everything from his latest projects to the future of queer art, to who he voted for on Drag Race. Sam offers a completely unique and curated approach to his own work and the ways in which he chooses to discuss and share the queer experience with others.

Check out the full interview here, and keep up with Sam Schanwald as he takes on his latest project.

Tell us a little bit about your art and the mediums that you practice in.

I am a director for theater, I’m a writer for theater and publications, and I’m a visual artist. My visual art spans from illustration for publications, to visual art that stands alone, to installations, to scenic design, to live projection design.

Which one have you been doing the longest?

I can’t remember a time during which I wasn’t drawing. When I was younger, my parents would take me to see theater productions and I would go home after seeing the production and redesign everything according to what it should have been visually. I think I still do that now. Even as a precocious seven-year-old, I had a really strong editorial eye.

When you’re starting a new project, what’s your end goal?

My end goal is really dependent on who I’m working with. I don’t really have an agenda that I’m setting out to accomplish. The goal is usually dependent on the nature of the collaboration between the two parties, and deciding mutually on what we’re both interested in and how to negotiate our own individual visions with the collective one.

What’s your favorite collaboration that you’ve done?

I think my favorite one so far is the first illustration gig I got, which was with Esperanza Spalding. I was an intern about a year and a half ago at an artist residency called The Orchard Project. The interns were each paired with an artist, and we would study them, follow them while they’re doing their residency, learn about their creative processes, in order to learn about our own process in comparison to theirs. Essentially, the director who was working with Esperanza found out I was an illustrator. At the time, she was on the hunt for visual artists. She gave me an opportunity to make a portrait of Esperanza in 8 hours. After that, she was going to send it to her, and Esperanza would say whether she wanted to work with me or not. At the time, I wasn’t doing anything digitally, just ink and paper, and I got to sit in the room and do illustrations responding to what Esperanza was doing performance-wise. I was passing those handmade illustrations to a projection artist who was animating them. It was very strange. It was a very strange and exciting first illustration job.

I guess the first one always stands out in some way or another. Does your art ever get political, or do you think art is inherently political?

Yeah, definitely. I’m working on a play right now called Pidor and the Wolf. I’m developing it with a bunch of actors and my composer, and it’s in response to the ongoing crisis in Chechnya right now. It is political in a sense, but it’s interesting because my collaborators and I are not really interested in the aesthetics of political work, especially political theater work, because it’s just so easy to satire. Overtly political, left-wing work ends up being satirized because it’s angry, it’s preachy, and it’s shouty. As an activist and artist, I’ve learned it’s so much more effective to invite people to your table and have a meaningful discussion than to shout at them about why you think they’re wrong. For this play, it’s been an adventure in making the queer consciousness really 3-dimensional, and allowing people to escape into the narrative and give them a sense of wonder, rather than shouting at them about why they should pay attention to this issue.

Going off of that, how does being a queer artist and having that voice translate into your work?

The queer consciousness is so impossible for me to describe. It’s hard to articulate it. I think personally it sprouted from when I was a child coming into my own. You start to lose your childhood freedom and people start to care about how masc you are or how femme you are and how you’re performing gender in a certain way. You start to stifle yourself because you’re afraid of getting rocks thrown at you. You start stifling aspects of yourself because you’re afraid and because you’re afraid of the emotional and physical repercussions. In my adult life, I’m rediscovering all of the colors that are inside of me and all of the aspects of the queer consciousness that I’ve trained myself to bury because I was afraid of being hurt. Now I can fully embrace parts of who I am. Even now, though, if I’m wearing dangly earrings, I’ll flip them up inside my headphones. If I’ve got nail polish on, I’ll put my hands in my pockets. You learn to retreat in certain ways because you’re trained to believe everyone is after you, even though that may not be the case. A lot of my work deals with exploring that illusion of trying to hide your self.

Do you have any artistic inspirations or queer artists that inspired you to come into your own or explore that more?

Yes and no. I’m going to be controversial and say a lot of the queer work being made right now is not what I’m interested in. I think queer intellectuals are being put to the wayside in exchange for work that’s about six-packs and work that’s about the chiseled naked body and those kinds of things. I appreciate that aesthetically — bodies are extremely beautiful. However, the conversation isn’t moving forward here. We see a certain type or standard for how physical bodies are supposed to look in larger society being echoed in the queer microcosm, and that simply isn’t fair. It’s certainly not what the community is about. I will always say that Keith Haring is an immense inspiration to me, as well as a lot of other feminine-identifying artists. I look to a lot of writers, too.

You talked a little bit about how you learned about others’ creative processes at the artist residency — can you walk us through what your creative process like?

I’m still figuring that out. Because I was an actor for so long, and it’s what I went to school for, that’s the process I was taught. In my final year of college, I got to direct a full production for the first time on the director/creator route I was pursuing, which is very different from being an actor. As an actor, you generally don’t have a lot of agency. You’re being fed what the material is and how you’re supposed to approach that material. Now, I’m very new to having space to really explore what my process is, and I think the process changes vastly depending on what I’m working on, who I’m working with, and why I’m doing that particular project.

The creative process is changing now with social media — everything is much more fast-paced. It’s about churning out work and getting online reception. Do you think art and especially queer art have been impacted by social media culture?

I feel it in myself. As someone who has an Instagram, who is an illustrator, and who uses Instagram to get commissions, and who has gotten a lot of commissions out of Instagram, it’s a really useful tool to get people to see your work. Internally, there’s a struggle in which I am thinking, as I post something, whether it fits my social media package. That’s not a healthy thought to have when you’re in the weeds of creating something. Nothing’s going to be good as you’re working on it, but I want to keep posting and be transparent about what my process is. Using social media is about finding the balance between showing the messiness of the creative process while giving people something delicious to look at. It’s difficult. I’m still trying to figure it out.

What projects are you working on right now?

I’m working on the play that we’re trying to move forward. I’m trying to bring a director on board. Right now, I’m just sitting in the writer’s chair. We’re also going to be adding live projections to it, so we’ll have a camera and a projector setup with manipulated objects and I’ll be drawing illustrations live while the play is going on. The sensation I’m after is that of listening to a podcast on the subway, and there’s a slew of visuals passing by you, and sometimes what you’re listening to and what you’re seeing click into each other. It’s like, oh I’m listening to a podcast about this thing and those shoes are right in front of me. Or, I’m listening to a podcast about this person, and the person across from me looks like they could be the person doing the interview. I’m interested in that. I’m also working on an installation that’s going up in the new headquarters of the company I teach with, GAKKO. I’m doing a series of 30 portraits that are new, colorful, insane versions of renaissance portraits.

That’s so cool.

Yeah, so it’ll all be digital. I’m releasing them all at one time. I usually would just be like here’s one, here’s one, here’s one, so people get to know the project, but this time I’m putting them all out at once as a collection.

Where’s the play happening?

I can’t say where the next iteration will be, but we are avidly on the hunt for more support. We are engaged in the process of submitting the script to different places, getting people to know about it, and teaming up with different organizations in the city that are working to address crises that affect queer people in a global setting.

Are you active with any other organizations that help the queer community in New York?

I’m a huge fan of the drag community. When Sasha Velour was on the last season of Drag Race, she was so self-aware about what it means to be an interdisciplinary queer person and being really intelligent about that. She was able to connect interdisciplinary qualities to being a queer person and she proved herself to be extremely smart. I went to “Nightgowns” for the first time the other day, and it was a fucking awakening. My friends, who are also drag queens, and I talk so much about why she’s such an amazing role model. She’s just aware of her position and her platform in a way that a lot of other drag queens aren’t. Here’s someone showcasing her intellect. Here’s someone making aesthetically beautiful work. She wants others to succeed, and that’s something other winners haven’t really wanted for others in the past.

True, especially with her intelligent approach to drag – she’s all about letting people see drag for what it truly is, not just what’s popular.

Yes, and the history! You are just foolish if you discount how the transgender community has always been woven into drag. She’s amazing.

You touched on this before, about how sexuality is a huge part of the queer experience, but it’s not the only part.

I think sexuality is a big part of our discourse right now because queer people have a delayed coming into their own. Like I said, we are taught to hide ourselves for a huge part of our lives. At least, for a lot of us. Maybe not the people who went to arts high schools [laughs] And then later, sometimes during college, sometimes after college, we finally can become who we are and who we were born to be. I think when that happens, a second puberty also happens. Sexuality is a huge part of that — realizing you can feel this way and that’s okay. It’s a beautiful thing. Queer sexuality is a beautiful, amazing, wondrous thing. At the same time, we have to be engaging with that and how it’s displayed in really thoughtful ways in order for people to understand the dimensionality of the queer experience.

“I’m rediscovering all of the colors that are inside of me and all of the aspects of the queer consciousness that I’ve trained myself to bury.”

Where do you see the future of art, and the future of queer art, going?

I think Sasha and her win are huge predictors of where queer art is headed. That is to a place where being someone who is intellectual and queer is at the center of the community, rather than being pushed to the side. The decentering of queer intellectuals often happens because we’re questioning and critiquing what’s going on in our community. I think there’s a trap in thinking that queer people who are engaged in social criticism are anti the queer community. Queer people are allowed to and should be encouraged to be constantly questioning and reforming what the culture is. It’s something that’s being mainstreamed so much right now — on VH1, on TV, in magazines. There’s a generation that’s coming up that wants to explore gender, and that’s exciting. There’s a lot of hope, but we have to stay critical.

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists of the week.

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