Wade Carey Interviews Camille Schefter

By Wade Carey on September 17, 2010


Camille Schefter interview by wade carey on East City Art
Camille Schefter. Photo by Tom Pullin for Studio H.

Editor’s note: Wade Carey interviewed Camille Schefter on August 18, 2010 about a month before the opening of her first DC solo show Insoluble at Studio H.
W(ade): How did you get here? Is it a temporary destination or are you in Washington for the foreseeable future?

C(amille): Well, I graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul last spring. So, I’ve been here a year and I came because my partner, Andrew, works for a congresswoman. I followed him here and I’m actually applying to grad schools this fall.

W: So, you would like to get an M.F.A.?

C: Yes; in painting.

W: Do you have any ideas about schools yet or is it like pretty much anywhere is good?

C: There are some schools that I would really love to get into.

W: Locally, in the Washington, D.C., area?

C: No, I’ll probably move out of the area next year.

W: What would be your number one choice?

C: Ooh. That is a hard decision; maybe Yale.

W: That would be a wonderful idea!

C: Yes. They have an amazing painting program and I think it’s along the lines of what I’m doing. Cross my fingers. I would love to be in San Francisco, too.

W: That would be beautiful.

C: And my dad’s family is from California.

W: I didn’t realize that. When I looked you up, I read that you came from Iowa, Mt. Vernon, Iowa. I thought, well, that’s in the middle of nowhere, well, maybe it’s kind of near Iowa City.”

C: Yes, it’s close to Iowa City. My partner always makes fun of me because I have this thing that I always have to tell people when they ask, “Where are you from?” Because I was born in Denver and my mother is from upstate New York and my dad has moved all over but his whole family is in California now. When I was in Iowa when I was little, I never felt quite—I was always the “new girl”—and we moved a couple of times. I think I moved at stages of my life where I stayed the new girl. It was always, “Oh, well, your parents are from the coasts.”

W: That’s not very different from all of the kids who are from Washington because they had parents who moved around because of the Foreign Service or the armed forces. There was a traveling family kind of thing going on when they were kids. You clearly are not from twenty generations of farm kids. Your parents were not from Mt. Vernon, even though they lived there.

C: No, not at all!

W: There’s one school there, called Cornell College, as ironic as that may seem. How did your parents end up there?

C: Actually, my parents weren’t involved with Cornell, although a lot of my friends had parents who were professors. No, I think when we were in Colorado, my dad this job with a Dutch company that has a main office in Iowa. The real reason is I think my parents found this really beautiful 100 year-old farm house and some land.

W: That sounds like a really good reason to be there.

C: Yes, it is really beautiful where they live but there is not a lot to do.

W: You would have to go quite a way to get to any significant density for night life and things like that.

C: Yes. It was also funny being there in that my dad is half Syrian and so I was always sort of labeled as one of the “dark” kids.

W: “Tawneys;” that is what Benjamin Franklin called them.

W: So, then you went to Macalester, which is a great school.

C: Yes, I was at Macalester. I was really close to going to Pratt but I decided that I wanted to learn Spanish in depth and none of the art schools had any language programs. I decided to go to Macalester and I actually am glad that I did because our art department was really quite strong. We had some great professors but I also got to learn—and do—a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere, like weird anthropology classes that I was able to take.

W: Lots of international focus.

C: Yes, very, very international.

W: This is a standard question, but is there a point at which you remember that painting was going to be the thing that worked for you? Is there a point when you decided? When you discovered painting?

C: I did a summer program at the Kansas City Art Institute the summer after either my freshman or sophomore year of high school. That was just drawing and painting. I think then –because I had been interested in other things—was when I really decided on painting. That was what I wanted so then I applied for a scholarship program. It is called the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation Summer Seminar. It is held at Colorado College. I won that scholarship so I was able to go there and paint in Colorado for a month. That was the summer after my junior year. I think that was really when it solidified. So, really, I’ve known since high school, definitely.

W: And you continued, although you had the other interests, and you had the ability to spread out and learn a lot more, but you main focus was always art?

C: Yes, definitely. There wasn‘t a question in my mind that I would major in art, in painting.

W: Do you have any particular memory of people or events that said, OK, I have a better sense of my own direction in painting? I’ve seen your technique evolving [on the artist’s website]. Even since college at Macalester, your painting has changed. Has there been external influence? Has it been entirely internal?

C: The programs I did in high school, and then during the beginning of college, were sort of “classical”—in quotation marks. We were doing live models and figure studies, studies of blocks and cubes, you know, just fundamental things. I think once I reached Macalester I was able to branch off from that. They allowed me a lot of independence and to really delve into what I wanted to do. And I’m still developing my style, I’m still pretty young.

W: Well, you are still thinking about going to graduate school to continue learning—to continue taking instruction.

C: Yes. But I think I am on to something that I am comfortable saying is a style of my own. You see people in undergraduate programs and they are all over the place, doing sculptures and videos. I think I am definitely honing something that is my own that I feel really comfortable with.

W: The opportunity you have in graduate school—you have to further enhance that—what do you think you need? What is it that you think is important for you to keep learning?

C: I think I just need someone to be really mean to me! During undergrad, I loved the critiques and I always wanted someone to be really harsh with me. Professors don’t really want to do that. Sometimes they will but most of the time, there is a lot of patting on the back, things that don’t really help you. That is actually what I miss because I’m not hooked in to the DC art scene, because I am new here, I don’t have a lot of people who would say, “That one is great, but that one’s not so good.”

W: Are you trying to finish anything up for the show or do you know pretty much what is going to be hanging?

C: I am trying to paint until the very, very last day that I can. I like having that kind of pressure. It helps me. It gets me going. Also, I want to have as many things as possible to choose from. I want to make the show look really fluid.

W: Does the opportunity to show solo mean a lot to you? You alluded to it—if I was reading between the lines successfully—on your website. Is that true?

C: Yes. I am also hoping that if other artists in the area come to the show then I will be able to network with some of them and then maybe have a group show that makes some sense—to find some peers who are doing things that are similar to what I am doing. It is hard to find people like that.

W: I know that you go out and try to go to galleries, yourself, to see as much as you can. You bicycle around all over the city and try to show up for events. Do you want to talk a little bit about your own technique? I am looking at the painting on your easel right now. How has it progressed? Is it anywhere near being done?

C: I think that one is pretty much done.

W: Do you decide when something is done or do you always want to make more changes? Are you pretty good about finishing a piece?

C: I have gotten a lot better at it but I have a blessing and curse in that I work really fast. I can bang a painting out in about a day but I can also ruin a painting in about an hour. It actually takes a very long time to mix my colors.

W: A lot of emphasis for you goes into the color mix on the palette in each painting?

C: Yes, it is very specific. It can take me two hours to mix a palette before I get started.

W: So, for example, the choices you made for this painting, the greens, grays and umbers, tell me how you go. Is it from light to dark? Also, I notice that you usually paint on board.

C: Yes, it is mainly board. I have a couple of canvases but I have gotten to like the textures that I am able to create. I don’t like the give of canvas. I like having a hard surface.

W: Do you work with brushes or do you use a knife.

C: No. Actually, my favorite things are these rubber wedges. I am really fond of working with them.

W: They are almost like versions of the squeegees that you use in silk screening. But they are much softer.

C: It has been difficult to get down to this size because I was working on really large pieces. I had a professor tell me that every single person has a certain brush size that is particular to them. It is like your handwriting. I am a little person and I have a really big brush! It was hard for me to learn to condense everything but I think it is working.

W: You work really fast so am I correct in assuming that you are not a particular fan of doing studies, sketches or preliminary drawing on the canvas? How much work do you do before laying down the oil?

C: I don’t do any preliminary work on the canvas. If I get into a place where I need something, I mean, if I am confused about a certain image or a form and I need more specificity then I will go do a sketch.

W: Is that usually about a human form or something else?

C: Sometimes. Or it may be the texture of a façade or something like the little fence back there [in the painting on the easel].

W: Speaking of humans, I think there are usually figurative representations of people in most of the things I’ve seen—certainly on your website. Is that a general rule? Is the human form always a subject in your paintings?

C: There are a lot of figures in my paintings, yes, but less in the newer work.

: I guess what I want to know is why you draw people. That’s where I am headed. Is there reason that you want people to be in your pictures?

C: I know that I am interested in the duality of the self—the difference between public and private. That can either mean an image of a person in a sort of liminal space, questioning themselves, in a way. Or, it can be a scene, like a couple of these [paintings] back here that are in empty or ambiguous, so that the viewer has to do that questioning.

W: This piece here is the one that is on the H Street Gallery website advertising your upcoming show. I know that one will have to be in the show!

C: Yes, that one will be in the show.

W: This painting over here, I can say that it looks “industrial.” It doesn’t have humans in it, it has machines. It has earth-movers in it. It is about color and mood and the relationship between the objects in the foreground that are in warm colors—that are very easy to pull out of the picture—and very dark colors that recede back in shadow. Is a scene like this painted entirely from your imagination?

C: I used a reference for the earth-movers but the rest of it is from my head. Yes, it is about creating a mood, like you said. When this painting is alongside all these other ones, I think it will be easier to make connections between why I would do such an industrial scene, making this mood, or space for the viewer to enter, something to think about, something to consider.

W: Now that I am looking at more of your work, I am not seeing as many figures. I have to correct my assumptions. There is something almost like De Chirico in this one. I guess it’s the vanishing point and the lone vertical object. Your paintings are quite distinct from one another. Your palette choices differ from one to another. They are not all the same suite of colors.

C: No, they definitely are not. But I do think that they all exist in the same universe. They all do make sense together.

W: I can see that you are asking us to see the dialog between several colors that are in some of the same families—a red that is not quite red, a blue that is not blue–not really blue. I can see how you have spent a lot of time mixing because they are not like other colors I have seen.

C: Yes, I guess that I would call myself a color geek.

W: Well, you are in the right town for that! We are addicted to color here in Washington, D.C. This keynote painting here does have a figure and it has other traces of other figures. Are we looking at the same figure in different parts?

C: It’s not really necessary to know. I think the overall composition is more important than a distinct narrative.

W: Do you use models or do you work from memory on those, as well?

C: Sometimes I work from models. I did this big series a few years ago of people wearing a sort of clothing—things made out of meat. There were pretty classical nudes with drapery made out of steak. I used the pocket change I had and bought meat. I went to the grocery store to take photographs. I did have live models—I had a really good friend…

W: Who would wear the meat? That’s great!

C: I have gotten away from things like that which are so literal though.

W: When you are just out of school and when you are young enough to believe that you ought to be continuing to grow, or ought to be continuing to formulate your métier, I think it is easy to look at the things that are self-conscious about what you do but some artists just know what they are right away. What you have said to me, so far, indicates that you are further along that path than a lot of artist students. What resonated with me is that you made a point to say that what you need is tutorship. You need people who are willing to give you hard analysis about what you are doing and to say things that are critical about what you are doing so that you don’t have to do all the self-criticism. Tell me if I am wrong, but it sounds like you are hungry for someone else to pick apart your paintings besides you.

Yes, because being up here alone in the studio, I am the only one who does. When it gets to be that you are surrounded by these paintings, giving off different things, I end up second-guessing myself.

W: Exactly. You run the risk of becoming too self-critical just because you think you haven’t been critical enough or just because you think you have got to do it. You have to figure out something to say. I can’t be just right! There has to be something wrong.

C: Exactly, so I do feel myself saying, “Wait! You are being really hard on yourself. Wait! You are being really, really serious. Just do a damn painting!”

W: Or, you don’t even know what is wrong. You are being really hard on yourself but you are missing something that is completely outside of your imagination about what might be a criticism of the work.

C: Right!

W: Whew! Well, love brought you here. What would happen if you decided to go to Yale? Would you split up, for the moment?

C: No, we are partners.

W: You would figure out some way to stick together. That’s good! Have you met anyone else? You have been doing a lot of going out and bicycling around. Do you have a crowd of people that you run with? Is there a community of Washington artists and others that you hang out with or are you alone—or alone, as a couple?

C: There is a big contingent of Macalester kids here because of the international focus of the school. None of them are art students. Nobody comes here for art, unfortunately. Or not a lot of people do. I think because a couple of months ago—I work at the Phillips Collection now, so I’m meeting more art oriented kids. Until then, I was working in the produce department of a grocery store.

I noticed that on your website—the “Yes!” store in Petworth, right?

Yes. So, I have definitely got a diverse mix of friends. I have met some people from the art scene. I’ve been seeing the same people a little bit but I don’t really know anyone. I think the D.C. crowd is pretty tight-knit and hard to crack.

I’ve said that myself. You are not wrong. It depends how big the town is. There will always be a village of people who are serious, primarily interested in visual arts—or even zeroing in on painting. If you are in big enough places, it will be the same people from one gallery to the next. That is really true in Washington. It can feel off-putting at first. Especially when you have not had that breakthrough moment where you feel like you are there. Then you spend the rest of your life worrying about breaking out because it is Washington! But it is true in every place I have lived. I don’t want to cast it in too many negatives; it is part of the artistic process. Artists can be a little bit hounded, or driven, or distracted about missing something or needing something new. In almost every town, if you hang out with artists, you are going to have that semi-neurosis going on.

C: Yes. And I wouldn’t say it is a totally negative thing because it makes people active but it can feel negative and it can feel—I don’t know what the word is. Just being new in a city is hard. I have found some artists that I admire in D.C. but I don’t know that I have seen anybody’s work that I say, “Oh, mine could be a cousin to that…”

W: How did you meet Philip Hutinet, the owner of Studio H?

C: When I got here I had this fire burning under me. I felt that if I didn’t I would just sit in my studio and paint funny paintings and not ever have anybody see them. I was just calling every name in the phone book that had “gallery” in it. I got him on the phone and asked if I could bring down some stuff for him to look at and I was lucky enough that he had his computer in front of him at that moment so he pulled my portfolio up on my website and he said, “Wow, I really like your stuff. Please bring something in so I can see it in person.” That’s how it happened.

W: Did undergraduate art school teach you anything about the management of your work and the images that exist on the Internet. How did you learn to put together a website or was it done by you or by somebody else?

C: I did the entire website. I am still working out some things. I still need some space to shoot better quality photographs of the work. The director of the gallery at Macalester, Greg Fitz, if I had a mentor at Macalester, I would say it was him. He was always a big stickler for quality and craft. I know how to do a portfolio—the actual mechanical shooting and putting together—because of him and because of a professor, Ruthann Godollei. She put on a really good senior seminar. She and Greg Fitz did a good job about it; I got a pretty realistic image of trying to make it in the art world, that is. It is really hard. It sucks to having to shop your art around to galleries. A lot of times you get ignored or turned down.

W: It is interesting to me. I have wanted to hear from anyone who has been in school fairly recently what schools are doing about teaching business and ethics. That is something that is under-taught, historically, for every profession and I am curious to know what the artists thought about the level of attention that is paid to being an artist, not approaching art school as simply a place where you hone a technique for producing art but also living as an artist, or being able to survive, possibly, in the great and almost unattainable hope that you can make a living as a fine artist.

C: Right. I had friends who went to MCAD, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I actually took a couple of classes over there. From that I gleaned that in art school they do make you take a sort of management “live as an artist” type of thing, but in art school they’ll have a show where kids will sell paintings for $400 or $500 really easily. They’ll sell a few of them and say, “Oh, this is isn’t so bad. This is pretty easy.”

W: That world is full of rich parents.

C: Right. Macalester didn’t do that. We were surrounded by an environmental studies program and an economics program that were world-class. They are great.

W: Yes, but I confess that I never thought about Macalester as having an art department. I am sure they have a great department but I never thought of anyone going to Macalester to be an art student.

C: No, and they are working on a new building but our facilities were very small. When I went over to MCAD, I was saying, “Oh! You have a studio? What’s a studio?! And also, they were having so many people to talk to and to say to them, “Oh, yeah, you are a really good artist!” I think that I had a bit more realistic, formative four years.

W: Sure, it was not as much an ivory tower. What you had was one of the really great liberal arts colleges in America. Art fits in there somewhere but it is by no means the star.

C: No, they need to give it a little bit more, I think.

W: So, you are going to keep painting, hurrying and rushing, and trying to put paint on board right up until the last minute. As you are doing that, so far, I am going to ask you to step aside and do what you wish you didn’t have to do so much and analyze your own work. That is something I have got to ask you because I am curious: As you are rushing and as more work is being added to the total number of pieces that you hope will go in the show, if I were a critic, or if I were an art lover who was coming to the show, would I see a narrative, or a theme, or any kind of an arc? As you put together the show now in your own mind is there a narrative? Is it moving from one place to another, as you see the show? Is there enough change in the way you are doing the paintings, as you are rushing to finish, to see that you are going somewhere that shows up in this show?

C: Yes. I would say so.

W: It is hard to describe that but try to describe it as best you can.

C: I think, formally, the visual part—the concept notwithstanding—it is as if there are two camps of my work. There is a fairly illusionistic, figural, narrative urge that I have on one hand. There is this newer—probably what I like more – abstract part. It is that camp that I am finding that I am better at. I think, or what I hope is, that the show will highlight a convergence of the two. It will show a sort of harmony between some of these illusionistic tendencies and what I think I am better at—or not what I am better at—what I favor: the more abstract. I don’t know if I would call it expressionistic.

W: I have not used that word but what I was going to say next was about speed. Not so much expression, because I think that’s too easy to talk about with every artist. But the speed with which you do the work lends itself to the kind of work that you are favoring.

C: Right. I tend to favor where I can see someone’s process, where I can see a little bit of un-finish, or maybe a little roughness, and a real awareness of the material. Because I admire that, I feel that is what I have been concentrating on—paying homage to the brush stroke, the color combinations, and what paint can do on its own.

W: When you are doing the palette work, do you see the painting emerging at all? I am going back to the fact that you are not really doing preliminary sketches, or plotting out in pencil anything on the board before you are applying the paint. This also favors your work that is coming later, that is going into this show. How much to you see form when you are still looking at color on the palette?

C: I think I come into my studio with a sort of nebulous idea in my head. There is a sort of seed. Maybe it is a sweater I saw on the ground or maybe it is a person that I saw when I was riding my bike. With this little idea—this little thing—I try to mix colors and have a whole palette full of that mood, or that idea. Then I will just go with whatever color I start with and just bang something out and then sit over in the corner as far away from it as I can and try to concentrate the image, or the idea, back into this wild thing that I just put on the board.

W: Are there other senses that come into play? Do you find any inspiration derived from sound or smell, or is light and color the full focus of the work?

C: I don’t listen to any music while I paint but while I mix, which can take a while, I actually listen to a lot of blues, like Junior Kimbrough. And I also listen to musicians like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

W: Do you think that affects the mood that you need, enjoy or cherish in the time that you are spending at the craft of mixing colors?

C: Yes. It is a sort of meditative zone.

W: Gets you into the groove?

C: Yeah. And this little place is like a greenhouse sometimes. I have got used to painting on a one hundred degree D.C. greenhouse porch. [The artist’s studio is in a converted sleeping porch with no insulation.]

W: It’s really nice right now.

C: Yes! I am going to start painting as soon as you’re gone.

W: I’ve taken up enough of your time but what else might you want to talk about? I always like to leave some time for the artist to think about what we’ve talked about already and to ask, what else do you need to say? What else haven’t we covered? What else is important for you to tell me, and what you’d like to see in any interview that is done with you?

C: I really do think that my paintings will appeal to people as a body of work, but also as little vignettes, I don’t know, as these little snippets of a situation. I always think to myself—because I used to do quite a bit of photography—I will say to myself, “Why is this better?” I had a professor ask me, “Why should you paint this instead of just taking a photograph?” That is why I did get away from some of the more realistic stuff. There are some really good realist artists but I think, nowadays, especially because of all the technology, it is really important to step back and say, “Why am I even using paint?” So, I think that I am really starting to be able to back that up.

W: That’s great. Where are you at, practically speaking, in thinking about going to graduate school? Do you have to be accepted this far in advance for next year?

C: No. There is a graduate portfolio review in New York City in late October. I will be going to that and shopping my portfolio around to the representatives of different schools. I know of some schools that I would really like to go to, but I know there are a lot of other ones that I don’t know that much about that are very good schools and I would like to talk to them more. After that, I hope to paint a couple months more and apply by the New Year.

W: And in the meantime, you can look forward to the weather cooling off again. It won’t be as steamy. The weather really affects the paint. Does it affect the way you paint? Do you like having longer before the paint dries in the wet, steamy weather? Do you like having the oil wetter?

C: Yes. It is fine for me. I’ve become good enough at the craft to know when I need a little more of the alkyd medium to dry things up a bit. Much of my work is additive. I don’t have to worry about the technicalities. I don’t do things like finicky glazing, for example.

W: I see some shells here. Are they just shells that you like or are they forms for your paintings?

C: They were just shells that I liked when I found them. I took a little trip up to Massachusetts to the ocean. I really like them to create these little areas. And I really like them hanging out with my hammer. I like that those two are together, being in my studio. I just like to look at them and think about them together.

W: It forms a great dynamic.

C: Yes. Sometimes when I cannot concentrate on a painting, when I have so much energy, I will have to divert it into something else so I can really almost thin my brain out, to get the extra out. I will do something like this. Or I will make a collage. There is always something creative going on. I have a big saw over there. Sometimes I will chop some wood and make a weird sculpture, just so I can calm down.

W: Sounds like you just need to blow off steam.

C: Yes. I am not going to smash the shells— I’m just going to think about it!

W: No, it’s just the dynamic, I can tell!

C: Right!

W: And here are some feathers in a cap. Maybe you wear that bicycling?

C: I have worn that bicycling.

W: Do you love feathers just for themselves or do they give you some kind of energy?

C: When I am on the bicycle, I really like having the feather earring in because I can hear it.

W: Oh, yeah, it is almost like a flag or a rudder. Does that go back far, your love of feathers?

C: I’ve always been a collector. All these shells and feathers, and I have a big rock collection in my car!

W: That could get to be a rather rattling thing.

C: Yea, but it’s nice. I think it’s all part of an appreciation for really small things.

W: That’s about it. I will take my leave and thank you so very much. You were so kind to take this time to talk with me.

C: Not at all. You were easy to talk to.

W: I look forward to seeing the show!