Artist scales up his de­tailed works


The News-Times (Sunday) - - Arts & Style - By Joel Lang Joel Lang is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Sun­day Arts & Style.

Rick Shaefer’s art took a huge turn about six years ago.

A Fair­field res­i­dent and early ten­ant of the NEST Arts Fac­tory in Bridge­port, he had fo­cused on the sort of dark, flo­ral land­scapes once done by Flem­ish mas­ters. Ex­cept Shaefer’s land­scapes weren’t paint­ings; his were in­tri­cate mixed me­dia con­struc­tions that achieved the same exquisite de­tail.

Then Shaefer’s work sud­denly got much sim­pler and very much big­ger. He started draw­ing ex­clu­sively in char­coal. One of his first sub­jects was the trunk of a neigh­bor’s oak tree that might have come down dur­ing Su­per­storm Sandy.

“I had never done char­coal. It just clicked. I al­ways avoided it be­cause it’s messy. I’m pris­tine. I like etch­ings,” Shaefer says.

“I went big right out of the box. It was a beau­ti­ful tree and it lay there in a field and I’d walk by it, and maybe I had a cou­ple of wines, but I de­cided ‘I’m go­ing to draw this thing life-size.’ What was left was about 20 feet long and 4 feet high. They had started to cut it up. I did it in sec­tions.”

More char­coal giants would soon join his port­fo­lio. He did a rhi­noc­eros and a bi­son, each in three sec­tions, 8-feet high and 14-feet long. He did a whole se­ries of bulls and horses, not giants, but still large. He kept re­turn­ing to trees, or more likely the re­mains of trees. He draws them as them­selves, iso­lated with­out back­ground, look­ing for the sto­ries they tell with age.

He says his neigh­bor’s tree, a black oak, “was like a col­lapsed build­ing. It still had life go­ing on. Trees have a built-in nar­ra­tive. A fallen tree can be­come a car­cass, a bio­sphere for plants, in­sects or an­i­mals.”

In 2015, he drew the still up­right stump of a sugar maple so de­formed by age that it can seem to have ac­quired hu­man fea­tures, like a Tolkien tree crea­ture. The 8-foot­tall draw­ing won Best in Show at the 2017 in­stall­ment of the Art of the North­east ex­hi­bi­tion at the Sil­ver­mine Arts Cen­ter and earned Shaefer an up­com­ing solo show. He ex­pects to ex­hibit his orig­i­nal fallen black oak and the top­pled trunk of a white oak al­most as large.

Mean­while, his mon­u­men­tal “Refugee Tril­ogy” that de­buted at Fair­field Univer­sity in 2016 trav­eled to Brigham Young Univer­sity in 2017, to Mar­quette Univer­sity this year and is set to go to Stet­son Univer­sity in Florida next sum­mer. Prompted by Syr­i­ans then risk­ing drown­ing to reach Eu­rope, the tril­ogy marked the first time Shaefer ad­dressed a cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cri­sis and made heavy use of hu­man fig­ures.

But he still used char­coal and worked on a grand scale. Each of the three draw­ings, done on vel­lum, was 8-feet high and al­most 14-feet long. They mim­icked the kind of wall-fill­ing his­tor­i­cal paint­ings found in the Met or the Lou­vre. Nor were Shaefer’s refu- gees clad in life­jack­ets and cling­ing to rub­ber boats. They were time­less in their naked­ness, some in­di­vid­ual images bor­rowed in­ten­tion­ally from the old paint­ings and iden­ti­fied in ex­hibit brochures.

“I wanted to tap into the his­tor­i­cal con­text of refugee sta­tus or forced mi­gra­tions,” he says. “They’ve been go­ing on since the be­gin­ning of time. Even be­fore Exodus, peo­ple moved be­cause of vi­o­lence or other up­heavals.”

The char­coal tech­nique Shaefer dis­cov­ered with the black oak was lib­er­at­ing for him and il­lu­sion­ary for the viewer. From a dis­tance, or on a com­puter screen, his draw­ings look as finely de­tailed as an etch­ing. Up close they dis­solve.

“It’s called mark mak­ing and keep­ing the mark mak­ing alive and vi­brant and cal­li­graphic and ges­tu­ral is the aim. [It’s] not just how [a draw­ing] looks, but the en­ergy you’re giv­ing off,” he says. “If there’s a lot of marks and they are done in a spe­cific way, they seem to co­a­lesce as you back off. They cre­ate a sense of de­tail that’s not ac­tu­ally de­tail.”

It took Shaefer sev­eral months to be­come com­fort­able with his new style that, de­spite the scale, was speedy com­pared to his ear­lier land­scapes. Char­coal draw­ing was less pre­cious. The scale was achieved by us­ing a grid sys­tem. In his white oak, dis­played out­side his stu­dio, any one square foot sec­tion can look like a swarm of slashes.

Be­fore turn­ing to fine art, Shaefer had a ca­reer as ed­i­to­rial and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher. He stud­ied art at Duke Univer­sity, but im­por­tant parts of his ed­u­ca­tion came from mu­se­ums in Eu­rope where his fa­ther was sta­tioned as an Army of­fi­cer. He makes his affin­ity for old mas­ters plain in both his early land­scapes and the refugee tril­ogy.

In fact, he re­turned to sym­bolic flo­ral land­scapes in his most re­cent ex­hibit at the Sears Pey­ton Gallery in New York. He bor­rowed its ti­tle, “The Par­son’s Tale,” from the last of Chaucer’s “Can­ter­bury Tales.”

Un­like the oth­ers, it dwelt pi­ously on sin and Shaefer did seven draw­ings, each 6-feet by 4-feet, de­pict­ing the seven deadly sins. He did not iden­tify the sins with ti­tles though. The draw­ings, in which flow­ers are stand-in for hu­mans, are more sug­ges­tive of nat­u­ral de­cay than hellish pun­ish­ment.

When the ex­hibit closed in Oc­to­ber, Shaefer was al­ready at work ex­pand­ing his Refugee Tril­ogy to a se­ries of five mon­u­men­tal draw­ings. The orig­i­nal three de­picted a bor­der cross­ing, a wa­ter cross­ing and a land cross­ing. Now he’s adding what he calls book­ends to ad­dress two other refugee is­sues.

“Why are th­ese peo­ple on the road to be­gin with? Why are they es­cap­ing?” he asked him­self. “And once they get some­place, they try to re­build.” How will they do it?

In his stu­dio, both look near com­ple­tion. He says he’s “put ev­ery­thing but the kitchen sink” in the draw­ing that will rep­re­sent chaos and con­flict. There are images of an­gels and an­i­mals and rec­og­niz­able mod­ern fig­ures, like the fighter Conor McGre­gor. Also, for the first time Shaefer has drawn an image of him­self. It’s in the lower right hand cor­ner and shows him cradling a Christ fig­ure, who is a fallen com­bat­ant.

The equally full re­build­ing draw­ing has images of mod­ern ma­chin­ery and in the back­ground a struc­ture he says is a ref­er­ence to Brueghel’s “Tower of Ba­bel.”

“When­ever we re­build, we may screw it up,” Shaefer says. “It’s a cau­tion­ary tale.”


File Photo / File Photo

Fair­field artist Rick Shaefer’s “Van Breems Oak” was among the works fea­tured in a pre­vi­ous ex­hi­bi­tion in Green­wich.

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