Ward Schumaker Makes Art on Pennsylvania Avenue
Contemporary art of “relaxed, fearless confidence,” San Francisco Chronicle critic Kenneth Baker said of Ward Schumaker’s recent exhibition at the Jack Fischer Gallery, located on Potrero Avenue. According to Baker, the show displayed “new work that immediately rewards a lifetime of learning to look.” The accolades were no surprise to anyone who’s followed Potrero Hill artist Schumaker’s work.
Schumaker, who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue with his wife, artist/illustrator Vivienne Flesher, has been making art since his Omaha childhood. But several detours kept the public from knowing much about it until late in his career. The first was winning first place in a Nebraska Governor’s Art Competition when he was a 22-year-old college senior, and then having his painting removed before the show opened.
“I needed $400 for my last semester,” he recalled, “and I saw an ad for the contest announcing a $400 Purchase Prize. I had been doing one-color paintings, but pop art was all the rage, so I thought I’d do something pop.” That turned out to be a pop art copy of Michelangelo’s iconic “God Creating the Universe,” the segment showing God reaching out and almost touching the hand of Adam. “I did a pop art God,” Schumaker explains, “but as a skeleton, showing the bones, and I put a wrist watch on his arm.”
Out-of-state judges awarded Schumaker first place, but Nebraska dignitaries, including the governor and his wife, imagined pictures within the images that the artist didn’t actually put there, and declared it pornographic. After being summoned to a basement room where his painting stood inside a vault—with pieces of cardboard taped over the purportedly offensive areas —the young artist was offered $400 plus another $25 to remove his work from the competition. Word, of course, quickly got out. Reporters were shown the painting and, bewildered, were told “Well, if you don’t see anything dirty in it you don’t have a dirty mind.”
Schumaker used the $400 to finish school. He soon left Nebraska, winding up in San Francisco. He got an apartment on Fillmore, and for a while participated in the free-spirited sixties scene. “I kept painting,” he said, “but I didn’t want to show it to anybody. I loved the abstract painters from the time I was a kid. I had Pollock paintings hanging on doors; my painting looked like Rothko.” With no money coming in from his unseen paintings, Schumaker went to work for a South Bay paper company.
He’d by then married and had a son, Matthew. But his wife moved to Italy; his son spent his early years with her. “When Matt was six,” Schumaker said, “he came to live with me, and I didn’t want him to be raised by an unhappy paper salesman. My first wife and I had tried to do the story of the Underground Railroad as a children’s book which never sold, but I took the illustrations to an ad agency.” His career as an illustrator quickly took off.
“When my first wife and I separated I got Matt. He went to high school in Rome, but then came back.” A Princeton graduate working on his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, Matt Schumaker inherited his father’s creative genes, though he exhibits it through music. He recently won the prestigious Ladd Prix de Paris, a monetary award enabling him to live independently in Paris and write music. Schumaker recently spent a month with Matt, his wife Malena Watrous-Schumaker—author of a well-received first novel If You Follow Me—and their son Max. “Max is six, and has his own email,” Schumaker said.
After living for a year in Manhattan in 2012, Ward and Vivienne are back at work in their Pennsylvania Avenue home studios. His is on one floor, hers on another. He’s been working on small paintings he calls “rectangular splotches,” but more recently has been drawn to sculptures, first made of cardboard and now wood. Several were shown at the San Francisco Art Fair last spring.
“A pivotal point for Vivienne and me,” Schumaker said, “was with some exhibitions Mary Austin had at the Center for the Book,” located on Rhode Island Street. “She started showing these handmade books, and later had a class, in 2002 I think, in paste papers; the things you do for end papers of the books. We like the medium, and started doing big books, which led to the show at Jack Fischer Gallery that Kenneth Baker liked.”
In a tone of incredulity Schumaker admitted to being proud of having his work owned by multi-millionaire collector Martin Margulies, famed painter/sculptor/printmaker Eric Fischl…“and Rachel Maddow. Rachel Maddow has five or six of my pieces,” he said.
This Month's Stories