By Michael Gibbs
Illustrator and Designer
When it comes to artists who are power couples, there are many to choose from. Several are featured in our February 2013 cover story, in fact, and they are all incredibly talented and respected.
For this month’s feature, though, I wanted to reach out to my old friends Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher. With homes and studios in San Francisco and New York City, their work has inspired me for decades. Scroll down for our Q&A.
Michael Gibbs: Since this issue of Be Inkandescent is about power couples, let me get the “couples” question out of the way: How did you two meet?
Ward Schumaker: Vivienne was in San Francisco for a wedding and after the ceremony crashed a party I was throwing. She walked in, shook my hand, introduced herself, and gesturing across the room to a fellow I’d never seen (another New York illustrator whom my best friend had brought), asked, “Would you keep that guy away from me?” Seems the guy had been following her around New York, pestering her for a date. I took one look at her and thought: “If you’d let me, I’ll keep every guy in the world away from you.” However, we didn’t have a real date until a couple of years later, when Vivienne moved to the Bay Area. Our first date lasted 20 minutes. A couple of years later we tried again, and have been together ever since, something like18 years.
Michael Gibbs: When discussing your work, it’s almost hard to know where to begin. You’re both accomplished artists who have worked in an impressive range of styles and mediums. Being an illustrator myself, I’ve known you primarily as illustrators, so let’s start there: how did you each get into illustration? Did you always like to draw? What was a big breakthrough moment?
Ward Schumaker: I’d been a paper salesman, I was turning 35 and miserable. My first wife and I tried to write a kids book about slave narratives and thought we needed some illustrations. I traced some reference photos, stippled them, and ended up with about 25 drawings of slaves. That became my first portfolio. Using it, I started doing illustration.
Vivienne took a wiser path: attended Parsons, studied under Maurice Sendak, worked a short time for R. O. Blechman (he fired her for poor penmanship), did paste-ups for a soft-porn magazine (turned down an offer to appear on the cover wearing only a mask). She became almost immediately successful, at a very young age.
Though I’m 13 years older than Vivienne, we both started working around 1976.
Michael Gibbs: You also do—for lack of a better term—fine art, or gallery work; work done for yourself that is not client-driven. Between you, it has ranged from abstract, expressionist work to sculpture to photography to handmade books. How long have you been doing gallery work? How did you initially make the transition from commissioned illustration to gallery work? (Or was there a transition; have you always done it?)
Ward Schumaker: I’d always meant to be an artist, but when I was 22 I’d entered a competition in my native state of Nebraska, judges had awarded me first prize, but the governor and others thought the work was pornographic and threatened me with jail if I didn’t pull the work from the show. I quit painting, left Nebraska, and became a paper salesman. In my late 50s (I turn 70 in February) Vivienne and my son convinced me to return to painting, a gallerist from Shanghai happened to see the work and offered me a show, other galleries followed, and everything pretty much fell into place seemingly by happenstance.
Michael Gibbs: Obviously, the assignment at hand largely defines the the illustration work, but what is your inspiration for the gallery work? Who inspires you?
Ward Schumaker: Growing up in the 40s and 50s, I admired Rothko, deKooning, Franz Kline, many of the abstract expressionists, and I still do.
For color, I was most impressed by Eakins and Vermeer, and I still am.
Michael Gibbs: Can you walk us through a brief description of your creative process, both the illustration work and the gallery work?
Ward Schumaker: The two are totally different. For illustration, it’s always answering the question: How can I most succinctly pull the reader into the text?
For fine art, it’s always trying to find a new question to answer, though it often comes down to something like: What would I like to see on a wall?
Michael Gibbs: I’ve noticed calligraphy and typography integrated into some of your work (both of you), and Ward, I’m especially fond of your abstract compositions that incorporate the use of type. How did that come about?
Ward Schumaker: Even in the 60s my work contained words. Teachers told me I couldn’t do that. I looked back at early religious tracts whose illustrations used words and thought: yes, I can.
Michael Gibbs: Have you influenced or inspired each other’s work? Do you ever collaborate on a piece of art? And do you work together, in the same space, or in different spaces? I wonder about the dynamic of couples working in the same field, especially if they’re working in the same space.
Ward Schumaker: If I could ever do anything half as good as Vivienne, I’d rest content. But I can’t, and I can’t work like she does either, we are poles apart in every way. (Opposites attract.) We have collaborated on a few jobs: Vivienne has asked me to do calligraphy for her book covers, for example, but we haven’t done much together.
In San Francisco, we work in the same house, on different floors; and that works out really well. In New York we do our illustration at two tables facing each other, but I have had a painting studio at a separate address and have to leave her to paint; I haven’t liked that. So next month we’re returning to San Francisco where our lives aren’t divided. We like spending all day, every day, together.
Michael Gibbs: What project(s) are you working on these days? Ward, I’ve seen your books, the large paintings I’ve already mentioned, and the “dumb boxes.” Are you working on more, or moving on to something else? And Vivienne, what are you working on these days?
Ward Schumaker: In illustration, Vivienne works on a lot of book covers, editorial pieces for magazines and newspapers, that kind of thing. Most of my illustration work is from Paris, Kronenbourg beer, an artisanal olive oil, an occasional book cover. In fine art, Vivienne has been executing portraits (and immediately selling them). Me, I’m working on a show of paintings for the Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco slated for May, and another group of works, sculptures (more Dumb Boxes), for a show in George Lawson’s new space in San Francisco, sometime in the summer, if all goes as planned (which it rarely does).
Michael Gibbs: A couple of quickie questions (aka the lightning round). What’s your studio setup like?
Ward Schumaker: Illustration in New York: two tables touching each other, computers back to back, we can stand and look over the tops of the screens to see one another. It works really well, as long as Vivienne doesn’t take breaks to watch New Jersey Housewives on YouTube. In San Francisco, we work on separate floors, meeting in the garden for coffee breaks, the kitchen for meals; it works really well.
Michael Gibbs: Are you in NYC or SF these days?
Ward Schumaker: We have been in New York a year, we return to SF mid-February. We look forward to grandparenting again. And the garden, and the kinder weather. But we’re going to miss New York a lot, the energy, the museums, the architecture, the public transit.
Michael Gibbs: What medium(s) do you work in?
Ward Schumaker: Vivienne has been using acrylics, house paint, and flash for her portraits. Her illustration is composed of scanned pencil and charcoal drawings, combined with photos in Photoshop.
For illustration, I work with brushed ink drawings on tissue, scanned into Photoshop and colored. In fine art: acrylics, wood, photo transfers, some collage, anything within reach.
Michael Gibbs: If you were a tree, what kind … oh, never mind.
Ward Schumaker: Oy.
Michael Gibbs: Thanks, Ward. Click here for more information on Ward’s and Vivienne’s work: warddraw.com.
About illustrator and designer Michael Glenwood Gibbs
An award-winning designer and illustrator, Gibbs has been freelancing for some of the nation’s most well-known publications and companies since attending Pratt Institute as a photography and illustration major in the mid-70s.
His artwork has appeared in Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Worth Magazine, Consumer Reports, Harvard Business Review, and publications for United Airlines, Verizon, IBM, Sears, and American Airlines, as well as many book covers and posters.
Need a stock illustration? View Gibbs images, available as stock, at www.stockillustration.com.