Artist Sam Schonzeit grew up in SoHo, across the street from Donald Judd’s studio on Mercer Street. His father, the photorealist painter Ben Schonzeit, initially discouraged Sam from pursuing a career in art because of the financial insecurity. But after majoring in religion at Cornell, and then moving to Austin to do his graduate work in architecture at the University of Texas, Schonzeit found his way to Marfa where he has taught elementary school art classes and worked as a docent at the Chinati Foundation. A brief stint at an architecture firm was cut even shorter as a result of Schonzeit’s subscription project,“Would You Like to Receive a Picture of Me at Work,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Pursuing myriad forms of expression and production, Schonzeit creates concrete lamps, art postcards and miniaturist cameos of King Charles Spaniels. His work has been shown in Williamsburg and Marfa. Scroll contributor Susi Kenna had a chance to chat with Sam about living in Marfa, his postcard project and the similarities between 1970′s SoHo and Marfa now – read below for the full Q&A!
Susi Kenna: When you moved to Marfa did you have a plan? Know anyone? Was it then that you started to pursue art more seriously?
Sam Schonzeit: I originally sojourned (a method of visiting that many people use as a way to ease into life here) in Marfa in February 2009 to do construction work on the fledgling El Cosmico. I came to work for a friend from architecture school with a crew that he had assembled that I had worked with before. Aside from the people I came with I didn’t know anyone. I found I really liked it here and a number of people seemed to be recruiting me for the town, telling me that I belonged here. I suppose I felt that way too. It reminded me of the Texas I has envisioned before going to architecture school in Austin. I left for the summer after applying to teach art to elementary school students. When I found out I got that job I decided to move here permanently (more or less).
I did find that I was able to be more productive here than anywhere else I had lived. There was a ton of time and space and not much to do. I found that I was able to use that time and space.
SK: I’ve read that the “Would You Like to Receive a Picture of Me at Work” first evolved during a time when you and a long distance girlfriend were fighting – Would you say that there is also a distinct starting point for the evolution of your Postcards?
SS: I was selling postcards at the bookstore and thought that maybe I could increase my take if I signed people up. Beyond that I really didn’t have any good reasons to do it. I have since come up with a few reasons for myself. It’s a terrific discipline for me. I love making things and having an external obligation to make things insures that I make quite a few things every month and that I always have a project that I am working on and future projects in mind. In terms of external reasons I like that this project changes the way that art is bought, distributed and consumed. I like that an artist is supported to think. It almost feels liked a salaried position. People pay in advance for work that they haven’t seen and that hasn’t even been conceived of. In that sense the project provides me with a grant or a residency to explore my interests. The project also allows me to create personal works because in some way and in some projects I know who they are created for. The project allows people to view and possess original artworks and to have them in their homes. I like the idea of the consumption of art becoming a personal and somehow mundane part of peoples’ lives. I believe that looking at art should be a regular part of the day not confined to going to museums and galleries. In some ways I think of it like street art in this sense. And it allows people to participate in a larger conceptual piece. I tend not to think of the cards as individual artworks but as the service itself as the piece and the cards as say brushstrokes in a larger painting.
SK: Is there any significant connection between growing up in SoHo across the street from Donald Judd’s studio and moving to Marfa, the infamous city made famous by Donald Judd?
SS: Why infamous? I think I said in an interview with Sight Unseen that Marfa reminded me of SoHo in the 70s. Now in all subsequent Marfa related press that I have been blessed to be in, that same quote has come up. They all just borrow it. But I guess I still feel that way. When I was growing up in SoHo it was empty at night and in the twilight of its industrial era. Now perhaps Marfa reminds me more of SoHo in the 80′s after Jerry’s arrived and before APC opened a store down the street. Now there’s activity and Dosa is opening a store here in the next few days. I do have some items there that I collaborated with Christina Kim on by the way. But yes I guess I thought that if Judd could have a second home here in what first seemed to me to be the Hamptons of Texas then I could too. Of course I only have one home and have no plans on opening a museum. But I do plan on opening an improvised gallery.
SK: Besides your short stint working as an architect in Austin – do you foresee a future in architecture?
SS: I love architecture. I love being in it, looking at it, thinking about spaces. I like drawing architecture and many of the design tools of architecture both new and old. I always wanted to be an architect. So… I don’t know. The practice of architecture is stressful to me and fraught with elements that don’t particularly interest me, like responsibility.
That said I am working on a playground for the new Marfa International School (lots of responsibility) and I have several other jobs that are now on hold.
SK: I can’t really see you having a “desk job.” Would you say that having a “desk job” had anything to do with what motivated you to start your daily photo subscription service? Or perhaps what motivated you to take it to the point where the firm chose to fire you?
SS: Lately, I have been thinking that there might somewhere be a desk job for me. Then I think not. I like being at my own desk. I had a girlfriend whose father taught me about the difference between jobs and work. Work being performed with a personal motivation and jobs being preformed for mostly financial reward. So I could have desk work. As in I would enjoy and do enjoy doing some work at a desk but not a job.
The Daily Photo project definitely had a lot to do with me taking on a creative and autonomous project in the rather stifling and subservient position I found myself in.
I am not sure if the project is really what got me fired. I get fired from a lot of jobs. I was actually recently fired from my job as a docent at Chinati which is both a source of pain and odd pride to me. I am the only docent who ever missed a single tour let alone two (which I managed to do) so there is something of a punk rock pride there but I really enjoyed giving tours and being part of the museum, which I really love, so I am very sorry that I am no longer involved there.
I think my getting fired from my architecture job had more to do with my general attitude (ambivalence) and my schedule there (come late leave early) and the frequency with which I took breaks (very). That said, I always got my work done, so… In the end they just said it was a “bad fit” which seems about right. I’m sure that the daily photo didn’t help my chances of retaining employment there.
SK: How many Postcard subscribers do you currently have (as of August 2012)?
SS: 24 paying subscribers and two parents who now receive them for free.
SK: How many can you manage at one time?
SS: That remains to be seen.
SK: Does gaining a large amount of new subscribers impact your ability to deliver the same level of quality as when you have a smaller number of subscribers?
SS: I don’t think that it has thus far. Do you? I have only gained since you first joined up. If I was able to make a living doing this which would require more subscribers, higher subscription rates or a grant of some sort, I could devote more time to it.
SK: Do you foresee having to cap the amount of subscribers at a certain level?
SS: I can imagine changing my mode of production at a certain number of subscribers. I mean I don’t think I could have a thousand subscribers and make each piece myself. But I do think that in some way I could retain the hand made and intimate quality that many of the cards possess and still have a substantial number of subscribers. It would definitely be a challenge. I don’t want to spend all my time doing this but I could spend a lot more time on it then I do now.
It might make for an interesting job. Odd to think of it as a job. Most artists, I think, make work without the purchaser in mind. I often can’t help but think of the recipient. In that sense the recipient can be seen as a client (architecture). That is not to say that these are commissioned works in a strict sense. But of course they all are commissioned works. Its just that the client/subscriber has commissioned a quantity of work and not a work with a certain theme or easily discernable aesthetic.
Independent curator, art advisor and creative strategist, Susi Kenna’s platform Art Seen with Susi, showcases her artist studio visits as well as the art and exhibits she has visited. Be sure to visit Art Seen with Susi for more postcards from Sam Schonzeit!