Our art editor Mark Benton recently had this exchange with Brent Schreiber, featured artist for Issue #33. Here’s what he had to say about his creative process, his artistic influences, and his interest in combining different mediums.
I love the auditory connection you have made with your portrait subjects and their faith. Can you tell me more about what this concept means to you?
The auditory connection/themes in the Listen series are about being able to connect and listen to something that keeps you on a spiritual beam. The entire headphone concept came from wanting to express a unifying god concept in a very simple, inclusive way. I spent 30 years being unable to listen to anyone, and I was completely unteachable, because I could not get over my own thoughts, fears, and pride. I hit a bottom with some personal demons about 10 years ago, and I was in a position where I had no answers. I just had to accept help and do what I was told without question or reservation. That was the start of my spiritual path in trusting and listening to something other than myself. Today we get hit with so much information about what we should believe and how from so many conflicting sources it’s difficult to find your voice and peace. The headphones are also about blocking that interference out and just finding a connection and voice that’s yours.
Brent, I greatly appreciate your humble courage (what I like to call “humbility”). Would you say that your creative process is a therapeutic one or purely spiritual in nature…and if both motivations weigh in, how do you find the balance between the two?
I don’t know if you can separate the two or if it is just different terminology for the same concept—it’s the language of the heart. I can’t imagine investing so much time into something if those two things were not a result—why bother? I’d like to think and hope that everyone has something they get that from. The art is the one constant I’ve always had and gone to no matter what is happening in my life. I did the first Listen painting 7 years ago, and I didn’t go back to the concept for 3-4 years. It was really successful, but I think I was afraid of being labeled as a Christian, evangelical, or kitsch artist. I tried several other genres with varying success. About 3 years ago I decided to stop fighting it and restarted the series for various reasons—mostly for myself. It felt honest, and I wanted to pursue more traditional portrait and figurative work. The business and financial end played a part, as well as the concept found and resonated with a wide audience. In the past 3 years I’ve completed 26 pieces in the series, and it’s taken me to places I didn’t see coming and an extremely loyal group of supporters and collectors.
Well, I for one am very glad that you re-visited the series, and I can see how it would resonate with a wide variety of people, but, of course, your initial fears of being labeled were unfounded. You have made it apparent that the focus of faith in this series is not limited to Christianity. Not only have your viewers responded so well because so many of us grapple with our own demons, but is it also true that you have broadened your audience with the idea of a personalized higher power, whatever that might be? I especially appreciate the woman wearing the burka who has established her higher power as peace.
It’s interesting the feedback I’ve gotten in that regard. One of the things I wanted to focus on was showing a different side of faith. So often it’s portrayed as this black and white pristine thing, and it’s not. A number of the pieces are fairly dark in nature. In my experience any search for faith or hope is hard. It can be ugly, dirty, difficult and lonely…most of all wrought with fear. I’ve never needed faith when things were great—it’s the exact opposite.
Listen 21—the portrait featuring the Muslim woman in the Hijab—was really rewarding. It was a response to the January 2017 mosque shootings in Montreal. I had been thinking about doing a portrait featuring that subject for about a year, but I had some fear over the type of response I would receive. After the shootings it seemed like the right thing, and it needed to be done. The feedback was outstanding, especially from the Muslim community. So much of the series is about finding the simple spiritual concepts that bind everyone together instead of investing in the differences.
Your occasional use of background text also seems to lend itself to this spiritual journey. Can you tell us more about that?
The use of the background text in some of the pieces is just another way to push a narrative and tell a story. I like the idea of combining music, writing, and visual art into one piece. It also adds another layer of interest in the work. The process of the portrait and figure is very precise, and having the background be a bit rough and textured adds some visual contrast. It’s also a bit of a release going at the piece with a bit of abandon and being able to express an abstract side.
It’s another way to show who the subject is in that moment in time. Some of the subjects have been people I have been or are very close to, and I want the pieces to reflect exactly who they are and what they are going through in that time in their life. I will ask the model to pick a song or piece of writing that hits them in the heart—I want the piece to be about them, not how I see them. In other cases, it is all about me and trying to reflect my psyche in the moment through a phrase, prop, choice of model, or pose. I think most figurative or portrait works unless commissioned are self-portraits—the elements used, the lighting, the pose, and the choice of model tell you exactly who the artist is.
Well, your portraiture is very well refined. Are you classically trained, and if so where from?
I’m basically self-taught. I had private lessons with a professional artist between the ages of 8 and 14. I was always the best in regard to art in public and high school without trying too hard…I was that kid. That changed post secondary school when I applied to College for Animation and University for Fine Art. Suddenly I was a very small fish, and it wasn’t easy. The fear of failure led me to basically quit.
I got into graphic design. It was easier and seemed safer. I was a fairly successful art/creative director for 15 years. About ten years ago art became the priority again. I walked away from the marketing/design profession 7 years ago with no connections, no safety net—I was just going to do the art no matter what. Most of my schooling has come from studying contemporary and classical artists, hordes of process/instructional videos and literature, and being open to different techniques. Doing A LOT of bad work and failing more times than I can count has been the most important teacher. The key is not to give up regardless of what feedback you get—positive or negative—and just learn from each experience. It’s hard to give yourself permission to do that. I always cringe when I get told I’m “talented.” Talent is just the ability to work through failures, be brutal about your work but not yourself, work harder and longer than the person beside you and to NOT QUIT no matter what. If I could go back 20 years I would have loved the opportunity to go to some of the amazing classical ateliers that have sprung up over the last several years.
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.” – Calvin Coolidge. Not only in your personal training, but also in your Listen series, is this true—a long, hard road, but the fruits are spiritually uplifting? Besides sheer determination, what would you tell a young, budding artist in developing their own conceptual art?
That’s a difficult one, and I don’t know if there’s a simple or direct answer. One of the hardest things is getting past your influences and finding your own voice. It took me 4 years to figure out what direction I needed to go in. I think it is being honest and doing work that feeds you—if you do that it is a pretty sure bet that eventually someone else is going to be able to identify with it as well. An audience can tell when something isn’t authentic or is derivative or conceptualized to fit a certain market.
If someone isn’t sure what subject matter or theme their work should take, be patient. Get a journal and use it, keep image files of things that register, read a ton, and focus on what is important to you. Eventually something is going to emerge out of the stew. When it happens, be brave and don’t second-guess yourself. Get to work, be honest and keep at it—if the work is heartfelt and of quality the audience will find it—and the artist is going to be much happier with the work they are creating.
Speaking of which, who are your artistic influences?
The earliest I can remember are Alex Colville and Robert Bateman, who are two amazing Canadian painters—Colville for subject matter and Bateman for technique. In my teens and twenties, I was fairly obsessive with comic illustration and animation. I started refocusing on traditional figurative and portrait work in my early thirties. I absolutely love Jeremy Geddes, Andrew Wyeth, Graydon Parrish, Jeremy Mann, Vermeer, Phil Hale, and Rockwell—all for different reasons. For techniques and improving my process in regard to the figure—Adrian Gottlieb, Anthony Ryder, Parrish, David Kassan, and a few dozen more along with a whole library of classical artists. I look at so much stuff from so many genres. For the developing artist, take in as much work as you can, and try not to fixate completely on one artist, style, or particular technique. If you can get out to museums and galleries and see the stuff in person, it makes a world of difference.
I see much of Geddes in your work. I have always enjoyed the ethereal qualities of that variety of conceptual realism. What is next for you, and has the Listen series inspired another concept?
Geddes is the bomb. Colville had a lot of the same slightly altered disturbed off-kilter narratives…almost feels like you’re trespassing or seeing a private moment you shouldn’t. As far as what’s next, I haven’t thought that far. Ideally, I’d like to take the Listen series to somewhere between 40-50 pieces and put out a book. The theme is so wide open and can be taken anywhere. I love doing them and people seem to respond—when that stops I’ll see where things go, but until then I think I’m staying on this road to see how far I can take it.