Gabriel Schama

Collage Artist, San Francisco // November 2011
I ended up reading a lot of old LIFE and TIME magazines from the first half of the 20th century. I became utterly absorbed by the ghosts of these unremembered images, and they emerged in my cutouts as colorful, melancholic phantoms.

We visited Gabriel at his Inner Sunset home studio, which really is just a corner in his bedroom with a desk tucked into it. His work doesn’t demand much space; he just needs a desk large enough to accommodate his essential cutting mat and necessary materials: glue, paper, a ruler, and an X-acto knife. To put it plainly, what Gabriel requires to bring his intricate and layered pieces into existence is pretty barebones and ordinary. I mean if ever there was a no-fuss operation, this was it. This minimal, matter-of-fact sensibility so readily expressed in Gabriel’s space and tools came through in other ways as well. While talking with Gabriel it became apparent that in both method and philosophy, he embraces a clear-cut and streamlined approach. Implicit significance, complex thematic threading, and abstract concepts are not at the heart of his current work. Instead, he chooses to avoid the issue of meaning altogether by focusing wholeheartedly on the physical and practical nature of his process. Recently, he enjoys making art within a set of logistical limitations and has found that restrictive frameworks have actually pushed his creativity and practice, allowing for a rush in progress and productivity. I don’t necessarily believe that Gabriel’s work is devoid of meaning or subtext, or that he doesn’t sometimes find himself tangled up in a knot of notions concerning his art— but he has made a choice to come at his work from a frank and pragmatic point of view, and in this way has opted to bypass discussions and explanations about ideas that he isn’t so sure have a place in his work. And that’s more than fair— Gabriel essentially just wants to make beautiful work, and he does exactly that. I just can’t help thinking that with titles like “The Materialization of Wonder” there’s got to be a bit more going on than just aesthetics, but that’s because I want to believe every title has a story.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I’m an artist. Sometimes I’ll say I’m a bit of a furniture designer.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I’ve been doing art full time for about a year now. I try to do a lot of odd-jobs to stay afloat, mostly painting and carpentry, but generally I treat day jobs as a way to pay for the art I’m making.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work almost entirely in paper. I go back and forth between using just colored paper and using vintage materials, like record covers and old magazines. Recently, I’ve been working on abstract compositions which are somewhat detached from any literal meaning. When I was first collecting lots of vintage materials, I ended up reading a lot of old LIFE and TIME magazines from the first half of the 20th century, and was particularly drawn towards the pre-WW2 period. Inevitably I was thinking a lot about death, and celebrity, and how the character of America has changed in the last 50 years. I became utterly absorbed by the ghosts of these unremembered images, and they emerged in my cutouts as colorful, melancholic phantoms.

My current abstract work is connected to my vintage work in that I first thought of it as a way to magnify and extrapolate the ephemeral and emotional imagery of my ghosts. However, that idea eventually took a backseat to the process. The withdrawal from figurative content has allowed me to focus with great depth on certain patterns and motifs simply by giving me more room to work. By limiting myself to this particular method of cutting and layering paper, I’ve actually freed myself from a lot of distractions and the worry of whether I’m successfully conveying a particular meaning, and my work has been flourishing. My work is driven by a desire to push this style as far as it can go, and to constantly seek new forms and compositions.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Lots of audiobooks. I’ll often work ten to twelve hour days when I have a commission, and being able to consume books at the same time is a joy. My bedside reading is currently, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, depending on whether I’m craving fiction or non-fiction.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How
do you navigate the art world?

My work is pretty labor intensive. My larger pieces can take upwards of 60-70 hours to complete, and there’s really no way to fix a piece that has gone awry other than starting again from scratch. The first few cuts in any design tend to determine a lot of what comes after, but it can actually be a really unpredictable process. But I never really tire of making art, so I just try to be as productive as I possibly can.

As for the art world in San Francisco, I know a lot of people wish Silicon Valley would start patronizing the arts a bit more, and it can be frustrating how little money there is floating around for art, especially compared to New York, or London. New money doesn’t seem to appreciate the culture of art the way old money does, so at best it might take a few more decades before the art scene here is an international force. In the meantime, I think the city makes up for it by being incredibly supportive and nurturing. I would not be doing this full time if my friends hadn’t been so damn encouraging. My friends have really helped create possibility for me— I’ve made connections, and gotten opportunities to collaborate, and have been encouraged and inspired. I didn’t have a community of other artists when I was in New York, so it’s been a welcome change to have that here. San Francisco is a good place to make art, but it’s not a particularly good place to launch an art career.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making
now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?

I have been producing work constantly for the last year and a half, and my work has definitely progressed from a pretty crude beginning. Moving away from New York two years ago catalyzed a lot of change in my life, and making art full time has probably been the biggest part of that. I think the work I make takes a lot of inspiration from studying architecture in school, but then again, maybe I just studied architecture because I’ve always had a proclivity towards working with my hands on a very precise scale; I used to paint a lot of small figurines, and build tiny model cities. Everything I’m doing now flows pretty organically from an internal impulse to create that I think has always been with me.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m currently editing a stop motion video of my process. People usually think of collage when I try and describe what I do, which I think is a very distinct medium. In person, my serious-business business cards help a lot, but digitally I think a video explains my work much better than just photos.

What do you want your work to do?
Croon like Tony Bennett, tap like Fred Astaire, curve like Jayne Mansfield, and swoon like Vivien Leigh.

What advice has influenced you?
I’ve been told to keep in mind that I’m not Picasso, and that very few people are, and that I’m probably not even any sort of genius, and that the only way to make up for it is to work my ass off.

How will you know when you have arrived?
When someone writes a wikipedia article about me.

To see more of Gabriel’s work: