My work is rooted in the daily practice of drawing and includes the integration of sculpture, site-specific wall drawings, and installations. Whatever form it takes, the work is an earnest attempt to provide a rare moment of pause within a culture that is relentlessly negating the quiet and contemplative.
Interview with Pete Schulte
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Pete, can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
I was born in the midwestern river town of Rock Island, Illinois and was raised nearby in Milan. My mom was an occasional secretary and homemaker, my dad a teacher and basketball coach—which was, and remains, his true passion. My family is obsessed with sports—all of the sports, all of the time. They are very loving and supportive of my life as an artist now, but when I was growing up, art was considered little more than a curiosity, had no practical value, and was certainly not considered a valid life pursuit. I was definitely not one of those precocious kids who knew he was going to be an artist by age four. There was simply no frame of reference, example, or encouragement in this regard. In fact, I was actively discouraged from taking art classes in school, which is probably the main reason I persisted in doing it. My maternal grandfather, however, was a true eccentric. My love for the culture of the studio was hatched at an early age hanging out with him in his ‘shop’. For hours on end, I sipped soda and drew as he smoked Lucky’s and drank PBR, fixing, making, and endlessly tinkering away at things. At any rate, it took a long time for me to find my way onto this path, but eventually I encountered my tribe, and realized that I was not alone in my interests.
Motivations are trickier to define. I think that I really just wanted to live full-time in a space that was similar to that of where my imagination led me when I was pondering the illogical and unknown. Eventually, I also wanted to see if I was capable of creating something that might invoke that visceral ‘thing’ that I felt when I was moved by music, or nature; that feeling that I could never adequately define or put language to, but was wholeheartedly moved by.
Can you walk us through your creative process? Are there planning stages prior to the final drawing? Is sketching part of your ideation process?
There is occasionally some planning or doodling if I am trying to figure something out, but generally when I’m working I’m working on the drawings not plans for the drawings. I have never been very good at keeping sketchbooks and developing work like that, but rather one work begets the next; a nudge here, a push there, and eventually things emerge.
Your works seems to be primarily on paper, have you worked in other media in the past? If so, how do the past works relate to the current drawings?
My work is rooted in the daily practice of drawing, which primarily results in works on paper. I do, however, have an expanding body of site-specific wall drawings that I am still in the midst of, as well as a sporadic, but ongoing series of aluminum sculptures. All of this work is related in my mind, each group informing the others in relatively equal measure. The works on paper are usually intimate in scale and very nuanced in terms of surface. The wall drawings are ephemeral by their nature, expand the scale of the works on paper, and usually relate to the architecture of the spaces where they are shown, while the sculptures aim to expand the properties and character of the two-dimensional works into three dimensional space.
I feel lucky to have been able to see a number of your drawings in person. The surface quality is stunning. What types of tools and techniques allow you to get such smooth graphite application and when did you begin to incorporate this element into your work at large?
Thanks for your observations. It means a lot to me when people actually see and experience the works first hand. For me, the drawings often hinge on the subtlety and nuance of the surfaces that you mentioned, which is the exact quality that makes the work impossible to accurately reproduce. I believe this to be a virtue of the work, but it also brings with it some rather unfortunate realities, as most people only experience the work in reproduction.
I primarily make the drawings with graphite pencils—no powders, and no photographic or printmaking processes, as people occasionally surmise. I build the surfaces in layers from back to front, patiently and methodically, working and reworking until they feel right. When chromatic color is present it usually occurs early in the process in the form of pigment that is rubbed into the surface, kind of like a stain or blush. I also use some gouache and ink, but the primary tool is the graphite pencil employed in the traditional sense.
Can you tell us more about your desire to bring moments of pause to what you describe as our relentless culture?
We live in a culture that is extremely loud and accelerating rapidly. We are bombarded by images and information at a clip that Debord could have never imagined. The twenty-four hour news cycle - real and fake, social media, marketing, and endless algorithms keep us consuming and being consumed. I make small, slow, intimate works in the face of this reality. I believe these works to be simultaneously meditative and political. The logical question being, “how can these small abstract drawings be political?” It seems to me that while the quiet and contemplative are often thought of as peaceful/mindful states of being (as indeed they are), they are also necessary to create gaps in the incessant flood of stimuli designed to keep us on the wheel. It is within these gaps that I hope those more intellectually agile than myself, will be able to envision new possibilities and sew seeds of resistance to the inexplicable acts of cruelty that humans are able to impart upon one another, as well as the planet that we are occupying. Ultimately, and without irony, I am aspiring to craft a life affirming response to the existential, political, social, and ecological catastrophes that currently confront us. These may be small gestures in the grand scheme of things, but I want to believe that a collection of small gestures might add up to something greater. I am simply trying to do my part, to make a positive contribution, and this work is the best that I have to offer (Als Ich Kan).
What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
Anne Truitt, Giorgio Morandi, Agnes Martin, Henri Matisse, Helio Oiticica, Hilma af Klint, Frederick Hammersley, John Dilg, Richard Rezac, Etel Adnan, Nasreen Mohamedi, Milton Avery, James Bishop, Amy Sillman, Bruce Conner, Terry Allen, Jack Whitten, Lee Ufan, Yan Van Eyck, Julia Fish, Jutta Koether, David Dunlap, Robert Ryman, anonymous tantric drawings, Shaker drawings and objects, Joseph Yoakum, John McLaughlin, Suzan Frecon, Paul Thek, James Castle, Allen Shields, Isa Genzken.
In recent memory, I have also spent a good deal of time pondering the wonderful work of Nathalie Provosty, Sara Vanderbeek, Ridley Howard, Craig Drennen, Mariah Dekkenga, and Rubens Ghenov – among others. It is also important to mention that no one inspires me like my wife, artist Amy Pleasant – whose work I have the good fortune of experiencing on a daily basis.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
In addition to the artists mentioned above, my daughter Sophia is the guiding light in everything I do.
What is a typical day like for you?
I’m an early riser and my primary studio is at home, so on non-teaching days I’m in there with my first sip of coffee and try to spend most of the day drawing. I’ll break for yoga and a light lunch, but other than that I work until early evening. If there are deadlines, I’ll go back out at night, but I find myself to be far more focused during the day.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
I find chaos and clutter distracting, so I maintain a fairly ordered space. There aren’t really scenarios that I need to facilitate work, just time, and I am pretty territorial about maintaining it to be in the studio – which is not simply about work, it is about my peace of mind.
As far as necessities, I simply need my materials: pencils, paper, desk, etc.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
A difficult day in the studio is still better than most anything else that I can imagine doing. If I’m there, things are usually alright.
The latest drivel out of The White House can be disruptive if I allow it in, but I have learned to limit my intake when I’m in the studio. It’s just too upsetting.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Way too many to mention! The Meadow, by James Galvin and The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudolf Wurlitzer are novels that come immediately to mind. In more recent memory, Ben Lerner’s 10:04 rearranged my reality, as has every book that Rachel Kushner has written—and I can’t wait to read her forthcoming novel! I also love the poems of Robert Hass, particularly the collection, Time and Materials. A Dark Dream Box of Another Kind by Alfred Starr Hamilton is also a beautiful collection, as is In The Pines by Alice Notley, and The Wild Braid by/about Stanley Kunitz.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I pretty much listen to music constantly, except during the summer, when I listen to most every Chicago Cubs radio broadcast—a habit I was birthed into, for better or worse.
Lately, I have been obsessed with the music of Guy Clark, and have been trying to work my way through his catalog. However, I keep getting stuck on the song Dublin Blues. I have listened to it hundreds of times (no joke) and it still, as simple and straightforward as it seems, feels mysterious and surprises me every time I hear it. And yes, music is absolutely vital to my work, life, and existence on this planet.
You founded the Fuel and Lumber Company with artist Amy Pleasant in Birmingham, Alabama. Can you talk a bit about the project, why you created it, and some of your recent programming?
The Fuel and Lumber Company is a curatorial initiative—an idea as opposed to a physical space—that Amy and I developed in the summer of 2013 to facilitate exhibitions and related programming in Birmingham and the extended southeast. We view community as not simply a single point on the map but as the entire region. Upon moving to the south, I was blown away by the number of artists, particularly mid-career artists, who have situated themselves here (for a variety of personal and professional reasons) that are working at an exceptionally high level, building innovative and invigorating practices and creative lives outside of the shadow of the NY/LA axis. F & L is our way of stepping outside of our own practices and participating in this wonderful extended community of makers that we continue to encounter on our frequent travels.
On January 20, we participated in the national Art Action Day of resistance with a food event that we curated with artist/chef Paco Rodriguez, where we also screened several short films by Jem Cohen. Looking ahead, we are thrilled to be curating the exhibition, Only Poetry, at Whitespace Gallery in Atlanta. Opening on June 22, the show will feature the work of Ben Estes (Kingston, NY), Iva Gueourguieva (Los Angeles, CA), Sarah Smith (Chicago, IL), Matt Phillips (Brooklyn, NY), Lisa Iglesias (Gainesville, FL), and Rubens Ghenov (Knoxville, TN). For this exhibition we are also collaborating with the Air Serenbe Artist Residency Program to offer several of the artists residencies to develop work for the exhibition.
Can you speak to the experience of being an artist outside of the conventional geographic art scene, and how you stay so involved and well-connected?
I am not sure what it means to be well-connected, and therefore do not know whether we are or not. However, Amy and I love traveling and doing studio visits, going to galleries, and visiting museums. Being around creative people is exciting, not only to see the work that they are making but to also find out what they are reading, listening to, and whatever else motivates them. This has less to do with being well-connected than it does with genuine curiosity and a desire to meet new people, especially those whose work you admire.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
My dad once told me that you can’t fit twelve pounds of shit into a ten-pound bag. I think of that a lot when I am considering what is essential to the work that I am making and what is a gratuity. If is falls into the latter category, it probably doesn’t need to be there.
How do you view social media and how has a particular platform impacted you as an artist?
Social media is simply a fact in our culture at the moment. I don’t much care for it, though I do utilize it some, and it has helped Amy and I connect to people, stay informed, and to spread the word about our projects, which is helpful considering that we live in Alabama. Like most people, I find the weaponization of social media terrifying and fear that we have collectively given away a lot that we will not be able to retrieve and that we will eventually come to regret, if we don’t already.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
Being in the studio is truly the thing that I enjoy most, especially when Amy and I are in there together. Beyond that, I enjoy music, baseball, books, and a cold beer.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I just opened a solo show at Whitespace Gallery in Atlanta which runs through May 5, and will have work in forthcoming group shows at Hemphill Fine Art in Washington DC (opening April 19), and at McKenzie Fine Art in New York (opening May 4). I am on sabbatical leave next fall from my teaching position at The University of Alabama and I am looking forward to some rejuvenating travel, though I don’t know where yet, and plenty of time in the studio!
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!