A Painter's Journey Through '60's Music
by Owen Peters
It was while browsing in the Manx Museum, viewing the well laid out history and heritage of the Isle Of Man I first came across the work of self-taught artist Eileen Schaer.
In the Museum's art section, I was struck by a particular painting. In truth, struck is a gross understatement. I'm transfixed by the simplicity, colours, and shapes which bend, bow and flow in the wrong way, but somehow look right. I've entered the world of Eileen Schaer by way of her 2013 painting "Lady Saving a Tiger."
I decide to step outside the museum for 10 minutes of sea air, watching residents and visitors of the island's capital Douglas, going about their daily tasks and chores. When returning indoors, the painting evokes exactly the same sense of awe a second time around.
I'm more than a little intrigued to unearth the background to this composition and its artist. So I set about trying to contacting its creator, artist Eileen Schaer. Bizarrely and fortuitously I learn she lives on the Isle of Man. She could have been based anywhere in the world, but she's only seven/eight miles away from where I'm viewing her painting. Curiouser and curiouser.
During my travels, I find The Isle Of Man has a pace all of its own, measured between slow and cruising. Its transport system is a mix of steam railways, electric trams, horse drawn carriages and buses which hug the scenic coastline. Offering Idyllic scenes and settings, even on a rainy day.
When I finally track down Schaer, she kindly invited me to her home. It takes less than five minutes chat to work out the sedate pace of island life has permeated into her abode like a hand in glove. The lounge walls display a vast range of her work from over the decades. There is a sense of privacy and calmness around the house. It feels like a place steeped in good memories.
Schaer hails from Liverpool, most of her adolescent and teenage years played out within a stone's throw of the world famous Cavern.
"My first school was Broughton Hall. To be honest, I didn't try very hard when it came to most things academic. Like at lunchtimes, we would often nip off and see groups play, like The Beatles. There was so much going on in Liverpool during the sixties. So much to see and do."
As with most parents during the 50's and early 60's the sounds of big bands were never far away. "My parents would listen to Glen Miller or the Jack Hylton band. I was brought up with music in the house. Otherwise, it was the films of Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley we would watch. Even now, the music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin or Irving Berlin brings back fond memories of those times with my parents."
However the music culture of the ‘60's was about change forever by way of four lads from the city of Liverpool. The Beatles were about to explode into most people's lives and the Schaer family were at the epicenter.
Schaer explains "We, I say we, it was my Mum and Dad, they had a restaurant/pub, The Beaconsfield near to the Cavern during the late ‘50's early ‘60's. For many years The Beatles and other Merseyside groups dropped in for a drink or meal, and watched TV in a little side room as a break from the Cavern. It would have been 1963 when I bought the Beatles first album "Please Please Me." After that I just fell in love with them" she smiles, probably recalling those halcyon days.
At this time in her young life, drawing and sketching was no more than a hobby, a pastime.
"I left Notre Dame High School with a poor set of "O Level" results, except for Art and History. I suppose because drawing came naturally to me, I didn't have to work too hard. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I started a secretarial course. It's what most girls were doing at the time. I was just drifting along," she explains.
The renowned, Mardi Gras club situated in Liverpool's city centre became her regular haunt where she witnessed many Merseyside bands including The Merseybeats.
"Let me see, I would have been 18, we saw the Incredible String Band, Julie Driscoll, The Who, John Mayall, The Yardbirds at The Philharmonic Hall and Liverpool University Students Union. At the time, Adrian Henri, Mike Hart and Mike Evans were playing at O'Connors Pub in Hardman Street as The Liverpool Scene group. There were also poetry readings from Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Andy Roberts. It's amazing to look back and think of all the people who became famous in their own right. Liverpool had a real energy and optimism during the ‘60's. Everyone was positive, every club was filled with new emerging talent," she enthuses.
Schaer's drifting took her to Liverpool Art College, not as a pupil as she is a self taught artist, but to meet up with her social network of friends and acquaintances . It was during an evening at the city's Philharmonic pub, she was introduced to painter and husband-to-be David Fletcher.
"He loved music. We liked Arthur Brown, Velvet Underground, Cream. We saw Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett was lead singer at The Grafton Rooms in Liverpool. I think that's where it was anyway. I guess that was the ‘60's for you," she say's releasing her infectious laugh.
By 1970/71, it was all change for Eileen Schaer. She was now married, a mother to her daughter Kim. Husband David had graduated to the Royal College of Art, home becoming London, deciding to leave their Liverpool roots behind.
Unbeknown at the time, a painting challenge between husband and wife was about to launch Schaer's fledgling career as an artist. She said she could do what he was doing, when viewing his work. In 1970, she first put paintbrush to canvas. As they say, the rest is history.
"He wasn't surprised, he was supportive. Initially I kept a sketchbook some of which materialised into paintings. I used charcoal to draw out the image onto the board, then the journey begins. I don't know how they will turn out at this stage, but they sort of grow into my dreamlike paintings. They usually take about a month to complete. I started painting animals, but I didn't keep a lot of my early work. I had some of my work accepted by the Royal Academy Summer Shows, Portal Gallery Grafton Street and Crane Fine Art in London's King Road. We went to see exhibitions. I took more of an interest in other people's work and styles"
The husband and wife team were rubbing shoulders with artists who would have a lasting impression on British art- Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear, Sir Peter Blake who was David's art tutor. Not only was Schaer's work becoming accepted, but her work began to sell.
However, come 1975, they were on the move again, this time bound for the Isle of Man. David accepting the post of Course Leader for the Art and Design Foundation Course at the IOM college.
Except for a self imposed sabbatical (1979-1981) in which she had her son Sam, Schaer has worked right through from the 70's to present day. Her range of work was now being shown at major art exhibitions across the UK and capitals of Europe.
"David and I painted together, mostly in the evenings. He would be one side, and I the other of our studio. Sometimes we'd listen to the radio or classical music. Although he passed away after a long illness in 2008, it's a routine I still follow today when working upstairs in the same attic studio."
Her catalogue of paintings do have recurring themes. Cats, dogs, elephants, figures bending, figures horizontal, eyes staring, eyes glancing. What does it all mean I ask?
Her reply isn't unexpected. "What do you think they mean?" she replies, although not really looking for a meaningful reply. "When I start a painting, I'm never sure what will come out on to the canvas. I don't have any explanation what they mean. They mean something different to everyone who sees them. It's like music, not everything lyric needs an explanation to be enjoyed."
"Come and take a look at this," she says guiding me into a room set off from the main lounge area. Here, set against plain white walls, dark timber beams, and perfect light, is a studio selection of Schaer's paintings. I'm left alone for a private viewing whilst another cup of tea is brewed in the kitchen.
My question of meaning and explanation is a redundant topic. To see the detail, colours, animals, human forms blending into each other at such close quarters... no words would enhance what I'm seeing at this moment in time. Her work is so alive. The figures, animals and flora are pushing against the canvas edge as if they want to spread out onto the walls.
Staying with a musical theme, one time local resident and DJ Andy Kershaw had bought Schaer's work. The late, great George Melly who knew his way around the world of art and paintings once said of her work "If it were possible to explain the meanings of the paintings, it would destroy all their tension, and indeed their meaning..." Not surprisingly Melly added some of Schaer's work to his collection over the years.
The studio ensemble along with prints and painting hanging on various walls is just a small selection of her work which has been shown and sold all over the world. From a personal perspective "Lady Teaching Dog Tricks" covers all bases. It's simple. A large brown/tan dog with a small woman stood on it's nose, against a one tone grey background. Masterclass.
When we return to the lounge, she points to a canvas propped up alongside the fireplace which has been retrieved from her studio.
"That's my latest painting," she tells me, as I squat down on my haunches to get a better look. It has a bold red background with a full female face glancing away from those looking in. The red is so deep, it looks as if it may still be wet. Which in turn makes me wonder why I can't smell and taste the acrylics.
Schaer is petite, neat and quick on the uptake. Not for the first time, I'm spluttering around trying to bring someone's name into the conversation. My clue this time is "that bloke who has the standing figures in the sea just off Crosby beach in Merseyside." She doesn't need Google or reference books "Oh, Antony Gormley" then provides a brief snapshot of his work.
When I ask if music was a continuing theme when moving to the IOM in 1975 she says "Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Jimi Hendrix." She notes my confusion. " I saw them in Liverpool between 1964 and 1967," she says as more names pop up from the 60's. Sure enough, the IOM musical role call continues with artists such as Peter Green, Lou Reed, and Van Morrison amongst those she has see play live on the island.
She has a special mention for Brian Wilson's performance at the IOM Villa Marina, "He was brilliant," she enthuses. "Although he was looking ancient, I went back to Liverpool to see Burt Bacharach at the Empire Theatre. I like a lot of his songs, 'Say a Little Prayer' Aretha Franklin and 'The Look of Love' Diana Krall are often on my playlist when I'm painting."
Schaer's musical resume isn't all high profile artists. "I went to an Evening of Sarod & Indian Classical Music at the Erin Arts Centre IOM. .Soumik Datta sarod player and Shahbaz Hussain tabla virtuoso player. Which I particularly loved after going to India twice in the last few years as I'm in awe of the art and culture there. The latest concert I saw was Hot Club of Cowtown at Peel Centenary," which she describes as uplifting Cajun music. Who hasn't this woman seen?
Schaer strikes me as a private person, private by design. Clearly, she is more interested in people looking and absorbing her work rather than "arty" type chatter on her work. When I point out some of her paintings are signed in different places, left, right, centre, high, low on the various canvases. "Oh yes, so they are" she says taking a closer look. I'm sure the choice of positioning has to fit in so it becomes part of the composition, but it isn't a discussion which she will be taking any further.
She explains more on her painting routine. "It goes back many years, I tend to paint in the evening, mostly due to habit. I feel as if the things which need to be done throughout the day are completed and I have time to myself. I go upstairs to my studio, mix my paints, listen to the radio, or CD's and see what comes out on the canvas. I need to have a clear mind, full concentration, tuned in to my work, without distractions."
So what type of music is in the ether when Schaer is at work? "Over the years my choices have changed. I listened to John Coltrane (A Love Supreme and My Favorite Things), Lee Morgan (The Sidewinder), Miles Davis (Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain are particular favourites), Art Pepper (The Trip), Dexter Gordon, Nitin Sawhney. Currently I've taken a liking to Ravi Shanker, more influences from the east, Shankar, Youssou N'Dour, Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder. I have a classical Indian collection 26 of the Most Relaxing Indian Songs which is very calming. I still drop back into George Harrison's music with his triple album All things Must Pass. Other times, it can be Radio 4, something in the background is always a nice accompaniment".
When I saw my first painting by Schaer ("Lady saving a Tiger"), I thought it had musical references and composition embodied in her work. I ask what she thinks of my viewpoint?
"Well, I'm certainly influenced by outside factors" she begins. "Films, walks, literature, conversations, visiting art galleries or museums, experiencing medieval, primitive or ethnographic art, and yes music, all have some bearing on my work. It's not black and white like I can say this painting is influenced or dedicated to that particular experience. I regard the characters which appear in my paintings as being from an ongoing story that imaginatively unwinds mysterious dramas. Some people will see a musical rhythm in my work, others will take away a completely different interpretation. That's the beauty of art. Whatever comes from an idea, a dream, a fantasy, or even an inspiration from music to become a work of art is making secret visions visible. I enjoy making secret visions visible"
Music, literature, art are contentious subjects, someone's love is another person's hate. I'm in no doubt when studying Schaer's brushstrokes and characters, her work stimulates thoughtful discussion and debate by the viewing public.
On a personal note, when I stood in her studio, surrounded by four walls of big ideas, tiny details, a kaleidoscope of colours, of course the woman sat on a large dog's nose, I can only describe the experience as humbling.
When I first contacted Schaer with a pitch to see if we could discuss her work in art and reference it to any musical tastes she may have, her reaction was one of surprise. I recall she said of the idea "We can give a try, but I don't know much about music" which was conveyed without any hint of irony. Little did I know when setting up the interview and exchange of various emails she would have such an eclectic taste in music, with a list of bands seen live worthy of a lifetime achievement award.
Schaer continues to carry a passion and enthusiasm for all things new. Maybe the ethos of her Liverpool youth, a time when all things were possible, still burns bright. I raise my mug of tea to Schaer and look forward to many more blank canvasses being filled. With what? We, along with the artist will have to wait and see...
As John Lennon once wrote, "reality leaves a lot to the imagination"
Also see Eileen Schaer's website
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|