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Fritz Scholder

Interview: Fritz Scholder
Native American Artist

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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When was it that you first realized what you wanted to do?

Fritz Scholder: It's strange, but all kids draw. I never stopped. I was real shy, and all I wanted to do was stay in my room and draw, so I wouldn't have to deal with people. This, at the time, was difficult. But in retrospect, I always knew what I had to be. There was never any question. It was all that I could do. Plus, I was a rebel, right from the beginning. If someone told me to do something, I'd do the opposite. So I was, in a way, a bad boy in school, and yet, because I was reserved and because of my talent, I was treated pretty nicely, I must say. I sold my first painting in grade school to a friend of mine for four dollars. And I sold my second painting to a grade school buddy for five dollars and slowly worked up from there.

Was there anybody in your family or maybe a teacher that was especially encouraging?

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Fritz Scholder: My father was a super sportsman. He was champion golfer of North Dakota, champion tennis player, bowler. He'd go out and get his limit on any game during the season. And all his only son wanted to do was be an artist.

My mother was very creative. She was from Oklahoma and we teased her, and called her an Okie. She would have theme dinners every night. Monday night was Italian, we'd have spaghetti and meatballs. Tuesday, Chinese, of course, chow mein. But in the midwest you kind of have to entertain yourself.

When the governor of North Dakota invited me back years later, for dinner in my honor at the capital, I knew that I had to say something good about North Dakota. I really wasn't sure what I would say. When I got up, I simply said, "I'm so pleased that I grew up in North Dakota, because it made me tough." And it did.

Was there a teacher, an art teacher, or anyone else at school who particularly encouraged you?

Fritz Scholder: Yes and no.

You have to realize that at times art was really pretty foreign. For most people, an artist meant going to Paris and starving in a garret. No one was making a living in this country, except for Georgia O'Keeffe and Thomas Hart Benton. And so, what one did was to get degrees and teach at a university, and if you were good, you might be able to get an artist-in-residency. So, it was pretty bleak to think that you could be an artist. Although I, right from the beginning, identified as that, and won my first prize in fourth grade.

They were nice enough, but they didn't know what art was. I did finally, accidentally, bump into a "professional artist" -- quotations -- an Indian artist, Oscar Howe -- in Pierre, South Dakota. A full-blooded Sioux, who had gone to Europe because of the war, found out about "modern art" -- quotations -- and it really messed up his mind in a way, but he did come away doing Indian subjects in a cubist style. I realized that art is very serious from him. After he would talk to us -- and he wasn't really a teacher, he just happened to be at the Pierre High School -- he'd have a place in the corner where he'd go and then paint his own paintings. So I would go and just watch, and I saw that it was very serious.

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Did you have any heroes when you were young who inspired you?

Fritz Scholder: Well, I had many heroes early on -- Picasso and Goya and Matisse and Bonnard. To me, it was so interesting to see the many different styles that are viable in painting, and painting is my first love. I am also a sculptor and printmaker, and bookmaker, but painting was what I really wanted to do. So there were many influences. Francis Bacon later became a hero of mine.

If you talked to a young person who was interested in going into the fine arts, is there a book that you could recommend?

Fritz Scholder: There is a book that just recently came out that I think is the definitive book on modern art. So many people wonder about modern art and there's been tons of books, but none of them are very good. This is called, Art Today, very easy to remember, by Edward Lucie-Smith. He's really done his research. It deals with the last three decades of modern art all over the world. He chose 600 artists only, living and dead, but they're the artists who really should be in the book. Most of the so-called definitive books are pretty worthless, this is a good one.

As far as the lifestyle of an artist goes, probably Françoise Gilot's book, My Life With Picasso is considered the best account of how an artist lives. It's a very interesting book. Picasso would paint way into the night. He'd wake up at two in the afternoon, and he always woke up grumpy. She had to be there when he woke up and hear the same litany every day. "Oh, I feel terrible! It's a terrible day. I have no friends. Matisse hasn't written to me." And he would go down the line.

She'd sit there quietly until he was through, then she would say, "Pablo, you look great and I just saw the paintings you did last night and they're great, and there's a letter from Matisse right on the table over there, and the day is beautiful." Finally, a little smile would come on his face. "Well, I think I'd better get up and do something."

Can you describe the feeling that you get when you're doing your art, and the feeling that makes you so passionate about your art?

Fritz Scholder: Early on, for some reason, I realized that I did not want to live like others. And I saw people go to jobs they hated, come home, and not be happy. I had a problem with authority, so I knew that I couldn't have an eight-to-five job with a boss. But it came early on to me that by being an artist I would have the most freedom. Because an artist not only has to make up his own problem, but then solve it, in whatever way he decides to do that, and it's all up to him.

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That might sound scary, but for me it was a great release to know that one could do that. You might have to live in a frugal way. At that time, as I mentioned, very few lived off their art, but I was ready for that. I also learned to talk well, to communicate, because most artists became teachers. I got all my degrees to teach, and I love teaching, I love to turn people on to new ideas.

But by the time I got through the college experience, art had become "in" in this country. It was the 1950s, and abstract expressionism had exploded onto the New York art scene.

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How does the music you play when you paint affect your state of mind?

Fritz Scholder: The music really is just an artificial energy field. I am very eclectic, so sometimes it's classical, sometimes it's rock 'n roll. I recently discovered Joan Osborne, so I played her song today.

Does it help you relax, or put you more in touch with your right brain?

Fritz Scholder: Actually, it's just music that I like at that particular time. Leonard Cohen is another favorite. But putting on something that puts you at ease, I think that's part of the creative process. Everyone works differently, but I believe in rituals. I believe in certain things that you find out about yourself that make you do things the way you'd like. I walk into the studio and I'm like Pavlov's dog, I don't go in every day, it's very special. Still, if I had to go into the studio every day it'd be like a job, which is a bad word for me. So I walk in and I turn on the music I like. And I wander around, as if I'd never been in the studio. And I now have the luxury of having beautiful canvases waiting for me, every size I would want, beautiful handmade papers with my signature in the watermark. I mean, it's very luxurious to have nice materials. And yet, on the other hand, people can get really so involved with materials.

Any paper will do, any old stick. I did a children's book recently where I did all the drawings with a stick in ink, because I wanted to show that they can do those. They were symbols -- kids love symbols -- ancient symbols, runic symbols. The material isn't really as important as what you do with it. Lautrec would stumble out in the alleyway after he woke up every morning and find a piece of old cardboard and do the most beautiful painting. Now, true, French cardboard is a little nicer than the United States cardboard, but the thing is, what I'm saying is, found objects can... anything can work. It's how you do it. Picasso took a bicycle seat and made a great sculpture, of course.

I know that being an artist, as you've said, it's a way of preserving your individuality and not getting into the rat race. But there has been a time in your career when your integrity has been challenged.

Fritz Scholder: First of all, I believe in paying one's dues. I did all kinds of different jobs.

You have to try to keep your art pure. And not go into advertising, not go into commercial art, because that's a whole different deal. A fine artist must do exactly what he wants to do, with no pressure. Whether it's from your parents, your girlfriend, your wife, you must block all that out. Fine art, if it's the highest form of human expression, means self-integrity. And when you're in that studio, you must do whatever you do completely for yourself. And you must be your own worst critic. Which means that after you've done it, you must live with it, decide if it should leave the studio. Often I destroy the work, either at the moment, or right after I've done it, or days later, or years later. I still will go in the studio at night and destroy paintings, because they're mine.

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Being one-quarter Native American, you developed your own vision of the world that you wanted to paint, and then suddenly it was like, no, you're not painting the right way. You're not depicting us the right way. Isn't that correct?

Fritz Scholder: Today, in our society, everyone has to contend with the media, in which they like to immediately pigeonhole you and say, "This is an expressionist, this is this type of artist, or dancer, or whatever. It's a constant fight. All artists have to fight against what they become known for. My teacher, Wayne Thiebaud, was mislabeled a pop artist when he started painting pies and cakes. Wayne was not interested in the pop movement. He was a historian who had seen the edibles on the tabletop of Monet and took it from that. So often, popular media will pounce on something and not be accurate, but you're stuck with it. Usually forever, because they hardly ever come back and do an update.

I was mislabeled an Indian artist because I had done a series on the American Indian when I came to Santa Fe. It was a very natural thing, because all painters who go to Santa Fe become immediately seduced by this very strange and foreign little town. Who still thinks about how much Indian blood someone has? Well, I never thought about it, because I grew up in public schools and I'm not an Indian. I'm very proud of being one-quarter Luiseño, which is California Mission, but you can't be anything if you're a quarter. Plus, I just never had that background. But I found out what Indians think in Santa Fe. For the first time I met real Indians, and they have a whole different mind-set.

American Indians, or Native Americans, or whatever you want to call them today, are the only minority that don't want to join the mainstream. And that makes a very interesting kind of conflict. Most Indian people marry Indians, and if they don't, they're ostracized.

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This was all foreign to me. When I got on the faculty of a national Indian arts school for five years, it was my one and only job. I resigned because I knew I had to really get going on painting. But I did find out about that element, which is a very strange factor in our whole make-up today. You realize that the supposedly most sophisticated country still has wards, human beings who don't have full rights.

You don't have to live on the reservation, but if you do, some of your rights are gone. Plus, the government has had the worst history of dealing with the Indian. First they tried to make him white, and that failed, and now they don't know what to do, because they lost. It's the fastest growing minority population in this country.

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I really had a very unique position in Santa Fe and elsewhere, because people didn't know what to do with me. I look more Indian than I am. I have a perspective that transcends any of this current history. You can't blame Indians for not believing the white man, because all the treaties they made were broken. Just recently, they found that billions of dollars in Indian money, have been lost in Washington. So it's still going on. But that's a whole different thing.

I don't believe that art and politics mix. In Europe, art and politics are very close. In America, you do have those who protest and are political, but America has really never had a war on its land. It's quite abstract, and it just doesn't have the political feeling.

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When you go to Europe, the newspapers are much more political in their attitude than our newspapers. And down the line, it's just a different mind-set. The artist is dictated by the times. America lost its lead. In the '50s, abstract expressionism made New York the art capital, and took it away from Paris.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, New York has lost its lead. It became wimpy. It played games in the '80s and now it's barely struggling. It's back in Europe, meaning Germany, because now a generation has grown up that has to deal with their national guilts, which they're doing, and that makes for strong art.

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If you're talking about the avant garde, if you're talking about strong statements, which is what art's really about, art is a very serious thing. Especially today, the artist is more important than ever, because the individual is fighting for his life in this cybernetic age.

I recently gave a commencement address, in which I said the shaman-artist has now drawn the line and has begun the fight against the cyber-technocrat. It's not that I'm against computers, but I think that the human being has to be very careful in the coming millennium. That's the subject of my new series of paintings, because it's pretty scary what may happen.

I truly believe the artist must be an intellectual. Painting is a renaissance activity. In a way, it shouldn't even be happening, and yet I say that tongue in cheek. Painting today is probably even more important than ever before, but the artist really must have something to say, about whatever subject, because every subject is a cliché. We all are so sophisticated, and especially visually. We've seen thousands of apples, or women, or cats, or dogs, and so the challenge to the painter is great to still come up with something different. And yet, it's more than just an intellectual or aesthetic kind of game. It goes right to the core. Because the two things that every society has had from the beginning is, of course, religion and art.

How do you personally handle criticism of your work?

Fritz Scholder: First of all, you have to realize that art in its nature is esoteric. And for the very first time in all of art history, today any style is viable. Now, this has never been before. There was always the church to dictate, or the burgermeister, or the patron, whatever. It's a strange time. In some ways people say, well, this is good, that any style is viable. You can dig a ditch in a desert, you can wrap a building, you can jump off a building, you can shoot yourself -- and one artist did. Conceptual art is very big, and that's fine, because that's part of television, that's part of films and so forth.

Then you have more traditional artists, like myself, who love to continue the kind of renaissance, or classical activity. I have a new toy, a letter press. I'm doing my own books on beautiful, handmade paper, with great type -- Baskerville, one of the finest types designed in the 17th century. I do strange writings and etchings, and beautiful bindings. I'm a bookaholic, so I just like to continue that.

There are so many different types of artists now. Many of them are very interesting and must be taken seriously. But unfortunately, when you have that kind of situation, where anything is viable, you have every wannabe, every weirdo, come out of the woodwork and say, hey, I'm an artist. There's a strange, emperor's new clothes syndrome that's happening in New York City, and Los Angeles and elsewhere, where some of your top galleries and even museums are showing things that really aren't worth showing.

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You might say, aren't they experts? Shouldn't they know? Unfortunately, the hype has gotten to them, and greed has entered the world of art, the last bastion of self-integrity. Unfortunately, it is a strange time, because when art fails, then you better watch it.

Do you read reviews of your work?

Fritz Scholder: Yes I do, because I like to know what is being written. I remember my first review was a great review. They said, keep watching this guy, he's going to become something, so that was awfully nice. I remember not being able to go to sleep, because that was my first professional show. I knew there'd be a review, and from a real reviewer.

My second review was not that good, which shouldn't have surprised me, because if you have a great review to start, the odds are that the second one may not be so good. And I was so embarrassed, I didn't want to leave the house. I thought, oh, man, everyone read this, and they just think I'm, you know, dumb. But you soon realize that it is the self-integrity in the studio that counts. And if you have that, it doesn't matter what any reviewer says, or writes, or anyone else, and you have to, in fact, realize that the last people you want to even listen to are those closest to you. They are well-meaning, but because they're close to you they can hurt you as far as your own idea, or view of what you're doing. It's all up to you.

You have to be your own worst critic. Painting is very much a maturing process. This is nice, because at the end of your life you can be doing your best work. Hokusai, the great painter, on his death bed at 102, said, "If I could only have one more day, I could do a great painting."

Have you ever had any real fears about your work?

Fritz Scholder: I've never had any fear about the work, simply because I give thanks every day that I've been able to take my craziness and make it work for me. And I'm completely crazy. I'm so intense that I am out, all the time, somewhere else. And I had to learn to communicate, to act calm, because if I couldn't paint, I would be on the streets shooting people.

A lot of people have talent, and potential, and desire, and they don't all succeed as artists. What quality of yours do you think puts you in the succeeding category?

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Fritz Scholder: Everyone has talent. Today, unfortunately, that is just one of many components if you want to succeed. Timing, luck, who you know, can often help, but it's mainly hard work. Georgia O'Keeffe once told me that the only guarantee an artist has is his work. Either it's good, or it isn't, and that's completely up to you.

On the other hand -- and my favorite word is paradox -- the minute you say one thing, you can say the opposite. I truly believe that almost everyone can live out their fantasies. I recently gave a commencement address in which I simply told the students, "It's your movie. You can do whatever you want in your movie. You can have whomever you want in it." Most people are very accessible. Andy Warhol was listed in the phone book when he was alive. You could call Andy and, if he felt like it, he might invite you over.

When I was a young painter in New Mexico I'd heard the horror stories about Georgia O'Keeffe, how she never answers her mail, she never sees anyone, she turns away Life magazine. But I tell the students, "You must make your gesture, by coming halfway and presenting yourself." No more, that would be intruding, no less, because then you'd be bad to yourself. So I wrote a fan letter to Georgia and said I was a young painter, I'd just come to New Mexico, I'd like to visit her. I put it in the mailbox and thought, "Well, I've done my duty." My return mail I received a hand-scrawled terse letter saying, "Dear Mr. Scholder, I don't know why you'd want to see me. You can come Thursday afternoon."

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So, there I was, Thursday afternoon in Abiquiu, the little village where she lived. I also tell people that it's dangerous to meet one's heroes, you can be very disappointed. I could have met Francis Bacon several times and, after the stories I'd heard about him, I decided I'd rather not.

But there she was, Georgia O'Keeffe, in her black dress and her Calder pin, her hair severely pulled back. She truly floated, instead of walked. She talked in poetry. But as we crossed the famous patio, with the black door that she'd painted so often, she said something to me I'll never forget. She said, "There are times when one must spend an afternoon with one who one will never see again." I knew what she meant. She was lonely. This was before Juan, if you know that story. I spent many afternoons with Georgia O'Keeffe. That first afternoon, I literally sat at her feet and she gave a soliloquy. Either you knew who Jimmy was (James Johnson Sweeney) and Frankie (Frank Lloyd Wright) or you didn't.

What fascinates you now? Where is the future of your art?

Fritz Scholder: I am fascinated with every single day. In fact, I say something aloud when I wake up. It may be embarrassing to some, I don't know. I read it from Charles Bukowski, a down-and-out poet. He had this one poem, I remember, in which he said, "Have you just woken up, three o'clock in the morning in a hotel room in Detroit, looking for a cigarette? Another good day."

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I always wake up and say, "Another good day." I believe that one is a different person with every day. I believe you should have new adventures every day, meet new people, bring in new information. If you don't, you're being bad to yourself, because we only have that day, we only have the moment, but it's up to us.

We only own ourselves, we don't own anything else. So it's completely up to us to decide what to do with ourselves. I don't believe in excuses. I don't want to hear any excuse, any crying around. Either do it or don't, but it's up to you.

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Do you have a notion of what the American Dream means to you?

Fritz Scholder: The American Dream, I do believe in, and it can only happen in America. Because this is truly, still, the best country, even with all the problems. I've done quite a bit of traveling, and there's some nice things about many other countries. At times I thought it might be nice to have a villa in Italy, or to be in Paris, or Barcelona. But America is unique. It's harder, but it's still the only place where you can live out your fantasy.

I'm sure I'm prejudiced, but fine art is still the best racket around. It is simply the basic human activity. Without machines, without others, walking up to a canvas by yourself and, directly, with a brain telling your hand what you want to do, making a mark.

It doesn't matter what that mark looks like. If you have to make that mark, if you have the integrity, the audacity, to try for the greatest luxury that a human being has, of doing exactly what you want to do, when you want to do it, and not care what anyone thinks. And being able to stand next to that painting when it's done and saying, I did this. Knowing that some people will laugh, some people will criticize, but some people might be on your wavelength. Those are the people you're interested in, after yourself. Because it has to be completely for yourself, and then you put it out there.

Again, there's so many nuances.

To be different for the sake of being different means nothing. You must walk that tightrope between accident and discipline. Accident by itself, again, so what? Discipline by itself is boring. By walking that tightrope and putting down something on a canvas that conceivably is unique, coming from your guts, you have a chance of making marks that, of course, will live longer than you.

This page last revised on Oct 27, 2007 14:58 EDT