CM: When I look at Schwa I think of other creators of mythology. William Blake. Tolkien. Did you ever see yourself creating a mythology?
WB: Thank you! I like them both. I read 'The Lord of the Rings' three times as a teenager and have studied Blake's illustrations, although I haven't read much of his poetry. I wanted to create a universe. I wanted to create the impression of a brand, of a whole corporation, of a whole machine and organization. It turns out that I was lucky in my timing by starting Schwa just before the UFO craze of the mid-90s.
I also caught the conspiracy theory fad at the time, too. When I started around 1992 I had no idea how big the UFO thing would get. I was reading UFO books in the Spring of '92 for good scary fun. That's how I got the idea for the alien head logo. And it was fun being part of the fad, and then later, when it really took off, a bit scary.
CM: Who seems to enjoy your work more? An agnostic, atheist, or someone who believes in the conception of God?
WB: I think they’d all get something out of it. That is what I like about the work, you get back what you put in it, even though you're not likely to realize it's mostly your projection.
CM: The viewer could see this world and mythology as hopeless. But, as you say, it seems to be like Rorschach Inkblot Test, to me.
WB: Exactly. There are 'openings' in the themes that keep it from being truly hopeless. Stickpeople alone in nature and humor at critical points, for example.
CM: There are charm-like, magical and mechanistic aspects to Schwa. You deal with symbols, talismans, some kind of alien alchemy. In some ways it reminds me of the rituals of children or mystics. Any truth to this?
WB: I’m dealing with symbols, and at times I’m getting to mystical ideas. And it's about unconscious ritual, about consensus reality. Branding, image and media and the consequent control are also part of the work.
CM: What is something about SCHWA that people can’t seem to get over?
WB: That this wasn’t planned in advance. At the time, I didn’t know where all this was going. Even now, I don’t know where it's going! It's had interest past the intended expiration date, haha. It was strange when I really got expert at Schwa, around 1997-- there was a lot of money, I was getting around 25 letters a day, people were calling for licensing and wanting interviews. I turned down a number of radio and television offers, not really my style. I would go to Barnes & Noble maybe once a month to see what I could find in magazines about the project and often found many things. It was bizarre because I hadn’t really changed in my Reno life but in that unreal public life everything had changed.
I remember telling a friend at the time that I was "famous" and lonely, rich and poor, excited and bored all at the same time. There were moments when I would be doing something and thinking, "This is like something that Bill Barker would do." It can get strange, someone known told me that too much recognition is like "bad acid". I've never taken LSD but I sure knew what he meant. There started to be a kind of split – there was the Schwa guy, and then there was me, in the same quiet neighborhood in Reno. Some people can handle a lot fame, or attention.
I've found out I’m not that type. And I wasn't even that well known. In some ways I was naive about it although I'd heard it could be a problem. But how can you know how you'll handle recognition or fame, even to the extent I was? I’m not a performer. I found the attention wonderful at first, and the money, for an artist it was a lot. The first three or four years were great, a golden time. I felt a dreamy, kind of happy floating most of the time for about two years. But later it started to be too much.
By then I was doing the sales and getting licensing contracts, planning the publicity, envisioning the future company and still had to create the art and new products. Too many jobs, and it started getting in the way of my creativity. And 'the split' became worse. By 1998 I had enough saved to not work for a while. I moved to Springdale, Utah-- almost in Zion National Park. I didn't know anyone there and stayed for a full year, January to January. My editor at Chronicle Book wasn't happy about this, that I wasn't pushing the publicity for the World Operations Manual and related products, I didn't care. I know they made money, though. I made more by self publishing my books than I did from Chronicle. Money is not my first motivation, of course, but it's one of them. It has to be. Getting back into publicizing my work now is something I'm doing because I've set up ways to handle things if it really gets going again. And, now I would know what to expect.
CM: Things like lots of feedback, praise, criticism, people thinking this was real. No being able to get away. Being the Schwa guy.
WB: Interestingly, I found the false praise or the over-hyped admiration harder to take than the people who told me they were abducted by aliens, who didn’t see the satire in my work at all, and they wanted me to help them or listen to what happened. And I wasn't intentionally making fun of them, people who were obviously traumatized, I felt bad, because they didn’t see the satire, and I in no way wanted to minimize or trivialize how they were feeling.
CM: Recognition can bite back?
WB: In a way – but seeing friends change, outwardly too, while I thought I was the same, widened the alienation. And I suddenly had a lot of new friends! But then 9/11 happened and before that there was the Heaven's Gate mass suicide – it wasn't that funny anymore and I decided to take a few years off – because I was burnt out and tired of trying to manage the now-pretty-vast enterprise, manage the orders, the questions, the pressure, employees, the whole thing. The pace was fast and then by 1996 it was way too fast.
CM: And then what happened?
WB: I stopped doing anything publicized. I needed to do that, to let things settle. I went back to college for a few semesters. I travelled around the Southwest and spent a brief time getting very good at casino Blackjack. I didn’t look at Schwa for about 8 years. I knew I wasn't going to do it again, I'd done it well and thoroughly already. After 9/11 wasn’t a great time to be doing this kind of work. In 2009, I spent an evening looking at the books. When you've made the things it's very hard to see them as someone does who just picked up the book and starts looking. I know every square inch of the drawings and all the ideas in the graphics and writing. But that night, after 8 years, I got the feel of what the random viewer must see and I thought it was pretty great. I'd actually forgotten some of it and a few of the drawings were surprising to me, like 'Regression'. I remember thinking, "How could someone even think of something like that?!" :)
CM: Do you see the role of an independent artist as being outside of the mainstream, and the definitions and groups as defined by the zeitgeist of the time? Or can an ‘outside’ artist become part of any ongoing art scene and remain independent?
WB: I don’t know, I really don’t think about it but I prefer to be independent. It was interesting being a trained and studied artist posing as an outsider artist! Haha. Some artists choose to be overtly and currently political in their work, others pursue beauty and technique.
I do believe in complete freedom of style for any artist. I choose the generic mythic and that anything goes, even silly ideas which I have to sometimes dare myself to publish. And deeply studied personal honesty, at least that's what I try for. We live through myth, I think. We are the mythic beings.19 CM: Is there such thing as an independent artist?
CM: Is there such thing as an independent artist?
WB: There is. And of course, there are artists who make things and show them to no one. For me independence pays better than working with publishers.
CM: What are you hooked on right now? What are you doing?
WB: I opened this studio in April to get 3D and 4D limited edition prints made from my designs. 4D printing is of objects that change over time. It's being developed at MIT. But. I'm abandoning the 3D & 4D printing direction in my 'art plans'. Which, by the way, seems to currently be most of my art – the plans, conceptual. I've been posting a lot of experimental things on at facebook.com/alaVoid, to the consternation of some of the viewers, lol.
Anyway, I was already having doubts about that direction, and a documentary I saw on antique automatons clarified why. First, there's the 'uncanny valley' problem, replications of people look spooky if not perfect. For example, I thought that a perfect and beautiful 4D statuette and diorama of 'Diana the Huntress', an idea I'm developing, would solve that, and it probably can be done. Think of the last automaton on the Disney 'Haunted Mansion' ride-- 'Come back, come baaack...' . Which, I just thought of, is how Disney solved it in that case – if imperfect robots are creepy, make them about scary things.
So, automatons need to be scary or too cute, neither of which I'm interested in. So, a perfect 'Diana the Huntress' is possible and that gets the second problem, what I might call the 'Obsessive Crafter Dilemma', OCD :). The artists who made the automatons in the documentary are willing to put in the hundreds of hours to make these things and I'm not.
An aspect of the second problem is that the cost of creating and producing the first 'Diana the Huntress' 4D Limited Edition Music Box, in exquisite materials, is in the thousands of hours and in money of 6 figures or more. Which I don't 'care' to spend, haha. And, 4D printing, while new, is just a new technique in this tradition. The third and final problem that ends making 4D prints, for me, is that it's all just so much more 'material', so many more objects.
Art, media and society are not going that way, and not me, too. I like the speed and economy of making things on a screen and the ease of distribution, it's ecological. So, it's 'back to the keyboard' for this obsessive crafter. Maybe what I'll do is make Diana Hunter the main character in a computer game concept, sell that, make googols of money and pay Italian programmers and artisans to create the first 'Diana the Huntress' 4D Limited Edition Music Box in exquisite materials.
CM: And what comes next?
WB: I now realize that limited edition prints are a tough sell – the price, the ordering, the handling, the framing. I'm thinking of drawing again, although how I can sell those in this new era is a mystery.
No t-shirts or stickers, though. I'm pretty sure. A book, maybe, but even that's difficult in the market now. I'd like to create and sell something far more virtual. I'd like to just sell ideas but that's a lot to ask of the world! The subject this Fall for me is to choose a direction and commit to it. :)