William Barker left advertising and gallery art in 1992 to create a unique art style that combined both. The project was called Schwa, and for readers it was as exhilarating as it was surreal -- existing ironically and coincidentally with the burgeoning UFO vibe that started in the late 1980s. In 2014 he opened a studio in Arizona to create new work. Here he discusses his project from the 90's and the interest in it since then.
CM: It looks so simplistic and straightforward, but there are a lot of elements mixed in – psychological and economical nightmares, dystopian satire, play, magic, social criticism, ideas about extraterrestrial life, politics, power and realpolitik, etc. This is scratching the surface, and I’m sure there has been much discussion about the depth of the work. Or do people get how deep it is?
WB: When I first started the project I thought about 50% of people wouldn't get that it was satire and the other 50% would, and those would see it was serious on some other levels, whatever those were. It turned out maybe 80% don't get the satire, really. This was, in fact, disillusioning for me. I lost some faith in people in general as the project went on. And over time, by the end of the project, I was overwhelmed by the number of people asking me what it meant – what does it really mean, does it mean anything? Because I don’t ultimately know. And I told them I didn’t plan it all out, all the possible meanings. The strong style rules of the art led to many of the ideas, and the drawings in the books were done first and then sorted into a kind of story line. I did then do a few drawings to bridge some of the 'story'. But many insisted I somehow knew, or know. Almost no one noticed that the viewer never actually sees an alien. They're only in the logo, in dreams or on a screen or stickpeople wearing masks, things like that.
I was sure this would be taken with much more of a sense of satire, rather than people becoming obsessed with trying to squeeze the meaning out of it, some saying I was channeling 'the aliens'. Mostly meaning that applies to their own projections. The idea was to create a kind of 'Rorschach Inkblot Test' with the first 2 books. I used a lot of my knowledge of psychology to do that and it worked. But then it worked against me when people tried to hold me accountable for what they saw in it. I even got a few vague and deranged death threats in the mail! One mentioned that something would happen on my birthday, with the right date. How they knew that was troubling, and I told my office manager I was thinking of buying a gun. She told me to go on a week's vacation for my birthday instead. I did. She was a smart manager. :)
CM: The astonishment never fully wears off. Schwa is so stark, yet also, very intricate.
WB: I am surprised at the longevity of it. Each drawing has a unique history. Some were completely created in my mind's eye and simply drawn from that. Others started with me drawing a curve or line on the paper and then improvising. And others started when I saw a situation in life or an odd sign or a scene with strong black & white. That still happens, maybe once a week. The style rules are strict, no cross hatching, only black & white, with white or black outlines and more. The original plan was to have no language either, to keep it all universal. But that was too limiting, and so many ideas required English. One thing I did on some drawings was to include three things from the 'idea box' I'd started about age 17 and still had. Over years, I'd often do a sketch or a note of an idea, or words or anything I thought was interesting and put that in this box. So I would find at least three of these that could be fit into the drawing as a sign or sight gag or whatever. That added to the complexity.
CM: Do you have any examples? Tell me about one illustration you like.
WB: One of my favorites is "Herbal Burble" from the World Operations Manual. I've been asked what this drawing is about before. The top level answer is that I thought it was funny, here's this book that says it's about world domination, but there's this, on what, maybe page 5, ad that's for... shampoo. Even a corporation that controls planets still has to include advertising.
A friend in Reno did huge paintings about advertising then, so we would talk about slogans, and I had worked as a graphic artist writing taglines and doing graphics for casinos and real estate for a few years by then. At least 50% of Schwa was my rage at advertising, with advertising on everything, in everything. Brands everywhere. Also, I think about the sound of English and the meaning a lot. so 'Herbal Burble' combines all of that, with the suggestion of washing your hair, and drops of black water, a contradiction. The image sways like the sound of "herbal burble", "Clean Inside And Out" is another kind of zen reference. It wasn't that thought out when I made it. What you make comes out of what you're doing or thinking at that time – that's part of why I like art, it's inevitably historical. You may recognize it, what you were doing, later, if someone asks.
CM: Do you find it relaxing? Or is it the opposite?
WB: The two self-published books I did had 35 drawings, and I’d draw the book in four or five weeks, working 14 hours a day. I become immersed in the process – I think about the 2 or 3 drawings I have going, I see possible drawings in my mind's eye when I go for a walk, or do anything.
It's deeply relaxing when I get into that, a deep contemplation. The drawings are done at 200% of the size they'll be published in the books, drawn with Sharpies and retouched with Graphic White paint so when reduced they look very precise. I still think of the "drawing times" for Schwa whenever I smell markers. Lately been thinking of doing it again, but in color pencil and without the alien themes. It can also get a bit strange, seeing the world that way, but overall that's the best part of the thing, the drawing.
CM: At what level does the work compel you to make it?
WB: I'm definitely not like Robert Crumb, who has drawn something like 40 hours a week since 1968 or so! I'm more of a 'binge artist'. I might not do anything for 8 months and then only do art for 4 months straight without time off. Completely living it for a time – becoming immersed in it. A big motivation for the Schwa project was my anger at the advertising industry, and at corporations, so I was at least compelled by that.
I was joking with a friend recently, saying how great it is to 'own' an artist -- the artist being myself! I can do anything with this artist, unethical experiments, endurance tests, whatever. And I'm often not sure what he'll do next, haha. I get to be surprised, too. :)
I watch the only person I can watch in detail, and study his actions, the way his mind moves. I have at least one person I can study empirically. I use part-time self-obsession as a technique. Some of this comes out of my study of zen literature about observing the mind.
I'm professional at this, though occasionally it does go off track. I know how to get back on. This is not recommended for most people. My studies of history, psychology, philosophy, and metaphysics, even new age ideas are a foundation. I've read non-fiction almost exclusively for over 20 years. And, some years I read a lot!
CM: Your style is hard to define, words comes up like “iconographic” or “reductive” – it also strikes a chord -- provocative and unsettling. It could be because the impression is that it is so outwardly simple, in style, it shouldn't be upsetting.
WB: Originally I set some strict rules – making the work black and white, having no cross-hatching, having the work take up the entire page and be very dense, partly because it was economical both physically and conceptually. But I found through the very nature of the rules, the limitations I set, ideas emerge. Some of the ideas manifest because of the rules.
CM: Or do you prefer to think of it as challenging? Or something else?
WB: Not challenging – I think the style is very accessible. Some of the psychological aspects are challenging though, as intended. Having rules, a system, are the essence a style, I think. Ideas sometimes pop into my mind because of the logic of the style. And the style starts to 'create' where it can go or what it can do. When I started I had no idea of the things I would be making 5 years later, to my pleasure. That keeps it interesting for me.
CM: Did Schwa create itself? Was it spontaneous? Or was it in reaction to something that you consciously created it?
WB: I was working as a freelance graphic designer in the agencies around Reno, mostly working on casino accounts. And I was showing work in galleries a few times a year in Nevada and Northern California. I was frustrated with both. So it's a reaction to that. And it's about the investigation, the psychological aspects of the work, seeing what I can find. Some people saw a stickperson revolution happen in the last part of the first book, and asked me questions about it.
I had to tell them I had no idea how it turned out, that the plot was almost unintentional and there is no overall plan or plot to the Schwa universe. The viewer, and their ideas, get into the work. I create with the viewer in mind, any viewer. And I makes things because of viewers, I'm not someone who would make art and never show it to anyone, other people are the point. I'm only interested visually in something I've made for a few days. I might hang it for a few days. After that it's a kind of building block for the goals of the project.
CM: As menacing and nuanced as this is for the adult mind – on the flip-side -- there is something childlike and irrepressible to this world – I could see children of a certain age being very taken by this.
WB: I know of teenagers who are fascinated by the work. I don’t see young people always having to make sense out of it, at least as much. Recently I was chatting with a follower of my work, and I figured out she was 5 years old when I published the first book! How she even found it is a wonder. And there are many more like her. That's satisfying and unexpected. And motivating.
One time, early in the project when it was really starting to take off, I was in my favorite café in Reno, where they were carrying my book first book. I'd even made a handmade cardboard display that looked mass-produced. Two teenagers came in, and one of them said to the other, in a hushed voice: “There it is, that's the book.” I didn't let them know who I was, but that was one of the great moments for me. Corrupting the minds of youth, part of a great tradition, haha. I think to them, as teenagers, it was alluring because it gets into authority and control, and they feel controlled.
CM: I laugh at Schwa quite a lot. I’ve really laughed at some of the grimmest illustrations. Do you get that reaction from people? The illustrations you’d think would be the bleakest and upsetting, people end up laughing over the most?
WB: I’ve gotten every kind of reaction to it.You got the satire of the work. We all have dark parts of our personality and some of the drawings were designed to get that laugh. And, I've only been there a few times when someone was looking at a book, so I don't really know.