Will Sheldon

Conversation held May 24, 2020

How are things in LA?

Good! I’m staying with my in-laws, keeping a low profile.

You’ve been living in New York for years, but are you from LA originally?

No, New Jersey. Actually, I grew up in China, and then moved to New Jersey, and then moved to New York, and I’ve been there for ten or eleven years. My wife’s originally from LA, though, so we decided to spend some time here, with everything being so crazy in New York.

How are you spending your days? I know you’ve set up a workspace in your in-laws’ garage—have you been making much work?

Yeah, I’m pretty much painting all day. Aside from that, I’ve been reading a lot, and I adopted yoga as a new hobby, which I’ve never done before. I’d been so used to walking around the city all day, and then suddenly not being able to do that, my body was feeling stiff. So I figured, why not give it a shot? It’s been great so far.

What are you doing for your routine? Are you using online videos?

Yesterday was actually my first day doing it by myself, without a YouTube video. But I have a friend who’s a yoga instructor in New Jersey, and he’s been mentoring me, sending me different videos. So for the past couple of months, I’ve done one of those videos each day, but now I’m starting to put some of the poses together in my head and building my own routine, which is cool.

What style of yoga have you been doing?

It’s hatha yoga or Iyengar yoga. Nothing too crazy, all beginner’s stuff.

That’s great. So, stepping back for a minute: right before COVID hit, you’d opened a solo show at Team Gallery, “Trouble After Dark,” which ended up closing to the public amid the lockdown. What was that experience like, opening a show just as this world event was starting to unfold?

It was great, but obviously a little weird. Even on the way to the opening, I was thinking, “This could be really dangerous.” Obviously, we didn’t know how crazy things were about to get; it was still that moment where people were like, “Oh, it can’t possibly be that bad.” But going into the opening, it was definitely on my mind: “I’m going to be in a small, crowded space, hugging a bunch of people.” It ended up being fine—but then, a few days later, everything started shutting down.

What day was the opening?

It was on March 5th.

Oh, yeah. I remember I had a studio visit scheduled that day with a group of forty-plus people from The Armory, and I ended up canceling. I was just like, “I can’t be around that many strangers right now.”

That was such a weird, specific time. It was very apparent that something was going on—and then that basketball player got corona. To me, when the basketball player got it, that was when everything got crazy.

Rudy Gobert.

Right. I was working in my studio and got some WorldStarHipHop notification about it. Then I went outside and there were lines out of the grocery store. It really hit me at that point: “This is getting weird.”

And then did you drive or fly to LA?

We flew. We’d been planning on visiting around this time anyway, so we decided just to go early, hang out with her parents, and see what happens. So we got here, and the next day, California shut down. Then New York shut down. At that point, it became apparent that we’d be here for a long time, so I went online and ordered forty canvases, a couple of paintbrushes, some colored pencils, and a few tubes of acrylic paint.

I started out drawing trees—just trees, all day long for two weeks. In a way, it was my response to what was happening, all of the confusion. After that, I started opening up more and realized that I could just do whatever I felt like, almost as a kind of meditation. Everything started to become easier as I settled into this new routine: I’d wake up, make coffee, go to the garage, paint until 5pm, do a little exercise, make some phone calls to parents and friends, take therapeutic little walks, stuff like that.

What had your studio setup been like in New York?

For years, I’d been working in our apartment, but then about a year ago, a space opened up with my friend Cajsa von Zeipel, who has a big studio in the Lower East Side. Her space has two rooms in the back, and one of them opened up, so I moved in. I live in the East Village, so it was like a ten-minute walk, totally perfect. I love, love, love that studio. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I get back, if it’s still going to be there once things settle down. I guess we’ll find out.

Had you already secured the show with Team at this point?

This was right before. The first studio visit I had with Jose [Freire] was at my apartment. I knew at that point that I was moving to the new studio, so I mentioned it. He was like, “Okay, go to the new studio, make some new paintings, and call me.” So I moved in and worked for a couple of months, and then texted him and he came by. A couple of months after that, maybe November, he contacted me and asked if I’d want to do a show in March.

The new paintings you showed him—were they the pieces featured in the show?

No, all of the paintings in the show were made specifically for Team. They were all pretty much started in November.

Were the pieces conceived as a single body of work? There seems to be some implied narratives that wind through the show.

Well, kind of. When I first moved into the new studio, I was making a lot of paintings, just experimenting. One day, Jose was right down the street from the studio, and he asked if he could come over. I had four paintings up that I was working on, one on each wall, and he was like, “Take these four and make a show out of just these four.” So I started focusing on those four canvases, making it so that they would be cohesive in one room together. So it wasn’t like I’d said, “Okay, I’m going to make this body of work and it’s going to look like this.” I just took the four that were on the wall and made them look good together. Then, a little later, we added a fifth canvas—the spider web painting, which sort of stood on its own. That one was made before we’d agreed on having a show, but it fit in really well, so we added it at the end.

That’s a really interesting painting, especially in the context of your work. It stands out to me for being so starkly designed. Actually, I feel like that’s true of the show overall: where your earlier compositions were boisterous, with a lot of different elements co-existing, these new pieces are more focused in their content, each dedicated to single scenes or, in the case of Web, even a single element.

Totally. I have a hard time simplifying things sometimes. My brain naturally tells me to do more, and that more is better, but I actually don’t feel that way, so there’s this kind of push and pull as I’m making the work. That’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but at one point, a friend was visiting my studio and said, “You should try painting one thing at a time.” It was actually a really helpful suggestion, and it led to something new.

There were some other new elements in these works as well: you’re using rectangular frames instead of the shaped, unstretched canvases you used at White Columns; you’re favoring a darker palette than in earlier works, restricting the vibrant colors to washes and accents; and you’re setting the scenes within landscapes, giving a sense of ground and location.

I’m always just trying to experiment and find new ways of working, taking things from a different angle. For example, the landscape thing is definitely something I’ve been consciously exploring. I had another studio visit where someone was looking at a work in progress and said, “Okay, so you have this big painting with this figure in front of a background—but what if you took out the figure? It’d become something totally different.” I thought that was a really interesting idea, so I decided to make a few works like that, but pushing it so it looked more like a Don Bluth, Secrets of NIMH sort of thing. I love finding new angles like that, because it lets the work go somewhere else.

While you were putting the show together, you were still taking appointments for your tattoo work. Was it strange moving between the hard framing of stretched canvas and the open contours of a human body? I’d imagine you’re forced to deal with composition in a totally different way.

Yeah, that’s something that I’ve been juggling for a couple of years now. Actually, it’s been a bit of a struggle, but it’s become clear to me recently that I’ve been making a lot of things harder for myself.

How so?

Basically, I thought the paintings had to be something more. With tattoos, it’s a straightforward process: I draw something, someone says yes, I tattoo it on them, and I never see them again. But with a painting, it’s something that I live with and see all the time, something I can add to and edit forever. I had these different expectations for the paintings, and they ended up acting like restraints: where the tattoos felt like an exhale, the paintings were more like this endless inhale without any release. But then I realized, “You know what? I can do whatever I want. The process can be as simple or complicated as it needs to be—and if I don’t like the results, I can throw it out, even burn it if I feel like it.” It was a big realization, and I think it’s helped the paintings loosen up.

Is it about having a different sense of liability? Tattooing someone is an immense responsibility, obviously, but the piece ultimately belongs to someone else—whereas with the paintings, you’re tethered to them. They’re always yours, in a sense, even if someone else purchases and houses them.

That’s definitely part of it. When you start out tattooing, you put all of this pressure on it, wanting everything to be perfect because this is forever. But even in the early stages of training, you’re told that you can’t think about it that way, because it’s not going to mean the same thing to you as it means to the other person. As long as you try your best and do a good job, it’s fine—and then you have to separate yourself from it. It’s over, and on to the next one. I’ve been able to do that as a tattooer; now it’s more about translating that to the artworks.

These notions of responsibility and ownership are interesting in your case, though, because although I know you’re open to working with non-original flash, you’ve developed such a distinct language in your own tattoo designs that it’s harder to separate yourself from the results. You can spot a Will Sheldon piece from a mile away—which is amazing, but which also complicates your ability to approach the tattoo work as an anonymous technician.

Right. There’s some added pressure there, for sure—but at the same time, even when it’s my own designs, I still see it as belonging to the other person. I think it all just comes down to your mindset. When I first started tattooing, I thought it had to be done a certain way, look a certain way. To me, it was much more about technical skill than personal expression. But after a while, I got burned out on that, so I had to take a deep breath and figure out what I wanted to do—and that’s when my tattoos started getting interesting. I think it’s the same with the paintings. There was a time where I thought they had to be something else, something specific, but I’m realizing now that there are so many other possibilities. So now it’s just a process of getting out of my own way and allowing things to be a little freer, a little less forced.

Were you still tattooing at Fun City before the pandemic hit?

Yes. I was there full-time for three years, and then two years ago, I became appointment-only. So I was bouncing between the studio and tattoo shop pretty regularly.

Do you think you’d ever want to make a transition fully in either direction? Or is the idea to maintain both practices at once?

I’m not sure. Working in an environment with a bunch of people who have really, really strong personalities is amazing, but it can also be tough sometimes. There have been moments when working by myself full-time seems really appealing. But for now, I think it’s just about balance. Each thing gives me something special, but they’re also similar, in a way. It’s always about some sort of collaboration.

How do you mean?

Well, with tattooing, you’re always working with the other person. You’re negotiating something, where even if it’s your original drawing, it becomes theirs as soon as they say yes, so it goes both ways. I feel like something similar happens with the paintings. I think the only way it’s not collaborative is if you don’t show your artwork to anyone. You can make something on your own, in your room, and it’s yours—but once you start showing it to other people, it means something different, becomes something shared. I’ve found that I can work in my studio for hours on end, for weeks on end, and feel one way about a painting, but then I’ll have one person come into the studio, and they don’t even have to say anything, but suddenly I’ll look at the painting and it’s changed completely. You see the whole thing from a different point of view, which can really be interesting and helpful, but you need other people to make that happen.

You also regularly collaborate with other artists and designers: Women’s History Month, Raffaela [Hanley] from Lou Dallas, Reba Maybury. When you’re contributing as part of someone else’s project—the “Claudia Pins” you recently made for Lou Dallas, for example—do these questions of ownership play out in similar terms? Is it still your work, does it become their work, or is it somewhere in-between?

I’d say somewhere in-between. When I make something, no matter what it’s used for, it’s something that I made—but because I’m working with someone else, or even taking direction from someone else, it becomes something other than what I would have made on my own. It takes the pressure off, in a way: it’s not just mine, so it gives me permission to loosen up and expand what I’m doing while learning from other people. That’s what keeps things interesting for me. The other side of it is that I’m working with friends, people whose work really inspires me, so it’s different than if someone were hiring me to make a drawing of their dog to hang in their house or something.

Right. It’s less about services rendered than shared investments.

Exactly. Like, I used to be in a band, going on tour and making records. That was so much fun for me, because it was all these people coming together, inspiring one another. It was a shared experience, and the results belonged to everyone. I see these artistic collaborations along the same lines.  

Were you into art as a kid?

Oh, yeah. I was always really into drawing.

Who were some of your earliest influences?

The first thing that comes to mind is that my dad was really into MAD Magazine, so I would copy things from there. There was this one artist who worked for the magazine called Mort Drucker, whose work I was particularly into. He would do these exaggerated renderings of characters from movies and other cultural events that were happening around that time.

He just recently passed away, right?

Oh, really?

Yeah, a month or two back.

Wow. Rest in peace. He was someone who I looked at a lot. I’ve always been a sucker for surrealist and expressionist art, too. I liked paintings that had faces in them, as well as symbols, but always done in this sort of exaggerated or distorted way. I feel like both of those styles were really influential for the way I make work now.

How about more recently? What have you been into, visually speaking?

I’ve been really into Léon Spilliaert, this symbolist landscape artist. I was making all these drawings of trees when I first got to LA, so my friend introduced me to his work from the 1920s, all of these amazing bare trees with really expressive branches. I also like the artist Aya Takano, this Takashi Murakami protégé who I think does really cool paintings. Richard Oelze is another one—a surrealist painter whose work is a little bit darker than other people from that period. And then I’m always looking at Bosch paintings.

When you’re making your artwork, as opposed to your tattoos, to what extent are you improvising as you create the pieces? Are you sketching things out beforehand, or are you finding the image as you make it?

It really goes back and forth. Sometimes I’ll make a drawing and then be like, “Oh, this would be cool as a painting.” But most of the time, I just start drawing directly onto the canvas and go from there. I had an airbrush in my studio in New York, and I would often start with the airbrush instead of using a pencil, which I found really liberating. You can kind of render things as you would with a pencil, but it creates a totally different effect, and might even suggest a next step visually that I wouldn’t have thought of.

Does working with that tool feel familiar, given your experience with the tattoo gun?

Well, I first got into airbrush after watching this HR Geiger documentary. He was talking about this one artist, Ernst Fuchs, who’d said that using the airbrush is like using a magical wand that sprays magic dust. I thought that was really cool—it reminded me of Fantasia or something. Tattooing is so much about line and line quality, and in that sense, the gun seems more to me like a pencil or pen. But the airbrush is capable of precise line-oriented work, if you have enough experience. Graffiti writers get to be really good at it, for example. I still don’t feel like I’ve totally got the hang of it yet, but I really love doing it. To me, it’s another kind of drawing.  

But the paintings you’re doing at the moment, in LA, are all brush-oriented, no?

Yeah, they’re all hand-brushed acrylic. When I bought all of those art supplies at the beginning of quarantine, I did actually buy an airbrush, but then I realized I’d rather not deal with all of that spraying while there’s other people around. I’m also trying not to get too messy, since I’m staying at someone else’s house. So, for now, I basically have four tubes of acrylic paint that I’m using, just trying to keep it as simple as possible. But I definitely miss using the airbrush—I love how it creates that messed-up, 1980s-1990s cartoon effect. Under different circumstances, I’d like to be using the airbrush and manual brush together: when you get that sprayed effect next to the flatness of the brushwork, there’s this great interaction of textures. It ends up looking like a still from a Disney movie or something.

It’s also fun to see you getting back into vibrant colors after the muted palettes of the Team paintings.

For sure. Using the airbrush for the Team paintings, I found that you can play with light so much and so easily that it only made sense for me to make these really harsh, dark backgrounds with intense chiaroscuro light sources. Now, with these new paintings, I’m trying to make them almost like coloring-book panels, where I make a drawing, outline it, and then I color it in. The coloring process is interesting, because I layer it so much that by the end, everything just kind of comes together. The painting ends up making itself—I just have to put in some dots to get it started.

You’re simply pulling the thread.

Yes, exactly. I just go in, sit there and work for a little bit, and all of a sudden it does its thing.

So I assume you brought your dog, Misty, with you to LA.

Of course! I’m looking at her right now.

How old is she?

We don’t know exactly, but we guessed she was around 6 when we got her four years ago, so she’s probably somewhere around 10 years old.

She’s a beautiful dog, very striking visually, and it looks like she’s even made her way into some of your most recent drawings. Speaking more generally, would you say she’s informed your visual language at all?

So, the most magical thing that’s ever happened in my life—well, there have been lots of magical things, but one of the craziest—is that I actually started drawing Misty before we found her. There’s evidence of this. I did this show at Romeo Gallery, where I made these cut-out heads of this character that I’d been working on for a year or two—a dog with a bare face and long, hairy ears. Then a little while later, my wife Taylor and I were searching for a dog, and we were on this website called Bald Is Beautiful, which only deals with hairless dogs. We were looking and looking and looking, until one day, Taylor found Misty and sent in the application. I hadn’t really seen what she looked like—but when she appeared, we realized that this was the dog character that I’d been drawing all this time. When you look back at that earlier work, it’s Misty, to a T. It was incredible, because I hadn’t really even seen that breed of dog before, a Chinese Crested, but the drawings had all her features—the big eyes, the tiny little nose, the big ears with long, stringy hair coming down. The Romeo cut-out even had the tongue hanging out to the side. It was pretty amazing. I still try not to think about it too much, because it weirds me out. My wife’s convinced that I conjured her.

Do you believe in magic, Will?

Yes, totally. It’s an interesting thing to talk about in a passing manner. But yes, I’d like to think I do.

I guess the question is what that actually means. Personally, I believe in our having some ability to manifest reality, which is maybe what your work did in this case.

Right. I think that you can definitely manifest certain things. I don’t know that I drew Misty into existence, but what I do know is that I drew Misty and then she appeared. There’s something to be said for that.

Photographs by Abundance