Post-Prison: Art Chat with activist/artist Alex Schaefer, Downtown Los Angeles


Recently, artist-activist Alex Schafer came to our attention with his "Burning Banks," series of paintings.  A few days ago the Schafer was arrested and charged with "vandalism," over a chalk drawing on a sidewalk in front a Chase bank.  

On my way to interview, Schaefer, I took the not-so-scenic route past his place and all the way down to South Central, where one can plainly see that there are no big banks or art galleries.  There are no fancy restaurants and the majority of the residents are people that one might define as, “touched by vital concerns relating directly to survival,” which might be addressed if only the state cared to care.  Why are the police so focused protecting BIG banks from a single man with a tub of chalk and the ability to draw letters and logo with spot-on accuracy?  In a sprawling city where gang violence and all variety of crime thrives among the broken daisies law enforcement has time to wash the sidewalk of Schaefer's lettering within seconds, prontisimo.  Odd. 

How Los Angeles, law enforcement manage to instantly appear and process a man,  incarcerate a concerned citizen for drawing attention to the criminal conduct of banks in relation to millions of Americans that have faced foreclosures and other penalties for falling pray to the allure of the "American Dream," which when you think about, you realize that it is rapidly becoming a nightmare for individuals that chase material possessions and aspire to material wealth as a symbol of success. 

 Highly trained in visual thinking skills, Schaefer's downtown Los Angeles studio-loft residence is a professional the visual artist's private playground.  It is packed with paintings, art materials, and excellent books on art and the world.  Looking at his collected works is thrilling, because his virtousity and artisitic range with paint is truly remarkable and his knowledge of art-history is in sync with his role as university professor.  The idea that Mr. Schaefer is, "a Hippie," is pure fiction.  He is a visually savvy creative professional.  We immediately connected over art history from the Italian Renaissance through to contemporary.  We spoke off camera about art critics and performance artists.  Mr. Schaefer knows his art facts.  He is intelligent and speaks lucidly on a variety of topics.  He is no WILD nut job, nor is he a purely altruistic commentator on the conditions of poverty and disenfranchisement, which define the lives of millions.

Schaefer is an entrenched, dedicated, full-time fine-art professional painter well versed in panoply of techniques that immediately distinguish an accomplished artist from an incompetent poser or irrelevant dabbler hoping to gain attention for hokey work.  Schaefer is a master painter, versed in multiple styles and competent throughout.  There is an attempt in the media coverage to represent Mr. Schaefer as a "Hippie," in other words a person that has "dropped out of society." Yet, this is not the case, Schaefer is employed at an accredited university, teaching.  He has worked in the video game and entertainment industries.  His political position is not to be dismissed as one more "Occupy," activist stemming from the spacey kingdom of "Hippie-dom."   Schaefer is no cringing, recluse, nor is he anti-social, except in that he is anti-slavery.  

They say, “Slavery is illegal.”  Yet, the truth is that it has taken on a new form, more sophisticated form.  Everyone is welcome to get a credit card, a school loan, a car, a house and accumulate debt which they are then welcome to spend the rest of their lives slaving to pay the interest on their loans.  Mr. Schaefer points out during the interview, slick advertising and sophisticated media messages encourage us to spend our way toward an illusion of freedom, offered by a system that creates a certitude that one is just one purchase away from total happiness, fulfillment. 

One might even go as far as saying that, Schaefer is charming.  Furthermore, he is a vibrant enthusiast for the arts.  He collects art, in addition to painting, is a source of support for his fellow art workers.  His paintings reflect his intelligent grasp of the fundamentals of art history, a wry humor which pokes fun at visual conventions in advertising and art, boasts a, pardon the stereo-type, but "traditional," perspective on females forms as compelling subject matter and his exploration of painting from both a honed technical mastery and a painterly interest in lively visual effects, all his paintings are bold and unapologetic, just as his actions, his activism is a gesture painted with the broadest brush on the rippling surface of this urgent moment.  For, we are at a crossroad, we have reached a point of disgust with the leniency with which BIG banks are coddled and protected, whereas most of us, citizens, are denied basic rights and freedom of expression.  This is precisely what we take issue with, the enforcement of law which is selective and in service of BIG business, the reduction of humans into wage slaves. 

Schafer's art work, in his studio, is mostly strong figurative painting, but more than a decade of painting experience and a keen determination to create a vast body of work which questions realism and probes with a purpose more salient than mere representation, demonstrating skill not only in technique but in thinking.  His work vibrates with the energy that is only found in the most authentic of ART!  Schaefer's recent arrest marks a new stage in the artist's accelerating career.  He has executed a marvelous public deed and merits every welcome bit of attention, praise, and support directed toward the chalking and painterly actions he has manifested.  Everyone invested in the notion of  "freedom of expression," ought to rally to around Schaefer's cause.  Even if one is a capitalist, banker-type, one must admit admiration for a man willing face arrest to invite others into the cause of chalking, painting, and self expression as a valid and legitimate mode of social protest.

In short, Public space demands to be reclaimed as a forum for ideas.  Alex Schaefer's actions have brought this truth to wider circulation, creating the possibility that others will follow suit and stand up against the exploitation of Americans by corrupt bank practices and special interest conglomerates that actively seek to sell the key to paradise and charge you for the pleasure of being milked.   The fact that anyone might face arrest for drawing on a sidewalk, or interrogated by the police for making a painting, any painting, is absurd.  Isn't there some better use of public resources and law enforcement muscle than to focus on individuals who have worked and presumably paid taxes, which should be spent on improving conditions for the people?  What about the serious criminals, like the corporate kingpins that design the system that has switched the dream for a pile of debt, designed keep the majority of Americans in perpetual servitude?    Why is OK for every public surface from bus-bench to billboard to be covered in logos and efforts to convince us to BUY and keep accumulating garbage and creating untold waste?  If you are constantly being SOLD on one product or the next, from real estate to bonds.  Why shouldn't we respond with chalk or paint, or digital projections, which distribute alternative messages, and represent our true feelings of frustration with the system that separates people into categories to keep them all in their place?  The world needs ART, messages, that are not corporate messages. Also ART that packs political punch is a way to broadcast that we won't passively consume the propaganda of greed with which we are bombarded.  The cycle of desperation, which defines the typical aspirations of strivers, is a type of neo-slavery, which seduces individuals into working without ceasing in the interests of  "The Man."  

 Schaefer’s "Burning Banks," painting(s) and sidewalk chalk actions are a valiant and valid examples of ways in which one person can stand up for others and show solidarity with the suffering of the majority of workers caught in the rat-race of slaving to pay the inflated mortgage, pay off the college loans, for fantasy degrees that don’t necessarily lead to jobs in industries closed off to newcomers, to paying for the (air polluting) car, and its maintenance, a way of sticking UP for “the little guy,” the student, the homeowner that takes a big loan and buys a house they can't afford and that isn't remotely worth the million paid for it, only to find that at the end-of-the-day, no one will stop the banks from foreclosing on the pathetic "dream home," that is now packed to the gills with junk purchased on credit cards gathered during those long-gone college years.  The questioning of the system with a box of sidewalk chalk is one way of making a powerful stand, which may even inspire one or two, three or four, thousand or million, to take similar action or other action which indicate publically that they have had enough with BIG business as usual.

 Thank you, Alex Schaefer for your daring stance and your activism through Street ART, logo art, neo-POP! ART with real world impact! Thank you for welcoming me into your super-cool art-studio loft home and sharing with us some of the SPARK that makes you tick. Bravo!

 ©Frau Kolb, 2012