I first came to know my friend, Stephen, in 2007, when I was developing the premise for a pair of comic book titles. I had written the scripts and the synopses, commissioned a comic artist, then an inker. All I lacked was the most important member of the creative team: the illustrator. Images are flat and plain in pencil and inked formats. I needed someone whose work would stand out, someone who could take even the most recognizable character and make them look fresh without betraying the nostalgia of the mind’s eye. Fortunately for me, I found such an artist with the man who referred to himself as NorthChavis.
Though I set aside these projects, Stephen and I have collaborated several times over the next few years and I was able to get to know him as a person and friend. Not only is he knowledgeable in terms of his craft, he can hold a mean conversation on any number of topics. He brings that knowledge base to his artwork, finding new ways to test himself and to create a signature look to his digital paintings. For my own work, he elevated my ideas and breathed life into the characters and pieces he has set his brush upon.
This fall, I’m pleased to announce that Stephen will be returning to studies, having been accepted to Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, where he’ll no doubt hone his talents, pick up some new techniques and get closer to becoming a teacher of other artists. Recently, I had the opportunity to conduct a mini-interview with him. So, for everyone who has asked about the artist responsible for the character portraits and snapshot cover art for the site, say hello to Stephen and enjoy this glimpse into his world and his work.
JG: Stephen, how long have you been an artist?
SAS: I seem to recall one of those ceramic plates with marker scribbles in my parents’ possession that dates to about 1988… However, I would say that I became really serious in junior high school, or roughly 1998.
JG: What inspires you to create?
SAS: Everything. I know that is a clichéd answer but it’s the truth. It can be a movie, a song, a commercial on TV, something I overheard standing in line at the bank, whatever. It doesn’t take much to inspire me to create. I am naturally inquisitive, so whenever I am introduced to something new that piques my interest I like to research it thoroughly. I tend to get a lot of ideas doing arbitrary research. I will say, though, that seeing other great artists, both living and dead, is probably my greatest inspiration.
JG: How did you choose the name of your gallery, NorthChavis?
SAS: North Chavis is an interesting story. A few years back, my father was showing me some papers tracing our family’s roots. As an African-American, it’s a pretty safe assumption that my roots began in the south, but what was fascinating to me was that the last name on the paperwork wasn’t Schaffer, but Chavis. As my dad explained it to me: when our family migrated north to Pennsylvania, where I live now, the northerners misunderstood them (southern drawl and all that) and what they heard was Schaffer and the name stuck. In essence, North Chavis is a nod to my paternal ancestors.
JG: As an artist, what goals have you set for yourself?
SAS: My first goal as an artist is to tell the truth, plain and simple. However, my overarching artistic goals are tied directly to my interests as an artist which include: race, gender, identity, sexuality, spirituality and death. Ideally, I want my art to challenge the accepted norms and perhaps enlighten someone somewhere that the status quo of racism, sexism, classicism, religious intolerance and hate are defects in our psyches that can and must be overcome.
JG: Do you have any advice for other artists?
SAS: The only valuable piece of advice you can give to anyone is to never be afraid. Fear leads to lies and lies lead to more fear. Open up your heart and your mind and say everything you’ve always wanted to say, and damn anyone who tries to shut you up.
In addition to this interview, I asked Stephen to select three of his favorite pieces and give some backstory on what makes the pieces important to him either personally or artistically.
“The Villainous World of Disney”
SAS: This piece will always be special to me for many reasons, the first being that it was the last piece of art of mine that my mother saw before she passed away. As far as challenges go, this one was a doozy for me because I knew it was going to be one of the most complex pieces I’d done to date: twelve characters! I’ve always loved Disney and for a long time I’d wanted to do an homage to these timeless and beloved characters. It took over a month to complete, but it absolutely was a labor of love. I’ve also gotten more praise and recognition on this piece than probably any other I’ve ever done so that was a plus, too.
“A Good Story”
SAS: I had problems in college. Mainly, I didn’t apply myself and I just barely graduated. If it wasn’t for a VERY kind professor, I honestly don’t know where I’d be right now. This was a piece I did my senior year (it was actually a re-do because the first version looked so terrible). I remember being home for my last winter break and having no clue about what I wanted to say or do with my art. I knew I was running out of time and I had to get this right for my final semester. About a year prior, I was introduced to an artist by the name of Kadir Nelson (it should be noted that I never physically met him, but his books inspired me nonetheless). I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but some point during that break, I cracked open one his books and forced myself to stare at the images until I could figure out how he made the magic he did. Suffice it to say, I never quite figured out Mr. Nelson’s magic, but “A Good Story” is the result of my immersion in his artwork, and I will forever be grateful for his immense talent.
SAS: This image is a bridge of sorts. It represents a chapter in my life (mainly as a teenager) where I never felt I fit in. And I know this is almost standard practice for teens and high school, but it affected me quite profoundly. It also represents the moment in my life where I felt I was confident enough, both emotionally and artistically, to communicate my thoughts and emotions appropriately. On more than one occasion, I’ve felt like the little boy pictured here: having to go to extreme lengths to “fit in” so to speak. And while at first glance, his glare may seem to be defiant, as if to say, “There! Are you happy now? I did this for you!”, in reality he’s mad at me. Really he’s saying, “Why would you even think you need to do this?!” And he’s right. As I said earlier: lies lead to fear and fear leads to more lies. All I can be is me, and if you don’t like it I have no use for you.
My thanks to Stephen for his time an effort on this feature. In closing, I’ve added a few pieces Stephen has collaborated on for me, including the first piece from the aforementioned comic.