Meet William Schaff: The man behind the mask

About 12 years ago, William Schaff walked into Jack's Bar, had a seat, ordered a drink and took out his embroidery — it was a litmus test, he thought at the time, of how small, insular Warren treats newcomers.
"A lot of times small neighborhood bars can be intimidating, especially if you're a little different," said Mr. Schaff, 40. "I mean, how many times have you seen someone doing embroidery at a bar? And I'm covered with tattoos! I was wondering what would happen; I wasn't really sure if there was going to be a problem."
Nobody bothered him much until an older gentleman walked up behind him, hunched over his shoulder and grunted out a question in a raspy voice:
"What's that?"
"Embroidery," he replied.
A short silence, and then:
"Oh yeah! My grandmother used to do embroidery!"
And with that, a new friend was made. The man was the late George Skac of Jack's, and the Warren street institution has since become a second home to Mr. Schaff (his first, 'Fort Foreclosure,' is across the street at 164 Water St.).
In his 12-plus years in town, Mr. Schaff has fallen in love with Warren and the warmth of people he's come to know here. He has great neighbors, feels comfortable and supported in his work and is happy to be part of a community, something that was lacking in previous homes in Boston, Baltimore and Providence. Words like community, friends and neighborhood have lost much of their punch in this age of Facebook, but living here has helped him re-discover their true meaning, he said.
Mr. Schaff is an internationally known artist who works mostly on commission and has designed dozens of album and CD covers, prints, posters and other works of art. His name cuts such a wide swath and carries such pull that he's had visitors travel from as far away as Sweden, unannounced, to meet him. But he considers himself as much a Warrenite as an artist of international acclaim.
He is so fond of his adopted town, in fact, that he recently drew a whimsical aerial map of downtown Warren that points out its streets and landmarks and gives a little history of the place. He was happy one recent afternoon that a visitor noticed that the map referenced King George II of England, who called for the town's incorporation in 1747 (though it had existed in Massachusetts prior to that date). Prints of the map are for sale through his Facebook page, and you can also find his art here.
Here's what he had to say about the map, and Warren, one sunny afternoon on Water Street:
First off, why the mask? (Mr. Schaff wears masks when being photographed in relation to his work): "For me, having my face visible is just a distraction to the work itself. I don't want people to think about what I look like when they think of the work. I'm an everyman; there's nothing superior or special about me. So for me, someone needing to know what I look like, I think it detracts. Ultimately, I think it hurts how they are seeing the work. The Catch 22 is that the mask can become the face if you wear it enough."
You're wearing a Buddy Cianci mask today. Why Buddy? "The Buddy mask is great. We did that for a book release party, 'Don Dimaio of LaPlata' by Robert Arellano. I did the cover art and the book is kind of a satirical look at Buddy's rise and fall."
Any other masks? "There's a few. The first was this crazy monkey mask. I used to wear it with What Cheer? Brigade (he's drummer for the Providence-based marching band). But as time went on with the band, I killed off the monkey, and made a cloth skull mask. The newest one was made by a Warren leathersmith and artist, Todd Moen (of
Ever have any difficulties with the mask? "Once a PBS station from New York contacted me and said they wanted to include me in a show. I said sure, but said I didn't want my face on it. At first the guy said, 'Sure.' Then he writes back and he starts getting very hostile. and he said, 'You're a very vain man.'"
Are you? Laughs. "I may be, but it doesn't have to be about my face man!"
How'd the map of Warren come about? "I approached (Todd Moen) and asked about a mask, and we worked out a trade. I did the Warren print and we exchanged them. I liked it so much, and people responded to it so well, that I thought I would make prints."
Was it difficult to draw? "I'd always wanted to do a map of this town. I'd walk around and take pictures of buildings so I could study them. But it's a pretty big undertaking, and I never had the time. But I had so much fun doing it when I finally did."
Any other Warren projects? "I've done a lot of things for local artists, 75orLess Records. There are so many talented people here. Brown Bird (local band that's met with national acclaim) lives upstairs. There's Joe Fletcher, a lot of really talented people."
Do you know the history of your own building? "I went back and looked at the old maps, the oldest I could find was from about 1870, and the building said 'JC Hall' on it. I think it used to be a bar; you can see the indentations on the floor from where the bar sat, and the holes from the beer taps. I wish I knew the full history of the building."
How did you end up here in the first place? "I went to school in Baltimore, and then I lived in Providence from 1997 to about 2000. Warren was a bit of a fluke. My dad had just died, and I decided to buy a house. We heard about this place. While it wasn't a dream house and I knew nothing about Warren at the time, we thought, 'Oh well, we'll flip it in five years, buy another house."
Fall in love right away? "Originally I hated it; I really didn't like Warren. I had to ride my bike to work everyday (in Providence). It wasn't great. And I didn't know anyone. I missed Providence so much that I moved back and rented out this space. Then I got sick of Providence again, so I said, 'I'm going back to Warren.'"
Trepidatious? "I was. It was a very low time for me; I definitely thought Warren was the lesser of two evils. I came back in the middle of the winter. On top of it this place is now, and was then, unheated, so I moved back, got sick with pneumonia or something, and finally we put some heaters in and I got a little acclimated to it. That's around the time when I went into Jack's. Later, the people at Jack's brought me a blanket. The bartender hand-made it for me!"
Did the generosity surprise you? "It was amazing. In my eyes these were people who had no reason to be nice to me other to be polite, and they just took me in and helped me out."
It must have been refreshing, and relieving, to find that Warren was welcoming. "I have had a lot of situations over the years when people, for whatever reason, were put off by me, by the way I look or for whatever reason. But the reception I got made me feel completely comfortable."
And that's continued? "Yes. One of the reasons I love this whole town, even the goofballs in this town, and there are a few, is you know that they're treating you like they treat everyone else. And that is so genuine, and so important to creating a level playing field. Great people."
Where do you draw inspiration for your work? "My own Christianity comes into my work a lot, on good days and bad. On the bad days, I think it comes from the struggle to figure out why I am the way I am. On good days, it's the attempt to recognize the beauty that does exist all around us. The world is so incredible but it's put to such a test by humanity. On a good day, I know there's hope out there and I know there's beauty to be shown, so I try to show it."
Do you still love getting up to do it every day? "It can be stressful, but it's a different kind of stress. My last job, I was a bouncer for six years (he was head of security at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence). Nothing gets you fed up with people quicker than dealing with drunks. But now, and I was thinking about this last night, that I know I get to wake up and get back to work. That is such an exciting feeling to know that I am going to get to somehow contribute to the world tomorrow, either Warren or the world. For a long time my work was always really heavy and depressing. But one day I said, 'S&^%, I like birds, why not draw them? Now I know I have time for both."
William Schaff


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