Watching With My Ears: The Improvised Paintings of Jorgo Schaefer

For the past 17 years, painter and graphic artist Jorgo Schaefer from Wuppertal, Germany has been an artist-in-residence at the New York Vision Festival, one of the world’s premier festival’s of avant-garde jazz, dance, poetry, film and visual art. 

Steve Dalachinsky Can you explain a bit about your process and becoming an artist?

Jorgo Schaefer: My career as a professional artist started in 1970 at the Werkkunstschule (WKS, School of Applied Arts) in Wuppertal. At this time, the WKS was a highly regarded institution with a long tradition. It was not an art academy but arts were a key element. Artistic skills were taught as well as philosophy. Our freshman class consisted of 15 students and we were hanging out together day and night, influenced and inspired by the political and artistic movements of about 4 good years. Plus: Amsterdam was just around the corner...

SD: When did you get interested in jazz and improvisation?

JS: Immediately after I had moved to Wuppertal. I got there just in time to dive into the “roaring seventies” of Wuppertal. At the time, Wuppertal started to flourish into what became the free jazz capital of Europe. At the same time, Pina Bausch dance company was established at the Wuppertal Opera from where it started its world career. These were two deep influences that left a lasting impression on me and still does even today...

As early as my first two weeks in Wuppertal I dropped by the Jazzclub Aderstrasse where I met the young Wuppertaler free jazz cats e.g. Peter Brotzmann (reeds), Peter Kowald (b), Hans Reichel (gtr), Carl Ruldiger (sax, acc), Bernd Kappen (p) and Achim Knispel (gtr). In the following years and due to the regular Wuppertal workshops of the Globe Unity Orchestra, the European avant-garde of free jazz from other cities and countries came to town: Alexander von Schlippenbach (p), Evan Parker (sax), Gunter Hampel (sax, vib), Han Bennink (dr), Tomasz Stanko (tr) and many more. Last but not least, the US-scene was present too. In these early Wuppertal days I got acquainted with William Parker (b), David S. Ware (sax), Charles Gayle (sax) and Anthony Braxton (sax) just to name a few. With regards to music I had been a typical child of my time. I listened to Rock, R&B, Soul etc. My taste for jazz was limited to Dixieland ala Bix Beiderbecke. So I skipped many stages of jazz development and jumped directly into free jazz. For the following almost 50 years, I’ve been trying to put the cart behind the jazz-horse.

SD: When did you start painting while listening to live music and painting what you saw/heard?

JS: Rather late in 2000 at Vision Festival 5 at the New Age Cabaret on St. Marks Place. Before that, I had shared studio space in Wuppertal with my partner the sculptor Ulle Hees where many sessions and rehearsals with Peter Kowald and other improvisors took place. Ulle and I sketched a lot. But “Watching With My Ears”, really started to become a top priority of my artwork in 2000. At the end of his U.S. tour Peter invited me to the Vision Festival for the first time. That was my earliest step into the intense experience of meeting wonderful artists from Arts for Art which became a lasting influence.

SD: Do you consider your work as music? Do you make music yourself or work in any other medium beside visual art?

JS: No, I am not a musician. As a child, I tried desperately to become a flamenco guitarist, but, hell, my fingers were way to short. Nevertheless, for 50 years I’ve been a cartoonist as well and for 33 years I’ve been the co-editor of a monthly satire journal.

SD: What was your relation to Peter Kowald and how involved are you in what has now become a residency for artists in the space he used to live in?

JS: I met Peter Kowald right away during my first week in Wuppertal in 1969/70. He passionately introduced me to free jazz and kindled my love for it. He took me to the most important festivals of the time (Berlin, Moers etc.). In those days the music was pretty impetuous, anarchistic and dismissive. Quite often compositions of Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler were taken and shattered, according to the spirit of the ‘68 movement.

Peter and I soon became friends. We had a great time in Greece and for 18 years, I lived in the same house in Luisenstrasse in Wuppertal. After Peter’s death, I was a founding member of the Peter Kowald Gesellschaft/ort e.v., a group successfully organizing events in all artistic aspects (music, dance, poetry, exhibitions etc.). In the past years, I invited a couple of New York artists from around the Vision Festival to Wuppertal as artists in residence: Terry Jenoure (vl), Maria Mitchell (dance), Jo Wood-Brown (painting), Patricia (dance) and William Parker (b). Others performed there as well: Wadada Leo Smith (tp), The Digital Primitives, Parker, Drake, Gayle, even you, Steve, together with your wife Yuko Otomo (poetry).

17 years of participating in the Vision Festival has changed my life even beyond the music. Specifically the opportunity to encounter an African-American community which I had not encountered before affected me deeply and positively changed my view of American society. As a college student, my political awareness was defined by the war in Viet Nam, which made me a leftist political activist with a huge anti-American resentment. Since then, I’ve made a lot of friends in the U.S and very much love to stay in Peter’s apartment in Harlem where I live while being in NYC.

SD: Do you feel, as Jeff Schlanger does, that you are a witness participating with and documenting the music?

JS: No! I love Jeff. I greatly admire his artwork, his style and skills, his energy and diligence but I’ve got a different approach. As Eric Dolphy said: “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air, you can never capture it again.” But I try to hold on to the music by giving the moment it was produced a visual and thus tactile form. So I preserve something that seems to be ethereal. The sound guides me: I’m  kind of hooked to the moment from the ear to the heart to the hand to the brush on the paper. It’s not about being able to recognize the musicians or venues etc. It is about the energy and what it triggers in the musicians, in me and in the audience. For me, it is all about the dialectic of movement and silence, tension and relaxation, just internal conditions. Simultaneous concentration on music and my artistic work evokes more unexpected pleasures in me than just listening. After the festival and back home in my studio in Wuppertal, big size works on canvas often arise from the experience.

SD: Can you talk about the origins of your yearly music calendar and what inspired it? Is it a limited edition? Do you produce other work like that?

JS: For the last eight years, I've produced the annual art calendar “Sound & Time” with six multicolored woodcuts plus one title piece, hand signed, numbered and hand printed in a small and limited edition. I specifically do an American version “Vision, Sound & Time” that I bring to the Vision Festival. Mostly, it is a visualization of my personal jazz aesthetic. This year (2017/18), it will be about a successive text of the song “Dr. Yesterday” by William Parker for which I have William’s blessings.

At the moment, I’ m working on an art book project: poems and woodcuts, real letterpress (I’ve done an apprenticeship as a typesetter), high-quality paper, valuable bookbinding...I like these things.

SD: Do you like and do you ever produce abstract art?

JS: At the Vision Festival, I start working (painting or drawing) as soon as the music begins and I stop when the last note has faded away. Then the light in the hall comes up, and only then I see the result of an artwork done in dimness. This kind of blind flight often leads me from figurative to abstract. This is my true goal. No corrections, no more rework, just the signature assuring that it is a good work of art, a good specimen of improvised painting. 

SD: Thank you, Jorgo. I look forward, as always to seeing you and sharing your vision.

For a complete schedule of this year’s Vision festival where you’ll be able to catch Jorgo every day to check out and perhaps purchase his work, go to: www.artsforart.org/vf22

Steve Dalachinsky, NYC, April 2017

Mr. Dalachinsky is a New York poet and author. He is an integral part of the NY, U.S. and European jazz scene. He shared the stage with the greatest of his time and performed his distinctive and style-forming poetry. His knowledgeable liner notes add to a number of CDs and he has released a vast number of his own CDs and poetry books .

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