FORWARD: A Conversation with Ken Schneider

For the Forward exhibition, Kelsey sent our participating artists a list of questions so that we can get to know them all a little better. We’re delighted to present our interview with Ken Schneider. Ken sent back his answers in snippets, a little trickle of thoughts and reflections that echo the small streams working their way through the forest in his paintings. He is one of the warmest people you could ever meet, exuding joy and excitement for his work and for the people around him. We hope you enjoy getting to know him as much as we have. Scroll down to read the interview!

Artist Ken Schneider standing in front of two of his paintings, hands cupped around his mouth as he calls for attetnion.
Ken Schneider calling for attention before giving his artist talk at the 2022 Forward opening.

Kelsey: The title of the exhibition, “Forward,” is taken from the Wisconsin state motto. How does this word relate to your art practice?

Ken Schneider: I’ve always liked our state motto. How could one not? Forward conjures advancement, optimism, looking to the future, gaining knowledge, an all-around sense of “bettering.” I’d like to think I’m always heading in that direction with the work.

Kelsey: How did you get your start in painting?

Ken: I like to say that becoming an artist was a decision made for me rather than by me. There really was no other choice. So I didn’t fight it.

Kelsey: Do you have any artists you look to as inspiration?

Ken: There is one artist I could definitively say has been a true North Star as far as inspiration goes. The late Neil Welliver, from Maine, did more to influence my work than anyone. His huge paintings of the Maine woods still reverberate. I also greatly admire the work of Tom Uttech. His oil paintings to me are like gorgeous operatic stages where his deep involvement with nature play out. As an artist friend plainly puts it, “He’s transcended the medium.” I’ve told him that when I see his work, fifty percent of me is inspired and the other fifty says “What’s the use!?” Simply a remarkable artist.

A book on a table surrounded by tubes of paint that are organized by color.
Ken’s copy of Welliver by Frank H. Goodyear Jr. in his studio.

Kelsey: What do you enjoy most about your work? Are there parts you enjoy less? What do you find most challenging?

Ken: I think I’m pretty fortunate in that I enjoy just about all aspects of the work. I especially enjoy the beginning stages of a piece, “listening” to what I want to produce next, the looking, the sketching and the first paint strokes of a new painting. I suppose a big challenge I try to surmount is to not get too repetitive, something I need to be conscious of, as I’m kind of an old man now and been at this a while.

Kelsey: Can you describe your process for creating a work of art for us?

Ken: As far as the process of a work goes, I don’t really have an “agenda” with my work. It’s painting to painting. With the subject of landscapes in different seasons, which season to paint is an obvious first thought. I peruse my own photos and sketches, hoping to “build” an interesting landscape painting, “making up” elements to tie a piece together. I complete a pretty detailed final sketch, then another line sketch from that on the painting surface (both oils and watercolors). The composition is pretty locked in. And then begin painting. I paint in a pretty strange way, a method I surprisingly found a favorite painter (Neil Welliver) modeled— a discovery I found well after my initial interest in his work! First, I begin top left on the surface, then work across and then down, finishing on the bottom right. I rarely “rework” a piece, it’s done when done.

Kelsey: What is your favorite artwork, of yours or someone else’s?

Ken: It’s hard to come up with a favorite painting, but there is a piece that played a big part in my evolution as an artist. I was primarily an abstract painter through my college years, but always had a strong interest in landscapes. I had seen the work of Maine landscape painter Neil Welliver here and there in those years and it caught my eye each time.

In 1982, my dad showed me an article, in of all places Time magazine, about Welliver. I learned a good little bit in the essay by Robert Hughes, and a photo of a large Welliver oil accompanying the article really made an impression . The painting, titled Shadow, (8ft by 8ft, Museum of Modern Art) depicts a stand of winter birches half in shadow, as a sun sets behind. I could write an essay about what that work did for me. Suffice it to say, it changed my whole artistic path. 

A cork board with various photos, articles, and drawings pinned to it.
A 1982 newspaper clipping about Neil Welliver’s painting Shadow pinned up in Ken’s studio.

Kelsey: Is there a place you return to and paint over and over again? What about that place draws you to it?

Ken: I’ve developed a real love for the Baraboo Hills region here in Southern Wisconsin. There are a number of beautiful nature preserves and parks that are inspiring to visit. In my artist statement I convey “The streams and bluffs of the Baraboo Hills have been a favorite stomping ground. There is both a sense of drama and intimacy that I find appealing.” There’s something kind of magical about a place where a beautiful, ephemeral fall leaf floats down and lands near a 1.5 billion-year-old piece of gorgeous quartzite. When we were raising kids, I enjoyed going to some “wild” places that were close enough for me to beat the school bus home.

Kelsey: What time of day do you like painting most?

Ken: I generally paint 6 of 7 days a week. Funny, the older I get, the more I like beginning work at midday and then painting into the evening. It’s a luxury to paint “when it feels right” rather than having time constraints placed on you. I figure why fight it when the energy seems best.

Kelsey: Do you have any recurring themes in your work?

Ken: The work is always about nature, with nothing man made impeding. Pretty simple really; streams, bluffs, woods in different seasons. I find it virtually endless as an overriding subject and theme.

Kelsey: Is there anything in your personal life that influences your work?

Ken: I’m a very social person, but one who really enjoys solitude. Maybe the work reflects what one can enjoy in solitude. 

Kelsey: What kind of changes have you seen in your artwork in the time you’ve been painting? Are there techniques or subjects you’d like to tackle in the future?

Ken: Well, my subject matter has had a few major changes over the years. I spent some years as an abstract painter. Back then, I believed the most satisfactory and successful abstract work had its roots in the natural world. So, going from realism to abstraction and back to what I consider a marriage of the two was fairly seamless. For many years, I worked in watercolor exclusively. The medium just came naturally to me.

Then, I decided to give oil painting a go, I remember mentioning it to painting legend Tom Uttech. He simply said “Huh. It will take you five years.” And he was right—It took me ten years (to get mostly comfortable) because I was splitting time between the two mediums! As far as the future in my work, it’s really just painting to painting for me. I don’t have a forward looking agenda per se. Any changes come if and when they are meant to come. 

Kelsey: A silly question: what color do you run out of most often?

Ken: Hah! The siennas, for some reason. Raw sienna in watercolor (I’ll add olive green too). And burnt sienna in oils. Earthy! 

Kelsey: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given (artistically or otherwise)?

Ken: There’s a couple lines that come back to me time and again. One is “All artists are self-taught. Eventually.” There’s just a lot in that one, and much of it can be construed as advice. And the other is simple and gets used when say an aspiring artist (or anyone for that matter) is searching for answers about how to follow their wishes and goals— “If you HAVE to do it…’ll do it.”

Ken Schneider’s work will be on view in “Forward” at Lily Pad | West through August 27, 2023. Other exhibiting artists include Marc Anderson, Allison B. CookeSteve GerhartzBruce Niemi, and Diane Washa, as well as newly invited artists Robert M. GirshAntwan Ramar, and John Waite.