Math, Science, and Nervous Art: An Interview with Ryan Schultz


Interview by Carla Dominguez

When I first met Ryan Schultz in person, I felt confused. I had seen their art gain a lot of attention on tumblr, and I was all too familiar with the smugness that can accompany someone any smidge of internet fame. In front of me was a dapperly-dressed person who took my hand gracefully and with a smile that made me feel ashamed for having assumed the “smug artist” stereotype in the first place. Not everyone will get that air of haughtiness when they find success. In fact, Ryan was just the opposite. Success seemed to make them ambitious, eager, yet humble and thankful.

Poictesme: How was your first semester as an art student?

Ryan: I was mostly self-taught before VCU, so I never really experienced making art in a public space before Art Foundation. My first semester was of course the troped 9th grade art class experience, me with my edgy “one anime eye with a tear” AFO projects. That was the first time I was around art students and when I was around teachers that would say, “You have two weeks. Go make art.”

How did this affect you as an artist?

I came into school making nervous art. I was very, very afraid of not appeasing the teachers. I wasn’t making art that I wanted to make, I was making art that my teachers would have cared about. It wasn’t honest and the results just weren’t anything of the caliber I knew I should have been able to achieve. The problem becomes putting in 40 hours of work in the studio trying to learn the basics of art-making as a personal practice rather than putting in 40 hours of time spent making, so I struggled a lot with trying to manage learning about art while simultaneously having to make it. A lot of my work ended up falling into the experimental, including processes and materials I was often using with almost no prior experience and often not much common sense towards project outcomes, which of course left most of the aesthetic success of my projects to chance. But I grew a lot in my first year and I wouldn’t take it back.

space potatoes reproduce by bonding

When did you decide that you wanted to start art school?

I almost didn’t go to art school. Because my family’s military, we moved around all the time and this of course affected my pre-college education. I attended three high schools in two states, jumping from being the music kid to being the art kid (when the orchestra was cut from my second high school), and then being the academics kid (when both orchestra and art classes were cut in my final high school). In my senior year, I had six college courses and no art classes. I was juggling making work for art school hometests and portfolios at home while still having around six hours a night of academic homework. Senior year was a mess (laughs). But I ended up reading a lot of Leonardo Di Vinci and Leon Batista Alberti. I was very much into the concept of the polymath, the jack-of-all-trades. I knew I wanted to do interdisciplinary work and combine academics and artmaking, but I had no idea for which I wanted to go to school. So I actually applied half to art schools and half to STEM-based schools for physics and engineering. And I got into all of them. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study science and make art with that, or do the opposite.

Do you take science classes here?

That’s a tricky question. It’s actually fairly messy to try to take non-intro STEM courses simply for learning purposes without minoring or double majoring the subject. Because of the Medical School and the demand for classes among actual majors, a lot of the STEM courses that would appeal to me or positively influence my work are often more specific and higher level courses that are restricted to majors or restricted due to long lists of prerequisites in the math and science departments.
Even attempting to minor in a STEM discipline is tricky because some subjects require a slew of prerequisites to even be allowed into the minor, which for STEM students will probably have already been covered, but for non-STEM students are courses that were neither required by their major nor count towards their major progress in terms of required credits. For example, I spent my first three semesters taking four or five extra courses in math and science just to apply for a Computer Science minor, and I still didn’t even get into the minor because of a couple of percentage points in an Intro to Chemistry class. At that point there wasn’t enough room in my schedule to keep taking extra courses to satisfy an official minor declaration. But I’m finding ways to teach myself programming outside of school, and I’m trying to work that into my art slowly.

What’s the ideal for this mix of art and science?

I adore this coalition called Biocouture, where they literally grow clothing out of resourceful materials like algae and fungi. There’s also fashion designer Iris Van Herpen, and she works with magnetized fashion and 3D printing. Those kinds of work styles are so progressive. My physics teacher Stu Greydanus always told us that everyone in the sciences should be forced to learn art. His frustration came out of teaching at my third high school, where a lot of the art and music classes were cut from the budget.

In pre-Industrial world, there was more of a dedication to all fields. Da Vinci was an incredible draftsman, but that cannot be separated from his masterful work in cartography, geology, writing, mathematics, engineering, and anatomy. Isaac Newton studied alchemy and mechanics and gravity and optics and was also one of the creators of Calculus. Nowadays, it seems like, at least in American schools, there’s a push for students to slip into easily manageable single fields, taking the same courses and memorizing the same test questions. I’m not into that.

“Shrine Wallpaper,” a collaborative project with Ryan and their roommate, Natalie

So you felt that the communication arts major would be best for that?

The thing is, I can’t really say that any of the arts majors currently fit that style of rigorous multidisciplinary learning. For me, I wasn’t set on my choice of a major until the hour before I submitted my application. I had no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life after only having been in art school for 8 months. I was really into the idea of majoring in Fashion or Graphic Design or Craft or Sculpture, but in the end, I most fervently wanted to study illustration and interactive game design and I appreciated the rigorous training Communication Arts offered.

So you figured you would have been happier making art now?

Whether I picked science or art, I was looking at the same outcome either way. I want to do research based work and generative work in some form of biotechnology or wearable fashion technology. A lot of my work is also very slowly progressing towards interactive systems.

mothers: the birth of 3301

What projects are you working on right now?

In the past month my roommate Natalie DeMenthon and I have forged a small studio practice  called “BIRD CAVE”. Our most recent project is a series of tiny hand-crafted artist books. We’re fabric printing internet screenshots and family photos and making tiny books that include hand-stitched embroidery and beading and doll making. Right now we’re trying to figure out how to make a collaborative practice like this work with as much mutual agency and input as possible. A lot of the ideas in BIRD CAVE come from pop culture and meme culture, but we still take it seriously. It can still be taken to a space where it is still innovative. (Gesturing towards a small book of family photos) All these images were screengrabbed from Natalie’s family photo album online last year, on a day that was chosen randomly using a Java-coded date generator, so we made the first book out of all of the images that were saved on that day. We also got really excited about the embroidery process. We wanted to make the touch of the project as important as the images. I had this photo of Luigi screengrabbed from playing Super Mario 64 DS. You have to open the level by tapping on his face with the words, “Touch Me.” In that context, it was natural, but separated as a single image it’s really exciting.

How do you deal with the idea that some people might not consider your work to be “real” art?

“This is the stress I have to get out of, because I have the same problem. I start almost every project, even personal work, with: “I have to make fine art, it has to be elaborate and easy to label, it has to be on a pedestal.” Whenever I walk in the craft department, I see tiny leaves with minuscule embroidery, and I just think: why can’t I do something like that? Why am I putting so much pressure on myself when I start a new project, just to end up with another 8.5 x 11 digital painting with the same color scheme and the same figure eight composition? I love making digital art, but I have to get out of the notion that to be successful I need to follow other people’s art making styles and tailor my work to them. A large amount of my process is still digital and web-based, but I’m working on bringing more of myself into my work, more of my strengths and more of the experimentation. Right now I’m working on starting fresh and opening myself up to a method of working that in itself is true to my internal thought process. At this stage in the game, I don’t feel like my work is successful in the way I intend it to be. But I’m working on it. I’m becoming more comfortable and honest in my art practice instead of spending my life being nervous.

To see more of Ryan’s work, check out their blog or their website. 

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