Ego — “that’s what being an artist is all about,” says New York native Ben Schonzeit, with a bit of self-deprecating candor. “Everyone experiences the same things; artists just have to order it, give it a form to express it.”
As with his paintings, Schonzeit definitely has his own way of saying things. Looking at one of his larger-than-life works, it becomes clear that Schonzeit’s passion for doing what he does best comes from a desire to communicate an experience — in any shape, form, color or size he deems necessary.
Though Schonzeit considered becoming an architect, a movie producer/director and other creative professions, the Brooklyn-born artist went with what came naturally.
As a child, he was, by his own admission, “a bit unusual” — in a good way, that is. “I actually used to get a lot of compliments. People noticed that I did something that other people didn’t do, but I never thought much about it,” he says, referring to his innate talent. “I’m just who I am. It’s what I do. Some people jog, others run; I paint.”
From stick drawings in the sand as a young boy in the Rockaways to magnificent works of art that literally jump off the canvas, Schonzeit was born to be an artist.
Considered a photorealist by many, Schonzeit sees his style as more “realistic” than “real.” Rather than paint exactly what the eye sees, he creates “invented vignettes” or “abstract spaces,” as he calls them, within which his images seem to float. “I think that what I’m doing is a combination of painting a picture and creating a place that I’m in — almost a stage set — a smaller picture of a whole life,” he says.
Schonzeit’s oeuvre, which spans nearly 40 years, tells the story of his life — each event marking a different phase of his work. An unfortunate boyhood accident may have had the most impact, as it led to the loss of one of Schonzeit’s eyes and ultimately changed the way he “sees” things. To help deal with this life-changing event, Schonzeit found comfort in art.
His mother Goldye, a nightclub singer, and father David, a fireman who ran a used furniture store on the side, encouraged Schonzeit’s instinctive creativity by sending him to art school and introducing him to what would be the cornerstone of his career — photography.
Later, as parents often do, they pushed him toward a more stable pursuit — architecture — an occupation they felt would provide the best of both worlds.
Thus, he began studying architecture at Cooper Union, where he was asked to build his “ideal house” — a class project that proved more than telling. He drew a large painting studio with a small house. Hence, he switched his major to fine art, and the rest is history.
Throughout the 1970s, Schonzeit focused his efforts on his own brand of photorealism for which he became well-known in New York circles. Next, he dabbled in abstraction and the use of figures and symbols throughout the ’80s — a time of new beginnings and endings. He married his second wife, a Chinese-American with whom he traveled to China and Japan. “One of the truths about my work is that it is very calligraphic,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by this area of the world and their process.”
With the death of his mother soon after his marriage, Schonzeit started his black-and-white series, which revealed a darker period of his life filled with autobiographical memories.
He shifted gears in the late ’80s and painted still lifes of flowers. Lush, bold and vibrant, these works appear like technicolor masterpieces. “With still lifes, you know what you’re going to paint, but with other works, you just start with a color and a vague idea,” he says. “It’s all about taking inert material and making it come to life. My best work has some sort of vitality.”
Rarely still himself for a moment, Schonzeit says, “I’m always moving, wiggling, breathing, in motion. I want my art to be alive, so I have to paint in a very lively way.”
Such is the life of a natural-born artist.
In South Florida, Elaine Baker Gallery in the Gallery Center in Boca Raton, Fla., represents Schonzeit, and is planning a one-man show in 2006. For more information, call Elaine Baker Gallery at 561/241-3050, or go to Schonzeit’s website at www.benschonzeit.com. u