Oliver Schemm is a talented artist who is equally committed to serving his community. As a professor at Castleton University, he inspires and encourages students. As an artist, he continually creates new sculptures and installations. As a community member, he is involved in a series of endeavors in Rutland that bring art into a larger social consciousness.
Perhaps it is his background in a multi-cultural family that gives him such a wide stance. Schemm’s mother came from Amsterdam, his father from Montana. As the son of a military physician, Schemm spent his childhood moving between places as diverse as Europe and the Middle East. He admits to having an innate sense of wanderlust. As a father of three children, he naturally had to accommodate a different lifestyle, and that brought him to Vermont and a professorship at Castleton University, where he has been teaching for nine years and is now up for tenure.
In addition to being the chairman of the Art Department, he is the director of the Castleton University Bank Gallery in Rutland as well as the Christine Price Gallery on the Castleton campus. In 2016, when Rutland was preparing to welcome Syrian refugee families, then-mayor Christopher Louras invited artist Bill Ramage to mount “The Syrian Experience as Art,” an exhibit by 12 Syrian artists, in both Castleton University galleries. The viewing of these first-hand accounts encouraged discussion between pro- and anti-resettlement groups. Schemm has re-installed the exhibition at the FlynnDog Gallery in Burlington, the Great Hall in Springfield, and has plans for St. Luke’s Church in Chester in spring 2019.
Schemm’s beloved “Pendulum Face” enticed visitors to the Alley Gallery, just off Center Street in Rutland, for several years. The playful piece, with a two-sided head, invited viewers to make it sway back and forth. At Wonderfeet Kids’ Museum, his “Rolling Ball,” commissioned by Jennifer Bagley and based on a Vermont sugar maple tree, allows kids to put in motion the over 8-foot-tall moving sculpture made of chains, tracks and balls. In observing the reactions, viewers are able to understand more of the physics of cyclical motion, and have a great deal of fun as they make the sculpture come alive
These public art pieces are only a sliver of Schemm’s antic imagination at work. His personal sculptures combine a surrealist bent that includes found objects, casting and subtractive carving. Schemm explores the multiple layers of life, both real and imagined. Disparate objects are integrated into his assemblages, and range from a bottle of sand collected in the Eastern Egyptian desert, to a Morse code alphabet card. Nothing is left unnoticed in his journeys. Schemm is a collector of the absurd, and delights in opening new windows of wonder into the unexpected.
The most amazing thing is that Schemm can find the time to create these intriguing sculptures, as well as fulfill his familial and professorial obligations, serve as the director of two major galleries, and as a tour guide on Gallery Walks through Rutland’s burgeoning art scene. He reminds me a bit of the Pied Piper, always finding ways of engaging us more deeply in the magical world of art.
Clearly, Schemm has piqued my curiosity, so I’m going to take this opportunity to ask him a few questions about his art, and his connection to community, both local and global.
B. Amore: What brought you to the Rutland area after traveling the world?
Oliver Schemm: I had family who lived in Vermont and in 2000 it seemed the best place to bring up my young daughters. During these past 18 years, it has been a wonderful place for them to grow up, while living close to their grandparents. When I got the job at Castleton, it cemented our initial move, and we made Vermont our home.
BA: What are the most important influences on your work?
OS: I have a variety of influences in my work. Among them are the places and cultures I’ve experienced: living in the Big Sky Country of Montana; the science of how and why things are the way they are; my work as a theater carpenter in the D.C. area; working in the construction trade for years; my love of industrial machines and their cyclical moment; and the grand narrative of human history. Artists who have influenced me include Lee Bonticou, H.C. Westermann, Louis Bourgeois, Jean Tinguely, Magritte, Constantine Brancusi, Martin Puryear, to name a few.
BA: How does sculpture help you to integrate varied world experiences?
OS: It usually starts with an idea or an object, and I then incorporate other ideas and shapes to create a narrative that is not straightforward because I like the mystery. I love the range of human artistic and architectural traditions and combining them into a new united whole. The world is built up from so many thousands of years of ideas and visual language, and by fusing them together in a new way, it stimulates thought and memory.
BA: Why do you like to create installations that viewers can participate in?
OS: Growing up I was always frustrated with the inability to touch the sculptures in museums. My girls were the same. It seemed natural to me to want to reach out. On bronze sculptures you can always see the polished parts of a sculpture that have been continually rubbed shiny by curious hands. I wanted to create work that people could engage with, and activate so they became part of the sculpture’s function, incorporating sound, touch, sight. There are few things better than seeing a parent helping their child make one of my sculptures move, swing, rotate or function in some way.
BA: What is the installation “Blue Door” about?
OS: I saw the town of Chef Chaouen in Morocco when visiting my brother. Initially the town began with Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition and traveled to Morocco to escape the persecution of the Spanish Christians. The Spanish Jews had a tradition of painting their homes and doors that intense, peaceful, serene blue, and continued the practice in their new home.
The Berbers of Morocco and the Jewish newcomers lived in peace together and the town thrived. There was a flourishing of art, science, literature, mathematics and commerce. To me the greatest times in human history have been when cultures respect each other and live with each other. There is a positive feedback loop that can happen when people from varying backgrounds come together and interact. This is what America has been based on and I am confident it will again.
BA: How can you find time to do all that you do?
OS: It is a struggle but I love it. People are best when they are challenged, as long as they have their basic needs met. I try and prioritize the things that are important and keep thinking about the ones I cannot get to. I know that a project will happen if I keep periodically thinking about it. It wants to be created or “born” and will not let me go.
After I got my undergraduate degree in 1997, it took me 10 years to go back to school and get my master’s degree. It was a marathon, with many obstacles, but the fact that I succeeded and now work at Castleton University as an art professor assures me that time is not the issue. Focus, determination and incremental steps are the key.