No one knows culture shock better than Michael Shaeffer, who, at the tender age of 13, moved with his family from Long Island, New York, to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
“I was starting high school and I really didn’t want to be here at first,” he laughs. Luckily for Shaeffer, however, things began to fall into place shortly after he arrived in the Natural State.
“I got lucky, my school had a really incredible art program,” he says. He was able to go to Governor’s School before his senior year, which was a great experience for him. “David Bailin was actually teaching visual art that year,” he remembers, “that was the only year he taught, so I was glad to have been there.”
After high school he moved into the Clinton Cultural Campus, a set of artists’ lofts in Hot Springs for a bit, before moving to North Carolina. As if it were the plan all along, he eventually ended up back in New York. “At that point I just wanted to go home,” he remembers.
And it makes sense, as New York is entangled in Shaeffer’s love for art.
He says, “I’m really thankful for the weird world I grew up in, because I was exposed to a lot of things as a kid and they stuck with me.” Whether his cousin was playing hip hop for him, or his aunt was sharing her love of punk music, there was always something new to experience.
After moving back, Shaeffer got a job working with his contractor cousin, helping build homes in the Hamptons. He also spent time selling silk screened shirts he made in Brooklyn, and began to show work in various art shows. More than a few people told him to go to art school, so he enrolled at New York’s School of Visual Arts.
“I got accepted – it was a real wild ride,” he says. He enrolled in illustration initially, as he always liked drawing, but eventually switched over to fine art. If you asked him about his favorite medium now, he’ll tell you it’s painting. “But I really don’t have the patience for oil paint,” he laughs, “I like acrylic right now, but I’ve always loved watercolor.”
You’ve likely seen some of his work before, as he’s perfected a layering technique that gives a sort of dripping feel to his paintings, which are often of women.
“I try to exhibit a naturalism in my work. It’s about being ok with yourself as you are. If you tell me you think you have weird eyes, I’ll want to paint you, and show you that your eyes are beautiful, that they’re what make you different than everyone else,” he says.
Shaeffer may not have moved back to Arkansas after he finished school, but the passing of his grandparents acted as a magnetic pull, and he felt the need to return to Hot Springs. “I found myself thinking, you know what, I’m going home, which is funny because that’s how I felt when I moved to New York in the first place.”
Upon returning to Arkansas Shaeffer began to fall back in love with the Natural State. “When I got back to Hot Springs there was a cool scene bubbling up again,” he says. He wanted to get involved, so he and a friend opened up a small gallery. He says, “Where I was in Brooklyn … there were all these little bitty spots where people had shows, and the beauty of that is, if you wanted to go you had to wait in line. They were generating an interest.”
Even though he was having fun, showing work, and going to art shows, the time came for a change, and yet another move. This time it was his job with Dillard’s that was responsible for moving him to Little Rock.
“The timing was perfect,” he says, and ever since he’s been working to turn his nine-to-five into an art show in and of itself. As a visual merchandiser, he’s in charge of creating displays, which he does with a bit of a personal touch.
“When I do a display, my paintings are involved. I’ll build things, I’ll sculpt things, it’s a lot more hands on. Every time I do an escalator, it’s all hand-painted,” he pauses, before adding, “Work has become my show.”
For the past three years, Shaeffer has been getting comfortable calling Rock City his home. He is particularly amazed by the work Phillip Huddleston is able to achieve with the Garland House shows. He says, “I think what Phillip’s doing is a really smart move. If I had to pick an example of going in the right direction scene-wise it’s him. … I’ve seen him put together a community, with all the different factions of Little Rock coming together for one cause.”
Plus, Shaeffer sees some true talent here. “I feel Lisa Krannichfeld is very new and fresh, but at the same time her work has a nostalgic, comforting feeling. I’m looking forward to see where her work takes her audience. She’s produced some of the most powerful portrait work I have seen in a long while,” he says.
Even though he feels he’s “winging it,” Shaeffer is glad to be where he is, working with Dillard’s, and becoming more and more entrenched in Little Rock.
“We’ll see where this takes me. Who knows, but for right now I’m really thankful and fortunate to be where I am.”
If you haven’t met Shaeffer or seen his work, this is the weekend to remedy that. Catch him Friday at the Garland House, and view a piece on display for the X-Files themed show. He’ll also be set up at South on Main’s HeArt of the Bar Saturday, Feb. 6 with a few paintings, works on paper, and a themed postcard series.