Don House and Sabine Schmidt are both photographers based out of northwest Arkansas. While they each work on their own separate projects, they also come together on unique projects that combine their two contrasting styles. Both artists came to the state in different ways, but both have come to call Arkansas home. We had the chance to learn more about them in their own words, hear what makes Arkansas special to them and see what they would like for the future of arts in Arkansas.
Every person becomes an artist in a different way. How did you first become involved in the arts? How did you both come to collaborate on things like the Wichita Mountains Book Project?
Don House: My interest in photography dates to childhood, but the decision to pursue it seriously as a career came with my move to Arkansas some 30 years ago. I met Sabine Schmidt at the Fayetteville Underground studio/gallery complex four years ago when she regularly showed work at that venue. She is a photographer, but her biography does not read like those of many of my contemporaries (getting a Brownie camera as a child, setting up a darkroom in the bathroom and so on). She is a writer and translator who fell in love with Arkansas and picked up a camera late in the game as another tool to express what she was seeing, and that gives a perspective, a freshness, that is attractive and effective.
While I seek out people for my subjects, Sabine avoids them and concentrates on what they left behind, what they abandoned, so we can look at the same place at the same time and produce dramatically different images. We see the world in different ways, and because of that, when we work together, the finished images tell a more complete story than either of ours would alone.
The Visit, #4, silver gelatin print
Sabine Schmidt: Although I’m now a photographer, I was originally a writer and translator. I still do translations for the German edition of National Geographic. I have a MFA (Master of Fine Arts), but it’s in literary translation, not in the visual arts. In fact, all of my adult life I’ve been moving back and forth between writing and art. My path to fine-art photography started with academic research into definitions of space and place, the role of walking in literature and psychogeography. I realized that I needed photography to express the insights I gained from my research.
Much of my work is the result of walking and hiking. To me, those are the best ways to experience places shaped by human actions, which is what I’m mainly interested in, whether it’s in a city or out in the Ozarks.
The Wichita project is different—it is built out of many road trips and lots of conversations about how Don House and I see landscape and people. We wanted to explore how two photographers with different styles interpret the same experience.
Sleeping In, Henryetta, Oklahoma (archival pigment print, 12 x 18")
“This image was in the 2015 Delta Exhibition. Its geometrical composition and use of color are meant to bring out the particular melancholy of a small-town weekday morning.” – Sabine Schmidt
What are some of your biggest influences/inspirations/muses?
DH: There were photographers that amazed me—Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Yousuf Karsh, Eugene Smith—but they came later, after I had learned the basics of technique, and they helped refine my approach. What informed my desire to photograph in the first place, determined at what I would first point my lens were writers—(John) Steinbeck, (J.D.) Salinger, E.E. cummings, (Kurt) Vonnegut. It is a love of people really. It determined that much of my work would be portraiture, and even in the most remote of wilderness settings—places that I seek out—it is the human trace that makes me set up my tripod and unpack my camera—rock walls, foundation traces, chimney falls and, perhaps most significant, cemeteries.
SS: Being from Germany and having lived in the South for most of my 20 years in the U.S., I am influenced by two different aesthetics that I am trying to blend in my own work. Within the late 20th-century/early 21st-century German approach to geometrical, almost abstract interpretations of space, photographers, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Demand, have been important influences. The work of southern photographers William Eggleston and William Christenberry continues to shape how I look at my adopted home state. I spend a lot of time looking at other photographers’ work, both out of admiration and to learn from what I see. A few weeks ago, I happened to see an exhibition of work by several female Japanese photographers, including Ishiuchi Miyako. I was unfamiliar with all but one of them, but Ishiuchi’s black-and-white images in particular resonated with me.
Books and music are constant companions, but I share Paul Auster’s (a favorite author) appreciation of chance and its effects on one’s life. My paper house series was inspired by a YouTube link a friend posted. It went to a short stop-motion film of a Russian fairy tale and the set design made me think about miniatures. I was stuck at home for a few days because of snow, which gave me time to develop the idea.
Beulah Church (archival pigment print, 18x12”)
“From the paper houses series. I discovered the empty yellow suitcase in a tiny Ozarks church and filled it with all the miniature houses I had made up to that point.” – Sabine Schmidt
What brought you to, or keeps you in, Arkansas? What makes Arkansas unique or different for artists?
DH: I've been here for 30 years, longer than I've lived in any one place, and it is perhaps the first that I would call home without any modifier attached, like for the time being or currently or for now. It is home, period. What I noticed immediately was the opportunity to live frugally, to be able to reduce expenses and concentrate on what I wanted to do as an artist. It was easier to make that happen here than elsewhere. And so many of the people I first met had made choices in their lives, had given up careers and vocations to pursue their loves, trading money for a lifestyle. There is a wonderful energy in Arkansas, from its people, its towns, its rivers that nourishes the arts and the lives of artists. The whole state acts as a muse to me, but the mountainous areas in particular. For a traditional black-and-white photographer, the textures and tonalities of the Ozarks are compelling—sandstone, limestone, lichen, moss, tree bark—and I often include the human figure as a kind of textural scale.
Randy, silver gelatin print, from the collaboration with Sabine Schmidt - We’re Not Telling You Everything.
SS: I originally came to Arkansas from Hamburg, Germany, to attend the MFA program in creative writing and translation in Fayetteville, returned to Germany, lived in Memphis for a while and finally came back.
I’ve found Arkansas, and Fayetteville in particular, to be a friendly and encouraging place for an artist trying to start and maintain her career. People are interested in what I do, they answer my questions, review my work, are happy to collaborate, etc. Professionalization has been comparatively easy here because it’s a small community whose members often are quite approachable. The Arkansas Arts Council has been a tremendously useful resource and there are other organizations, such as the Arkansas State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that have been helpful in building my career as an artist. We deal with the same problems artists in other states face, but overall Arkansas has a remarkable balance of very good art (and excellent galleries and museums where it can be seen) and a supportive community.
What do you hope to see in the future for the arts in Arkansas and our region?
DH: The Arkansas Arts Council has done amazing work in the 30 years I have been associated with them—the artist registry, small works on paper exhibitions, workshops, seminars, one-on-one counseling. Because they are a department of state government, there are restrictions on some activities (like lobbying), I have great hope for another organization that is just coming on the scene—Arkansans for the Arts—that will focus on bringing arts into the discussion at every level of state government and into economic development discussions. Every artist wishes for more venues to show art, more patrons of the arts, a greater chance of making a living and being able to follow the passion, and I think those two organizations will help increase the chances of success.
The Visit, #1, silver gelatin print
SS: The arts are a major force in the state’s economy, but artists seldom reap the rewards of their role at the center of this force. A radical idea: Pay artists a small monthly wage or grant that allows them to work on their art full-time, the way it’s done in some European countries. And cities, counties and the state can support artists by offering studio space, commissioning and buying their works, creating gallery spaces and organizing art festivals.
Put the arts in the schools. Make art an important part of children’s education for its own sake, not just as an add-on.
Let’s talk about the arts in more meaningful ways. The Oklahoma Arts Council has a program for training arts writers. I wish there were a similar opportunity for talented writers in Arkansas. We need more informed reviews and essays on the arts, plus outlets to publish them.
I’m a fan of places that bring first-rate art to towns and regions where one may not expect to find it, places that successfully involve their communities and become true centers of art. The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff, and the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale are just a few examples.
Signal Tree House (archival pigment print, 12x18”)
“From the paper houses series. I used this house a lot. I made it from watercolor rag paper, which has a soft texture that catches light in interesting ways. For this image, I took advantage of the afternoon sun shining on the roots of a big cedar. It gave the scene a fairy-tale quality. The cedar is an old signal tree on War Eagle Creek.” – Sabine Schmidt
We want to thank Schmidt and House for taking the time out to answer our questions and share their thoughts and work with us. Be sure to look for their work in galleries and tours around the state, particularly in Northwest Arkansas. You can also check their respective websites (Don House and Sabine Schmidt) for more examples of their work and to keep track of their exhibitions.
This post is the first in a monthly series highlighting artists that call Arkansas home and make the arts community here one of the best in the South. Read on for a closer look at the people creating great art all across the Natural State.