Realism, Hands, & the Holy Spirit

Since accepting his calling just over 3 years ago, Bill Schumm is establishing himself as Willy the artist.

“Koren Vet’s Bridge” ©Willy

After driving an hour through the damp, grey weather on Saturday, I was relieved to walk into Bill Schumm’s home and be welcomed by great music, snacks, and an adorably enthusiastic dog named Chug. We chatted lightly as I scratched the lab/border collie mix under his chin. I was about to ask if I could record the interview when Bill abruptly asked, “Are you spiritual at all?”

I froze and shrugged uncertainly, thinking of how often my personally ambivalent beliefs about religion had caused tension with other new acquaintances here in the buckle of the Bible Belt. After some hesitation, I explained that I had been raised as a Christian but now considered myself Agnostic, if anything.

He nodded thoughtfully, leaned against the kitchen island, and said, “Now let me tell you why I asked you that.”

Bill Scumm in his East Nashville “studio”

The reason I asked you if you were spiritual is because this whole life development from the get go is and has been God-driven. I have no doubt about it. You can call it the universe if you want to — I don’t care what you call it, but I was guided by the Holy Spirit.”

“About three years and eight months ago, I became an artist. Out of nowhere.” Bill shook his head wonderingly. “The things that happened to me heading up to that were incredible. Signs, signs, signs — so many signs. For example, one time I was sitting at a bar next to this couple, and the woman goes, ‘Are you an artist?’ Sh*t like that just kept happening. It finally got to such a point that I was like either this is true or I’m f***ing crazy.”

Shrugging exaggeratedly, he continued, “So I go into an art supply store and the guy comes up to me, asks ‘Can I help you?’ and I go ‘yeah, I guess I’m supposed to be an artist.’ He goes, ‘well what do you like to work with?’ I tell him that I have no clue. I took one class when I was in high school just to have the credit! He says well let me show you chalk. So he takes me to the aisle with chalk and pastels and I say, ‘okay, I’ll go with that.’”

When he went home, still unsure of what to do, he told me he remembered something that happened when he visited a senior pastor at a mega church. After waiting months to be able to meet with him, he asked how he could discover his true purpose. The pastor told him:

“Well, it’s like this — it’s like you get in a row boat and start to row away from the shore and you focus on a tree on the shoreline, and you go out for a bit and stop. Then, what is between you and your tree is the timeline, and something in there will tell you what your purpose is.”

“It was so canned and stupid and dumb, it just didn’t even work!” Bill said incredulously. But when he went home with pastels from the art store that night, something about it pushed him forward. He pulled up an image of a row boat and worked on recreating it for 18 hours. After finally finishing it, he told himself “either you’re crazy or this is really good.” He pauses in his story, then quietly says, “It was really good.”

He then began to lead me around his house, pointing out each piece of his artwork on the walls and telling me the stories behind them, between continuing the story of how he became an artist. After 8 months of working with pastels, “the Holy Spirt said, ‘You’re doing great, but you’re supposed to be a painter.’”

Only using pastels until that point, which are usually blended onto the canvas by finger, he felt daunted by the idea of using a paintbrush. He asked a friend’s wife if he could watch her paint, and she agreed. When he walked into her studio, she was using rags to rub paint on her canvas. Bill asked what she was doing, and she responded simply, “I’m painting.” When he asked why she wasn’t using a paintbrush, she told him, “You can use whatever the hell you want. It’s your art.”

Bill grinned and said, “So that block went away, and I started painting.”

“Fiddlin Around” ©Willy
“Yeah, art’s all in your head, but the way you get it out is through your hands.”

Before having to prepare for his gallery showing at the First Saturday Art Crawl in Nashville later that evening, Bill took me to the warehouse where he works. His employers have allowed him to set up his unique studio in a corner out of the way.

“Would you like to see my ‘easel?’” he asked. I nodded, and he grabbed a board, slapped it on top of a garbage can, and threw out his arms in a “ta-da!” gesture. He explains that for him, having a flat surface instead of an upright easel is easiest for his technique. Even having switched to solely using oil paints, he continues to blend the colors on canvas with his hands.

This seemed extremely fitting when he showed me his current project featuring the hands of musicians. So far, Bill has completed three of these paintings — a guitarist, a violinist, and a trumpeter. An in-progress painting shows a bongo drum with the white outline of soon-to-be beating hands.

“The goal behind it is to show the love and the passion and the mastery — the blood, sweat, and tears that a musical performer goes through to play their instrument.”

All of his paintings are numbered and signed simply, “Willy.” When asked why he chose that name, he explains that he wasn’t sure if he would make it as an artist when he first started. “I wanted something non-descript in case I failed — but I wanted something that was one word and still recognizable. The only ‘Willy’ I know of is Willy Nelson, so I’ll be one of the few Willies out there.”

“Mni Wiconi” ©Willy
“I went to Standing Rock last year, and I met this woman, a 96 year old Sioux woman. We were talking, and I asked her what she thought about what was going on… she just put her hand up over her eye and started to cry.”

Despite his seemingly natural talent, Bill insisted he is still only learning and constantly practicing. His focus is on realism, with most of his paintings inspired by photography — both what he sees in the media and his own. He did show me his one attempt at abstract art, explaining how it’s supposed to be two spirits at odds, but quickly moved on to show me his other paintings.

One of the paintings that was most striking to me is of a 96 year old Sioux woman he met at Standing Rock in early 2017. Even with a tear rolling down her weathered face, the painting captures a very real spark of strength in her tired eye.

While unable to be of much assistance at Standing Rock, helping out others in need is a large part of what Bill has always done and is continuing to do with his paintings.

In 2005, he was a first responder after Hurricane Katrina. “Because of that, when Houston got hit last year, it really got me in the heart. So I just started painting.” One of the most inspiring things to him in the wake of Hurricane Harvey was the animal rescues that were assisting with relief efforts. Because of this, he reached out to Friends For Life, a non-profit, no-kill shelter, which was spearheading many of the animal rescues in southern Texas, and offered to donate his paintings for them to sell. They listed them in their 2017 holiday auction, and every one of them sold.

“Flooding The Day After” ©Willy
“The reason I paint is that I was told — this is your gift, this is what you do. Make it better for mankind. So that’s what I do.”

That night at Wolf and Crow Gallery in Arcade Alley, Bill Schumm was in his element as Willy. He comfortably chatted with art crawl attendees about what inspires him, explained how he got the feathers just right on his bright green bird, and pointed out the details on the sole of a bull rider’s boot. At one point when I reentered the gallery after exploring the rest of the crawl, he was waving goodbye to a young girl who was proudly clutching a rolled up print.

He explained to me that she’d been looking at a painting he had done of a mermaid, and he asked her what exactly she liked about it. She pointed out the way the light looked in the water, and the color of her tail. Pleased by her artist’s eye, he offered to gift her a print of the painting.

“I told her, the way you’re looking at these paintings, you’re already an artist. Someday, she’s going to have her art displayed in a gallery like this, and a kid as young as she is now will be looking up to her the same way. I guarantee it.”

Having only been painting for three years out of the sixty he’s lived, it’s pretty amazing to see how confidently Bill has settled into being an artist — but it’s well-earned confidence. When it comes to Willy, it’s obvious:

This is only the beginning.

Stay up to date on where Willy will be displaying his art next & see his latest paintings by following him on Facebook!

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