Walking on Art: The Unlikely Canvas of the Masses
Rarely does a writer pick up the pen in a moment of complete bliss. Nor does an artist envision and create a monumental masterpiece due to an overabundance of happiness. No, the art world (or art of any kind) is usually born of pain and sorrow. Scott Bartzsch can attest to that. The 41-year-old Sheffield native has spent a good portion of the last 24 months immobilized with pain (and the effects of powerful painkillers). In November 2011, Bartzsch had corrective surgery for a lifelong spinal deformity that was taking its toll on his existence. While the surgery was deemed relatively successful (it corrected a 110 degree arch to only 50 degrees), Bartzsch, who owned a busy tiling business with his brother, was forced to spend much of his post-op time in bed or resting, and contemplating his next life move. The Frida Kahlo-esque existence got him thinking about a long lost love: art.
“The 1980s was the blossoming of my artistic mind,” he says thinking back. “I would throw a set of keys down on the kitchen counter and suddenly I’d be drawing what I saw for hours. I had an ‘a-ha’ moment with a pair of Converse sneakers. The blank canvas was symbolic and so I got out my acrylic paints and brushes, and said whatever happens happens.”
Bartzsch’s trip down memory lane may have been his salvation. In a haze of pain and excruciating inactivity (he is an avid cyclist and guitarist who can “only play for 40 minutes at a time” right now), the latent artist harkened back to his big hair band youth and to the literal canvas of ages past.
“I returned to it. The hours of inactivity brought me back to my art work and to those shoes,” he says. “It dawned on me that ‘I’m going to do this again.’ It was something I could do in fits and starts and still feel like I was accomplishing something.”
As is the case with most hobbies fueled by suffering and passion, Bartzsch is slowly building a wearable art empire. SWB Custom Art Wearables, while still in its fledgling stages, is the mythical love child of tattoo artist and clothier giant Ed Hardy and master scrawler Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bartzsch treats each shoe like a miniature tabula rasa on which only his best, most inspired work belongs. Using an airbrush and a steady hand, he allows designs and images to take shape. And while he wouldn’t call the process random, Bartzsch says that calculating a design is counter-intuitive, and maybe even a little disastrous.
“I can’t help what the brush does. The colors get mixed and the brush goes down,” he says. “I truly don’t plan it out. If I try and dictate a shape it ends up being totally wrong. It’s custom work but I’m really limiting myself on the input that a client gives me. It’s still art, not a commissioned portrait.”
While Bartzsch’s process may seem sporadic, even to him, the result is a lesson in color, precision, and creative detail. Tribal elements and ornate patterns intermingle with vibrant mini-murals depicting landscapes and saturated with twilight hues. Even the metal rivets for the laces do not go untouched, and somehow enfold themselves into the unique one-of-a-kind designs. The appeal of the sneakers is universal, and Bartzsch has fitted everyone from tricked-out third graders to punk bands. In fact, the altruistic artist has enjoyed an unexpected surge of orders thanks to his friends (and former classmates) who are now enmeshed in the West Coast music world. His custom canvases graced the stage at several Surrender Sunday gigs and will soon rock the house with the funk and jazz jam band Galactic (on the feet of Skins and Needles drummer — and Berkshire County native — Max MacVeety) and the brush doesn’t stop there. Bartzsch sees an open market for his stellar craft.
“I’d like to see them on a runway in New York. Or maybe even a closet collection at some point,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m a rock and roller and an artist, and in this case, the two go very well together. The shoes, the art, can be anywhere from hip-hop to punk artists to mainstream fashion. It kind of brings me back to the days when people were beating each other up for their Michael Jordans.” —Nichole Dupont