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Just Push Play: A Conversation with Vessna Scheff

Vessna Scheff talks with the Art Review about her recent single “Butter”, her solo show “Click! Whir. Unravel…”, her inspirations, her teaching, and her interdisciplinary practice.

Just Push Play: A Conversation with Vessna Scheff
Charlie Usadi

Charlie Usadi

November 17, 2023
10 Minutes

Vessna Scheff (@vessnascheff) is a musician, painter, performance artist, and collaborator. Her practice blurs the lines between music and visual-based arts practices seamlessly, with her current solo show “Click! Whir, Unravel…” exploring the impact of music through watercolor. She is an adjunct professor in the VISA department who taught one of my studios last spring. Her passion for the arts and generosity in sharing insight into her artistic practice and influences made her someone I knew would be great to talk with. I sat down to talk with her about her artistic background, her artistic influences, her teaching musical language, and roller-skating. The following conversation has been edited for clarity. 

Charlie: ​​Hi Vessna! I thought it would be a perfect time to interview you, because you currently have so much exciting stuff happening creatively. On campus, of course, there's the adjunct professor show but beyond that you have your exciting solo show, "Click! Whir. Unravel...", at Machines and Magnets in Pawtucket which is really exciting, not to mention you dropped a new single, "Butter", about a month ago. There's a lot of great work to discuss, but to begin I'd like to take a step back and Let you introduce yourself. Could you share a little bit about you? When you're not in the art or music studio, where can you be found?

Vessna: I like this question. Outside of an art or music studio context, I can be found hiking with my dog June, and also making food (laughs), I love to make cookies or soup recently. Yeah, I enjoy being outside. I just took my pup out for a walk this morning on Blackstone Boulevard, which was really nice, taking in all the fall colors.

It's gotten cold!

Oh, my gosh. Yeah, it is.

Yeah, it's definitely a good time to be making soup. I also know you're a big roller skater, too--has that waned now that it's colder?

Well, it's actually waned only because, when doing visual work in my apartment, I'm spread out on the floor, and there's not much room for roller skating (laughs). So it just limits my ability to do that while stuff is drying out. But yeah, only, only for that reason.

So you skate inside? That's awesome.

Yeah, it helps with trying to do it daily, which is what I was doing for a while. Just getting comfortable being on skates, to get down the basics so that I can develop more. Doing it inside was really helpful for just picking them up and putting them on for just a few minutes each day. So yeah, roller skating is another thing, for sure.

So that current lack for floor space means you have a lot of in-process work going on in the studio?

Yeah, I have some things that are laid out on the floor. I think the [current solo] show at Machines with Magnets was helpful and inspiring. [It's helpful] just reflecting on a show and what it can mean for the next work that you do. So I think that's inspiring me to start doing things--laying things out on the floor and working wet in water.

Since you've started to describe your process, could you more fully speak on what your work looks like? Could you give some insight into your process? You clearly have a very interdisciplinary practice.

Yeah, I can talk to it. I consider myself a visual and performing artist. I work in mediums with water color predominantly, also some acrylic binder--I also create music. Now I'm sort of combining it more in an interdisciplinary approach to my practice. Thinking about projections that go along with performances and how to activate installations [in a way] that feels similar to the experience of music. I'm thinking hard about how they're beginning to combine. I think the abstractions and watercolor which I'm doing a lot are really exciting, I feel like they relate to the feelings of the music.

Click, Watercolor on canvas

How did this art/music intersection develop for you? Which (if either) came first?

I've been singing my whole life, and I only got into visual art later on after college. It was actually when I was creating flyers for shows that I started doing visual arts. It was because of music that I came into visual art. I was actually playing a fundraiser for a school with my band in San Francisco, and the school was looking for an art teacher. They asked if I would be interested in applying to a position doing any kind of art, visual or performing. I decided I would focus on visual art because it's not something I ever thought I would do. I'd always wanted to be a visual artist, and so I wanted students to know that if they were curious about [visual art], that it was a skill you could learn and develop, you don't have to just be "born drawing."

You were able to learn alongside them.

Yeah. Yeah, it was really fun. And I think it was really helpful, especially teaching middle school, because at that point, a lot of kids decide whether or not they're visual artists. It's either a thing you are or you aren't in middle school. I think that's often how things go, "either this or that"--kind of figuring out social dynamics and your identity. It was a really beautiful time to work with students who felt like art was just not their thing,because I was relating to that perspective and we learned about it together. 

From that point of teaching in San Francisco, what brought you to Providence? How did you end up on Brown’s campus?

I moved to Philly in 2015 I think– my aunt and uncle live outside of Philadelphia, and so I moved in with them and started playing music and having art shows in Philly. I then ended up moving to Philly, which is where I met my husband, and then decided to apply to graduate school up this way, at RISD, and that is kind of how we ended up over here, me from California to Philadelphia and then up to Providence. It's a really beautiful place to land--such an incredible arts community, and Brown has been amazing--connecting with people, meeting other artists who are living here, (motions at me) who are enrolled in classes here. So, yeah, it's really nice.

Were you expecting Providence to have so much to offer?

Great question, (laughs), I think moving from very big cities, too, it's hard to know--I'd gone to school in San Francisco and lived in San Francisco for a while and then was living in Philly and doing a lot of stuff there. I hadn't heard much about what was going on in Providence. But it was actually similar to when I moved to Philly– I did not hear about a visual art scene there a whole lot--then upon moving there you realized there's so many things people are doing and things happening there. So it's really nice to step into a place where there's people who are very excited to be connecting about visual art and music.

And this is your second year teaching at Brown? How has this experience been?

Yeah, it's good! I am so inspired by the students all the time. The conversations are amazing. People are so generous with thinking about the work that they're doing and also the work that other people do. I think that is a really special thing because there's a lot of excitement and groundedness in students in terms of pursuing art which is really beautiful.

And probably a lot different than your previous middle school students?

Yes, yes, (laughs). I think that same kind of wonderment about art and its possibilities is there. It is really special to walk into a space where people are excited for the possibilities of what art prompts within ourselves and within society.

One thing I loved about your course is you were constantly pulling in references to contemporary working artists who inspire you in order to illuminate strategies they use and concepts they pursue. Why is it important to talk about contemporary artists when you teach?

There's so so many pathways to pursue in art, and it's really nice to know that there are many ways in which people go about trying to do this thing. I think bringing in artists who approach work from a variety of different experiences and disciplines is really helpful. Just to know that there's many options for doing this. So that is one thing I enjoy. It's also nice to see an artist evolve, to see them in the process of figuring out how to talk about their work and how it is changing. That is a really special thing-- and the fact that you might be able to meet these artists or run into them-- to have them alongside your journey is really powerful.

I really enjoy looking at a variety of work myself, and I'm being reminded that there are so many ways to approach things--I can come up with these rules that I have for myself, but then just to see someone else who has a completely different set of rules can help the work grow and expand--[it's almost like] seeing it as a person, [who similarly] grows and expand[s] in really important ways.

In terms of my musical influences, I would say Tamia was one. My sister got me one of her CDs when I was younger, and I love, love her music. Also, Janet Jackson has been a big influence for the kind of eighties/nineties feel, that roller-skating sort of energy and upbeat sounds that I've been creating.

And then Sam Gilliam is a visual artist who has been very inspiring--having floated between abstraction and portraiture, I really appreciate artists who engage in abstraction and find it to be part of the conversation in another way. Yeah, I really enjoy Sam Williams' work.

Click! Whir. Unravel…” Installation view

Speaking of abstraction, I'd love to talk about your solo show up at Machines and Magnets. Abstract work seems central to the show--Could you speak on what this current body of work represents to you?

To me, it is being inside of headphones when you're listening to music. Just that feeling you have of a personal sense of liberation or freedom that is carved out for yourself--whether or not anyone else acknowledges or recognizes it--you have that space for yourself. I think about the small moments of freedom that we create in our lives, that help sustain us. This installation is an expanded idea of that space in time. The abstraction relates to the movement that you have--internally and also externally--in listening to music. And then the works in the installation hold that suspended moment of movement or that impulse. 

The title “Click! Whir. Unravel…” refers to the sounds of putting a disk in a discman or pushing play on a cassette tape, which are devices that I grew up with that were super fleeting, you know. It was such a brief moment in time but has such a beautiful aesthetic quality to them, and spoke [to] the ability to move music around with you, which we now have so easily on our phones in the same way. I think that ability to move music with you helps to create that environment wherever you are--the installation represents the portability of that moment. It's accessible to you if you just push play, which is the last line of the write-up on “Click! Whir. Unravel…”.

This Energy, Between You And Me, Watercolor on canvas

Given that movement is such an underlying theme of the work, what does the process look like? Is it very intuitive?

It is very responsive, I would say. I think of it as being in conversation, or in play--that's another word I like to use. I did Capoeira for a while in San Francisco with a movement-based studio I was working at, and the way in which you engage with Capoeira is you "play" Capoeira, even though it is a martial art form, and it involves kind of fighting–but there's a lot of music and a sort of choreography. This idea of "playing" something as a way to engage with whatever you're doing I think is really important and helpful. 

The process of making work in the studio has recently involved laying out a number of pieces of paper or canvas or whatever surface, and then covering it in some way, or pouring watercolor on it, and then waiting for it to be at a certain moment of dryness to then do something else on top of it. It's very much in conversation [with the drying process] because in my studio when I was at RISD it was really hot, and so I feel like this drying time is very different, things would dry much faster [in my RISD studio]. I think the speed at which things dry makes a difference in how things turn out, especially as you apply the next layer, especially with watercolor. Just recognizing that all of these different elements are at play when I am engaged in painting is something I've been thinking about as part of the process.

Unravel, Watercolor on canvas

That conversation with natural elements and atmosphere is really cool--the fact that you have to release some control through this process. Do you like the work of Helen Frankenthaler? I love her work and hearing you speak about your process reminds me of her work.

Yeah. Yeah, her work is incredible. I think that the engagement with the floor, or kind of the surface, whatever you're on, is also a really fun thing. You can always tell if there's a tilt on the floor pretty immediately, you know? That being part of the work is one thing I like about watercolor--it requires you to be very present to the natural environment, to the world around you, to what is going on and influencing the space that you're experiencing. That's something I really enjoy about this process of painting.

Beyond the conceptual sound conveyed through your work--how does literal sound engage with your work? Either this current show at Machines with Magnets or your work generally.

Yeah, so this one included a performance on the night of the opening, which was really fun. I debuted a lot of music that's coming out from the new album. “Butter” is one of the songs, but there are many songs in the works. And so I performed a number of those as part of the opening--it was really fun.

I've been thinking about sound more--one thing I wanted to do for this installation, but I will save for a future one, is having sound recorded on portable devices. Either cassette tape or a Discman, and then people can experience the music in that way, and then they'd be paired with other soundscapes and dialogue and maybe poetry. To have it be transportable in the same way that I've been thinking about: movement and sound and how they relate to these moments of freedom that you experience. So that is one aspect of it.

You mentioned “Butter”, your recent single, which I love, so now of course we have to talk about it. Its energy is wonderful. I feel like a lot of the songs that I really like of yours are a bit slower paced, whereas this one is definitely more upbeat, while still sounding so distinctly like your work. Could you talk about this new single, and how you see your musical language shifting or developing?

Yeah, I think going back to this idea of rules that we come up with ourselves for making art sometimes, I think I [used to have] this idea that music had to be serious in order for it to be impactful, powerful, or meaningful. But during the pandemic, and also during a process of caregiving very intensely for a family member, I was needing this kind of playfulness--the freedom that I feel when roller skating and on wheels--then translating that into sounds that can convey that same idea when I put it on, you know? So these songs are kind of a dreamscape for finding that space and that energy. In a moment when I was very much needing to feel [those positive emotions], to know that it is possible and accessible is really helpful and important for moving through emotions that are very challenging. 

There's a lot of conversation around joy and how that is very important just to hold, and that joy, making its way into the work and into the process of making with my collaborator, Lee Clark, was incredibly important for me at this moment. It's been a really, really helpful reminder that joy is integral to our wellbeing and sustaining energy for any and all emotions, which really is absolutely essential in that process.

You mentioned Lee Clarke (@leeclarkeonline)--Could you talk about collaboration as it relates to the recent project?

Yeah, my collaborator and friend and producer, Lee Clarke, is amazing. We met in Philadelphia, and it feels like that is where the expanded idea of sound and music also emerged in my practice. Before that, I'd been playing the ukulele and singing acoustically at different cafes and venues. Upon meeting Lee I was then able to expand the sonic possibilities within my music, aside from just me and ukulele, to include more atmospheric sounds that really place you into a setting or a feeling or a moment.

This connection with Lee has been really fun. There's a number of ways we collaborated on this project. One of which was to start a track recording the sounds of roller skates. So we took the sounds of this recording and then made that into a beat, which one of the songs is built off of. Another is using the synthesizer which gives us all these spaceship sounds, we call it "flying the spaceship" (laughs), you use these buttons and have all these wires that Lee sets up, And then we'll "fly the spaceship" as a way of conveying the sense of electricity and energy that you would feel in a night at the roller-skating rink.

I feel like it also really speaks to those eighties and nineties songs you might be listening to when getting inspiration?

Yes! Definitely–all of those sounds are really present and were explored while working on this project.

Can you speak a little bit about what can be expected from upcoming work that might be released soon?

I think continuing to lean into this realm of abstraction with watercolors, and thinking about the work as "collections”, as opposed to music and visual art. I've been thinking about how they all speak to each other--because in the studio, they're all interwoven and intertwined-- so I'm excited to continue thinking about the expanded space of "collections" versus sort of one just at a time, [music or visual art pieces]. But yeah, this collection surrounding the new single “Butter” and installation “Click! Whir. Unravel…” is the direction that I'm excited to be moving in.

Do you see yourself using your own music in future installations?

Yeah--I'm getting familiar with using sampling devices and synthesizers and a vocal effects processors I got, which has been great for exploring different possibilities. They give me a lot of ideas for the music and the sounds, and also this excitement around abstraction and the movement that can be felt through engaging with watercolor, in maybe a similar way as playing music. 

In the music studio, me and Lee are constantly listening and responding to the sounds that are there. I'll be singing something, and then he'll pick up an instrument and start playing what I'm singing on that instrument, and then recording that onto the track, and then I'll be singing some another part which will then give him ideas for a different part, and then he'll start picking up different instruments or working on the synthesizer, which will then give me ideas for new vocal parts that I might do. That sort of engagement and very present feeling feels similar to how these watercolors are being developed. It's a very present way of existing.

It sounds like a really close conversation with your collaborator, but also with yourself as an artist, you know. I think it's so cool being able to have a practice that's multifaceted enough that you can take inspiration from one medium and translate it to something completely different. I am so excited to see how your musical and artistic voices continue to develop, interact, and influence each other. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me!

Thanks for inviting me to join you! It was really fun.

Very important final question: How can people find you and your work?

I am currently revamping my website to speak to this idea of collections and things working together. Zoë Pulley (@zpulley) is the graphic designer artist who I am working with for this project, which I'm very excited about. She just got accepted to the Studio Museum Residency which is really exciting. But yeah, incredible visual artist. So the website is being revamped, but it's still available for you to go take a look at currently. vessnascheff.com is where you can find that. And on Instagram I share the day to day things that are happening, the things I'm working on and my travel related to music, that is @vessnascheff. I also have a mailing list which I really enjoy. I've had it since I was playing music in San Francisco, and it has grown with me throughout the process of creating, from being predominantly a musician to now being a visual artist, so that you can sign up for as well. Thank you again!

Yes, thank you so much, this was great. If readers want to hear Vessna’s music, she’s also on Spotify

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