CHRISTIAN-ALBRECHT GOLLUB: Tell me about the Meckis.
KIM SCHOEL: I looked on the Internet for Meckis because I wanted to see what
I would come up with.
CG: Did you find anything?
KS: The only thing I found was a web site relating to Buxtehude which is the city ....
CG: ... outside of Hamburg ...
KS: ... that has the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm about the hare and the hedgehog.
For whatever reason, I don’t know, they adopted this fairy tale as their city’s legend or tale.
They developed this little Mecki that looks like a hedgehog, and they had that as their city mascot.
In the 1950s there was a German TV magazine, and they adopted the figure as their mascot.
CG: Hör zu?
KS: Right. And they have had the figure in a cartoon series in their magazine ever since.
I didn’t realize they still do. They actually referenced the Mecki from Buxtehude!
That’s how Mecki became more of a German icon. As toys they had small ones,
big ones. In the beginning they were made of rubber. They tended not to last very
long without getting cracks. Now they’re made of materials that are more lasting.
Fabric and plastic, for example.
CG: What is it about the Mecki that appeals to you?
KS: I just love their totally obliviously happy look.
CG: But you always look totally happy and have a strahlendes Gesicht [beaming face]!
KS: (laughs) Well, so I am a Mecki! But they also look a little bit sly.
CG: Are you saying you’re a little bit sly?
KS: Oh no! I’m totally innocent! (laughs)
CG: So you liked their look?
KS: Yes. First of all they’re not human looking. They are based on an animal,
but they have a certain quality that makes them human because of the way
they were created.
CG: They wear clothes.
KS: Yes, but you can take them off and look at their anatomy.
CG: Did you do that?
CG: Is that where you learned about anatomy?
KS: Yes, but the problem was then I had to figure out that real people have penises. (laughs)
CG: But the Meckis are very androgynous.
KS: They don’t have any sex. The women have hairy chests! (laughs)
CG: There’s a man Mecki and there’s a female.
KS: But they don’t have breasts!
CG: What are they called?
KS: I don’t know. Meckeline? I just call them Mecki and Meckeline. I know she has a different name, but I don’t know what it is. I
just find them fascinating. I like their eyes. They don’t really have eyes. They’re just dark shadows. I don’t know how to describe it.
I just love their look.
CG: Why do you then place this innocent animal, this innocent creature in very threatening, dangerous, ambiguous situations in your
KS: Because of that irony. That’s basically what we do as human beings. We live like nothing ever happens while we’re carrying on
wars and killing each other and treating each other really poorly. I thought it was a beautiful contrast, an irony of how we just go on
with our lives like nothing is wrong while the whole world is so crazy. To me that’s why I like working with them.
CG: For me the Mecki represents childhood innocence. You never see adults playing with Meckis. You’re the first adult I know ...
CG: ... who has recycled the Mecki into a different milieu.
KS: Actually, you know what I found out, they have clubs in Germany. I think they are called Stachelklub and Igelklub.
CG: But that’s for Mecki collectors.
CG: You’re taking a childhood icon from your childhood and placing it into a totally different context.
KS: Instead of using people, where everybody will think, oh, this must be so and so, or this is a white person, the Meckis don’t have
that context. To me they become representative of anything that we as humans can do. Like my painting “The Seventh Day,” I
intentionally painted the little child blue so that people would not think of it as white or black or Chinese or this or that. Even though
the Meckis are more a German icon and a lot of people outside of Germany don’t really recognize it, I am still going to use it so that
you can look at a painting and not think of it as signifying a certain culture.
CG: How do you go about structuring a painting? Do you begin with the Mecki and say, I’d like to put him in a dangerous situation
or an ambiguous or threatening environment. Or do you come up with the environment and then place the Mecki? You have imagery
with soldiers and what look like dead babies and body parts.
KS: Oh, they’re not quite that gruesome! (laughs)
CG: Even in your older work, the paintings are beautiful, but they’re very aggressive, again very ambiguous. You have, for example,
a beautiful cactus, but don’t touch! Or you have soldiers in beautiful patterns.
KS: The way it works, I think, is that I have conflicting emotions inside me about what bothers me in the world. I’m not somebody
who doesn’t get affected by it. It really affects me very strongly. I’m also a very visual person. Subconsciously my emotions just
translate into these weird images.
CG: Where do the images come from? Dreams?
KS: No, my dreams are so bizarre that I wouldn’t be able to paint them. They are too bizarre. The paintings are a way of trying to
express how I feel about things. It just happens. I don’t know. War bothers me. It bothers me how we treat each other. The baby is
a symbol for me for innocence obviously.
CG: But why are they dead?
KS: Who said they are dead?
CG: They look dead. They definitely don’t look as happy as the Meckis!
KS: Well, they aren’t. (laughs)
CG: The babies haven’t been perverted yet.
KS: No, no, but we don’t do them any justice. Look at the future, and see how we’re playing around with the future of future
generations. I like that contrast -- because each soldier to me is innocent life and a baby, somebody’s baby. I want people to relate it
in those terms. War has become so sanitized. We can just press some button and something goes off and kills I don’t know how
many people. We sit here. We don’t even have the war on our own shores, so we don’t relate to it in the same sense that we should,
that these are people’s lives that we are willing to give up. In a time that we pride ourselves on enlightenment and communication
skills, I think that we really fail at communication. More often we should try to resolve things in a diplomatic way, and we don’t.
That’s why I’m so mad. (laughs)
CG: Would you describe your work as political?
KS: I guess you could. It always has some kind of political, or environmental, or social underlying context. When you look at the
graduate work I did at Kent State, that was really blatant and hit you over the head. My father would always tell me that I had the
CG: But that work is so strong. The graffiti, the stark black and white contrasts.
KS: Oh yes, he loved it. I thought about it, and I thought it’s true. Maybe I should still have the thematic thing going on but make it
visually attractive, using color ...
CG: I find that your older work is very visually attractive.
KS: That’s because you have a good, morbid sense of humor!
CG: That’s the type of work I like.
KS: But you’re in the minority.
CG: Do most people think art should be beautiful?
KS: There are people who like to have things that are not visually challenging or intellectually challenging, who just like to have
something that’s pretty. I think maybe it’ll change, that people will want more things that keep them busy and keep them thinking.
Especially because of the way the world is going. Everything is getting so flat and tired and boring. More and more people will come
back to wanting to have something that is a little bit disturbing or challenging. But not too many people like to live with it. At least not
here in the States.
CG: Do you prefer your work to be visually challenging, disturbing, provocative as well as beautiful?
KS: I’d like it to be that, but it’s not that I intentionally do it. I love painting landscapes. It’s a challenge for me. For the most part the
landscape becomes a means to enhance the dramatic effect that I want the painting to have. It becomes a tool to produce, to have a
CG: What about your use of the arch? Your have a lot of geometrics. Obviously content is important, but what about that form? You
repeat it. You use the arch as a framing device.
KS: It is probably very natural for me to work with that motif. I grew up in a boarding school in Germany that was an old cloister
that had a lot of archways.
CG: Where was that?
KS: In the south of Germany. Schloss Salem. There were arches all around me. It’s a natural form for me to pick up on.
CG: In a good sense or a bad sense?
KS: It doesn’t remind me of that time.
CG: Is it a comforting form?
KS: Basically it represents architecture and human dwelling and is something that’s man-made.
CG: But why always the same arch?
KS: I guess you could say it’s a comforting form, but at the same time it’s dramatized because it’s extended. It's almost like a tunnel.
I wanted that to signify the alienation from us, our dwelling, or our civilization and what comes behind from the other side. Most of
the time it’s a sky.
CG: In this exhibition you have one painting with soldiers and the arch.
KS: It actually had a sky behind the arch, but then I poured black paint over it, and it dripped and made pearl-like patterns. I wanted
there to be a curtain that is even more than just the arch separating us from nature or the world.
CG: That’s a very ambiguous image. You have the comfort of the structure of the arch, which is almost protective, but then what’s
happening on the bottom is very aggressive, the interaction of the soldiers.
KS: The checkerboard emphasizes that as well. It’s blue and black.
CG: It’s a game. The game of life.
KS: Maybe it’s therapy for me to paint that way. My biggest aim is to make other people consider some of the things that I find
threatening. I have always felt that art is about communicating.
CG: Is art cathartic for you?
KS: Yes, except I get to the point where I know what the painting wants to do, and I get bored because the rest is just menial. You
just have to paint it to finish it. I’d rather start the next painting. Sometimes I’m too impatient, but I know I have to finish it to make
CG: When you finish a painting, do you breath a sigh of relief?
CG: Or does the topic still trouble you?
KS: It works itself into the next painting in some way or the other. There is always a thread going through it. Now I like different
kinds of bugs. Like the fly. Then I also started to get fascinated by insects making love, so I’m putting some of those into the
windows. Because bugs are terribly important.
CG: Do they make love, or do they just reproduce?
KS: Okay, they reproduce. Yes, you’re right.
CG: Or do they go out on dates?
KS: I’d like to believe they do! It’s like the life cycle. It’s like making love.
CG: The life cycle is obviously very significant for you in your work.
KS: It is.
CG: You have babies, you have grown-up babies who are killed, you have Meckis who are childhood icons but adults use them in
different ways, either as collectors or artists, you have insects making love ...
KS: I want people to respect bugs more because without bugs this world wouldn’t exist.
CG: Let’s change topics here. Popcorn? Popcorn paintings? How does popcorn fit into the political and social message?
KS: It’s there slightly. There was a time when I just wanted to do happy paintings.
KS: To take a break from myself. At the time I painted those I was getting very restless and unhappy. Not that I’m ever any
CG: You’re always restless and unhappy?
KS: Oh, I guess! I’m happy but underlying that I’m very mad. It was also the year I became naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
CG: When was that?
KS: ’97. I was trying to identify with this country, and I think I was looking for an icon. I was trying to find something that to me
was most representative of this country.
CG: Well, popcorn is very American.
KS: Yes. So I thought about popcorn. Any party you go to, there’s usually popcorn. You go to the movie, there’s popcorn. At the
grocery store there’s big, huge bags of popcorn. It was everywhere. I started looking at it more closely because I wasn’t really a big
popcorn eater before then. I started buying popcorn when I went to the movie, started looking at it, and I started making it at home.
I was so fascinated because of the incredibly beautiful shapes. They are so sculptural, and you can start seeing different things in
them. One of the ones in the exhibition looks like Mickey Mouse with the ears.
CG: That one’s also on the cover of this catalog.
KS: I thought about it a little more. I realized that when the pilgrims came over, the natives showed them how to use corn, because it
was one of their main staples. They also showed them how to use it in different ways, including popping it. I liked the fact that the
popcorn was not only an American icon, but it also bridged the entire history of this country. When I started painting them, I didn’t
want them to look just like the blown-up, big popcorn. I saw different shapes in them. I also wanted them to have different colors to
reflect the diversity of the people in this country. There are people who are Native Americans, and their skin is more reddish brown.
There are people who are from Asia who are more yellowish. Or olive colored. I didn’t try to match the skin tone exactly. Some of
them look like flowers. That’s why the whole series is called “American Icon/Indian Flowers.” My titles are sometimes weird.
Sometimes people don’t get them. But I like titles to be weird.
CG: What’s the title of the big Mecki painting?
KS: In German it’s “Bungelose Gassen.” In English it’s “Drumless Lanes.”
CG: Why that title?
KS: In the city of Hamelin there’s a street called Bungelose Gasse. It means you’re not allowed to make any noise, any music in that
street. That was in reference to the story of the Pied Piper. Even though the actual composition is based more on the Chinese clay
armies, I wanted it to have the feel of people just following. The story of the Pied Piper became symbolic of Hitler’s Germany, and
people just following him blindly. But again, I don’t want people to think of it just in terms of Germany, because it can happen
anywhere. It’s happening in this country. After 9/11 if you didn’t agree with the government, you were considered a traitor, and I
thought that was pretty scary. If you didn’t put out the flag, it was very suspicious. It’s been happening in this country forever.
We’re just denying it. We always like to point the finger at other people. And we do that largely with Germany.
CG: That’s been a problem for some German people in America.
KS: When I first came to the States I actually got spit on.
CG: You got spit on?! For being German?
KS: Twice. It was eye-opening. But it’s understandable, because in this country we don’t really educate people well. Their education
came, especially back then, mainly from TV. On TV you have all these bad B-movies about the bad Russians, the bad Japanese, and
the bad Germans.
CG: Do you see yourself working with Mecki, popcorn, and other iconic imagery for the rest of your creative career?
KS: Oh, probably not for the rest of my life. I do do other things. I like to bounce around and pick up on themes that I worked on a
few years ago.
CG: The icons seem to be very significant to you.
KS: Maybe I’ll come up with a different one! I don’t like to limit myself. Sometimes you fall into this thing where you think that as
an artist you have to be linear. You have to move from this to that and to that and from there to this. I don’t work that way. I find
that very limiting. That’s something that might suit certain critics and galleries that like to look at your work as a continuous, logical
thing. If you look for logic, don’t look at my work because it is strewn with illogical events. To me life is illogical. Why should art be
CG: Do you work well under pressure?
KS: I do and I don’t.
CG: That’s an ambiguous answer!
KS: I used to when I was younger. I don’t have the endurance to stay up into the morning hours, then get two hours of sleep, and
then go back to it. I need my moments of peace and quiet.
CG: Do you have work habits?
KS: I’m an erratic person. My working habits are erratic. I think I do need pressure to get work done. I’m just impatient with myself.
CG: Are you unhappy with the work you’ve done?
KS: Oh, no! I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied. It’s interesting because I always think that I’m a bad painter.
CG: Why do you say that?
KS: Because I really labor at the painting. If I were a good painter, it would be really easy. I would just go zip, zip, zip, and it would
CG: So good painters paint quickly?
KS: Work fast! (laughs) I guess you’re just always very critical of yourself.
CG: You’ve spent a lot of time in your adopted home of Cleveland working in the artistic community. What have you learned from
the other artists you’ve worked with in the gallery environment?
KS: Be yourself. Don’t talk too much about yourself. (laughs) Most people tend to do that a little bit too much.
CG: But you’re talking about yourself now.
KS: I know, but that’s because of you.
CG: Have you profited from the interaction with other artists?
KS: I profit from interaction period. I don’t like to say artists only.
CG: Do you prefer interacting with non-artists?
KS: Sometimes. Sometimes certain artists are so self-absorbed. I feel there is a world out there, and there is a place for everybody.
We need to pay a little bit more attention to everybody else’s life, too.
CG: Isn’t art a very egocentric undertaking?
KS: Maybe more artists tend to be that way. A lot of people are troubled, not only artists. In the art world we tend to focus on the
stereotypes and myths more than is necessary. That’s the one thing that I try to avoid.
CG: Isn’t art something for the elite?
KS: No! I’m sorry to say that it has gotten to be that way at times. It’s hard to know what the art elite is thinking. That’s something
I’d rather not be bothered with because I have better ways of spending my time than trying to figure out why the art world is ruled
the way it is. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s sad because there are a lot of local artists who have a tough time getting
anywhere. It’s in the nature of people. We feel safe when we can attach labels to things. The bigger the label, the greater it is. We
know what we’re talking about when we have that system of labeling. It’s funny because in some of my paintings I use skulls and
bright colors. Most people really appreciate it.
CG: Again you have a very strong ambiguity. You have a skull, the symbol of death, and yet you have the bright colors that are ...
KS: ... a symbol of life. The bright colors signify how I feel about life. Intensity, you know? And skulls are a reminder of death,
obviously. People will look at it, people who believe they have a good art background, and they’ll say, oh, I see a bit of Georgia O’
Keeffe, I see a little bit of this, I see a little bit of that. It turns me off. It’s so shallow. First of all, I come from the European
tradition, and if you look at the European tradition, it’s littered with skulls. It’s littered with bright colors, too, when you look at the
medieval illustrations. Those were things I looked at a lot. Of course I looked at Georgia O’Keeffe, but she’s not the one who created
the skull. I’m sorry to tell you that! And she doesn’t own the copyright either! (laughs) It shows me how people think in these
categories when they can’t think outside, and they’re so happy to recognize and to show their knowledge -- or, if you want, their
ignorance -- by making these kind of statements. It’s sad, because it shows the limitation of your knowledge, rather than the open-
mindedness, or the extent of your knowledge. It happens a lot in upper art echelons. We market certain people, because somebody
discovered them and thinks they’re great, and we push them and them only. All the others fall by the wayside. We live in a society
that does not appreciate art enough.
CG: Why do you think that is?
KS: Thank the politicians. I don’t think their aim is to have a very broadly educated people. It’s politically motivated to keep people
uninformed. Art is always considered a luxury, not a necessity. The arts really broaden your way of thinking, and I think that is a
dangerous tool to give to the people.
CG: Say the politicians.
KS. Well, those are my words I’m putting into their mouths. When I came over to the States I came to South Carolina, and I tried to
watch a lot of TV because I realized there was a gap. I couldn’t talk to people because I didn’t know the whole TV culture. I flipped
channels and came across a PBS rerun of a politician -- I forgot his name -- from the 50s, and he actually came out and said, we
don't want educated people. We need people that are basically going to be stupid enough to haul this garbage and not complain about
it. I think that’s still true today. We don’t respect people who do menial work. We think it’s worth less because they’re less
educated. It's not true because without those people this country, any country, any society wouldn’t exist. We’ve come to take so
many things for granted in our daily lives that we forget about the “little” people. It’s sad. It really is.
CG: In your own work and in the gallery, you’ve always pushed the envelope. You don’t just put beautiful work up on the walls for
people who only need a lovely painting to match their sofa. You’ve always included artists who are very provocative, people who are
perhaps a little shocking. Shirley Aley Campbell, for example. Or someone whose work might be perceived as difficult. Douglas
Utter, for example. Or Amy Casey. Or Amathin.
KS: Robert Thurmer.
CG: Robert Thurmer. Talk about a provocative artist! What do you hope to achieve by doing that?
KS: Life is too short to ignore the things that matter. Our aim at the gallery is to educate people, to give them the opportunity to look
at work that might be a little challenging, or that they might not normally go to look at. Sometimes we’d show something figurative,
sometimes something abstract, so people would never know what to expect. To me living life in a meaningful way is important.
Otherwise why do it? Then I might as well just go get any old job and go home and do whatever I want to do.
CG: Do you think you’ll stay in the States?
KS: I’ve lived here longer than in any other country. I don’t know that I’m that happy here, but I don’t think I’d be that happy
anywhere. (laughs) Life sucks! (laughs)
CG: Let’s end it here. Thank you for the interview.
KS: (laughs) Thank you!
|Kim Schoel was born in Baghdad in 1961, then moved to Germany with her family.
She came to the United States in 1981 and has been in America off and on ever since.
As an undergraduate she studied art at Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina.
She completed her graduate work at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
Very active in the arts community in Greater Cleveland, Ohio, she is one of the founders of the Dead Horse Gallery
in Lakewood, Ohio, and has exhibited her work extensively, both in the United States and in Europe.
The following interview with Kim Schoel, conducted in July of 2004, was first published
in the catalog to accompany her solo exhibition "icons/recent work"
at theTreugarant AG in Hamburg, Germany, August 18, 2004 - February 25, 2005.
The exhibition featured several paintings -- two of them are reproduced below -- of the much beloved Mecki,
an icon of Germany's youth and popular culture.
|The Seventh Day, Oil on Canvas, 1991, 60" x 72"
|City of God, Oil on Canvas, 2004, 16" x 20"
|Detail of Graffiti Wall, 1987
Graduate Thesis, Kent State University
|Armistice, Oil on Canvas, 2004, 36" x 48"
|Bungelose Gassen/Drumless Lanes, Oil on Canvas, 2004, 60" x 72"
All paintings © Kim Schoel
Interview © Christian-Albrecht Gollub
|... in conversation with