Along with 20 or 30 other artists in the late 1970s, Schanilec inhabited studio space in the Roberts Hamilton Building in Lowertown St. Paul. He speaks fondly of those times, of fishing the Mississippi River for carp, and having carp parties where the artists from the building would cook the fish over bonfires. Schanilec stayed there five years, bouncing from minor grant to minor grant, and from minor commission to minor commission--doing posters for a St. Paul theater and other organizations, pen-and-ink illustrations for books, and the like. He even worked a two-year gig as a graphic designer.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, local arts funding went through a boom time just as a more savvy, high-minded, and motivated batch of small presses came to town. These new presses--Coffee House Press, Milkweed Editions, New Rivers Press--made up a stable of local publishing that continues to this day (with the exception of New Rivers, which recently suspended operations). From them, Schanilec made survival money by doing ink line drawings. As a whole, though classy enough, these pieces were largely reminiscent of the surrealist-tinged art made popular on the concept rock album covers of the time: realistic images of an orangutan in a director's chair, perhaps, with lilting clouds flowing overhead.
"It was always a pleasure to work with him," says Allan Kornblum, the publisher at Coffee House, which did a number of books in the early 1980s with Schanilec's illustrations. "He's a bright guy, a great artist, and he always had great takes on our work."
Kornblum goes on to describe one instance in particular that is instructive of Schanilec's methodology. Kornblum was working with Schanilec to illustrate the book The Play, and Other Stories (1988) by fiction writer Stephen Dixon. "I thought it was an urban book," says Kornblum, "and I wanted an urban look to it. Just a brick wall would have been enough." But instead, Schanilec decided to focus on one particular story in the collection about a playwright with writer's block who goes out to the beach and begins digging holes in the sand. "It was a surprise," Kornblum says. "Gaylord thought that beach scene was what the whole book was about. And I said, 'All right. Who am I to argue? It looks like it'll be a beach scene instead of a city scene.'"
Sally Johnson, the director of the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, who has known Schanilec since they both rented rooms in the Roberts Hamilton Building in the early 1980s, lauds this ability in the illustrator. "He has a clear vision of what a good illustration is," Johnson says, "and of what is a good pairing of art and text. He's quite eloquent."
Curiously, though Schanilec's success is clearly the result of great perseverance, the work he eventually became known for bears little resemblance to his early pen-and-ink illustrations. Standing in his studio, Schanilec begins to warm up a little as he flips through a portfolio of his early work. But he becomes far more expansive as he reaches into a wall-size cabinet and begins pulling out samples of his own books.
Everything changed for Schanilec in 1987, upon the publication of his book High Bridge. This work was a homage to the old High Bridge, built of wrought iron over the Mississippi River in St. Paul in 1889 and demolished in front of 25,000 spectators on February 24, 1985 to make way for a new High Bridge. The book, which had a print run of 200, brought immediate national and international attention to Schanilec, and to his self-run press imprint, Midnight Paper Sales. It is a small book composed of several newspaper accounts of the bridge's opening back in the early part of the last century, and of its demolition--all reproduced carefully with old typefaces, rules, and dingbats as the story would have appeared in newsprint. In the pages between this text, Schanilec's multicolor wood engravings depict the bridge as it is being demolished.
These illustrations are the key to the book's power. Wood engraving is an elegant and painstaking form of printmaking in which hard blocks of end-grain wood are carved with sharp metal gouging tools to produce highly detailed images. To make a multicolor wood engraving print, the artist must carve a new block for each color, taking care to be sure that the details on each block match up with all the other images. Somehow, Schanilec proved to be an immediate master of this very demanding art form, and he was able to load these images with a range of colors that very few printmakers have ever attempted.
Schanilec says he was able to sell a lot of copies of the book, and for the first time in his life found himself with a chunk of money--$7,000. "Rather than squander it," he says, "I bought this place." He waves his hand out at the 20 acres that surround his studio. Not only did the book provide seed money for the artist, though; it also cemented his precise and clean yet visually rich and colorful style of image-making. It is this style that has gained him an international following.