I’ve always been intrigued by quality collage work. It makes me consider the possibility of life existing in a multiverse. A place where realities collide and separate depending on the viewers perception, a nonlinear perspective where things mysteriously find balance in what should be chaos.
The works of Scott Neff, with their seamless lines and believable relations between elements, take the viewer on a kaleidoscopic journey undefined by time.
Ryan: Did you grow up in a creative environment?
Scott: Yes. My father was an art director at one of the largest product label screen printing companies in the nation. When I was young, my sister and I would occasionally go to work with him. This was before direct product printing – a time when household appliance, equipment and vehicle companies used high end product labels for branding and instructional purposes.
My dad’s company was experimenting with four-color process screen printing, transparent ink development, various textured embossing patterns, and lamination materials. The stickers were beautifully designed with bold, opaque inks and acute attention to detail. It was a massive production. There were multiple floors containing row after row of giant sticker rolls amidst immense screen printing presses and die cutting machines.
It must have been mind-blowing to see as a young man. Where you ever allowed to work with any of the equipment?
It was magic to me. And yes, I learned the purpose and use of many of the materials and tools he worked with. In the art department I was allowed to experiment with a typesetting machine, with the help and guidance of my dad of course.
I also noticed a lot of fun and mischievous play took place during the work day in the art department to help alleviate the pressures of the job. I knew immediately, I wanted to be part of that world.
What about outside of your dad’s work? What was it like growing up in Duluth Minnesota?
Well, through my parents I was exposed to many talented artisans of all types and professions. My mom was talented as well and had many interests and skills.
In Duluth we didn’t have a ton of fine art galleries and didn’t take trips to specifically view art, but we did, however, have a very large and diverse home library of books and magazines. My dad also had a darkroom in our basement. I never had the patience or determination to produce high quality prints from film, but I learned the basics.
When and how did you start creating art?
I’ve been creating for as long as I can remember. I was known as the kid who could draw in grade school, though I didn’t have exceptional drawing talent.
Did you take art classes in school?
The only elementary school art class I remember was in seventh grade. I thought the teacher really knew her art. I sat at the same table as some pretty bad-ass ninth grade guys. I thought they would torment me, since I tried my best and they only drew obscene ninth grader stuff. They did tease me a bit, so I’d play along sometimes to try and fit in.
When did you become interested in collage?
I began layering imagery and type right after high school. The same time I started working at the screen printing company my parents had just started. In the darkroom, I used a vertical stat camera to photograph camera ready art which was then developed and dried on transparent film. From there, it was exposed on an emulsion coated silkscreen and washed out and dried for screen printing. I was also allowed to use any of the company materials for experimenting in my free time. Honestly, I don’t know if I even knew the term “collage” at that time. I was just doing what came natural to me.
Cool, having access to all that must have accelerated your creative process quite a bit.
Yes, I quickly began layering with polyester and vinyl adhesives. The screen printers that worked there used a large sheet of adhesive known as “make-ready” for the first passes of ink through the silk screens on to adhesive (or the material sheets). One make-ready sheet may have contained multiple images from various jobs, layered randomly on top of each other. The end product was a thing of beauty to me, though to everyone else it was just waste.
Did you go on to college or are you self-taught from working with your parents?
I worked at my parent’s screen-printing company for a few years, and then moved to Minneapolis in 1990 to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I was going through a tough time previously in Duluth. My lung had collapsed and resulted in a long hospital stay and eventually surgery. I went through a lot of post-surgery body trauma which manifested into depression and anxiety accompanied by panic attacks. These were the perfect motivators to run away and join Art College.
A friend invited me to portfolio days at MCAD. A recruiter from CalArts wanted me, but I knew I wasn’t mentally or financially stable enough to move to California. MCAD offered me a hefty scholarship, so I took it. I think the staff members at MCAD were banking on me becoming a strong graphic design alumnus, but I only did a year there. I spent most of my time at the Minneapolis Institute of Art where I really developed my knowledge and appreciation for art history.
I’m sorry you had that struggle but I love hearing examples of someone rising up from tragedy and finding success. It takes a lot of strength.
How did your college experience affect your work or artistic interest?
When I first moved to Minneapolis, I was fortunate to see Hannah Höch, Jess Collins, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. I’ve seen great exhibits since then here in Minneapolis and in my travels, but those four were early game changers. It wasn’t an “I am going to be a collage artist” epiphany or anything, but I knew I was strongly attracted to the art form. Though I continued to use different mediums for self-expression and enjoyment, I always came back to collage.
Then I met Zach Collins. After hanging out with him around 2013, I really felt contemporary collage art was legit. Zach had moved to Minneapolis to get his masters at MCAD. His mentor convinced him to steer his thesis to collage. He took on an insane and wonderful project for his final thesis; he published, “We Said Hello and Shook Hands”, which is not only about the art of collage but about the art of collage collaboration. Zach collaborated with hundreds of artists around the world between 2011 and 2014 by sending them starter collages – and, later, finishing collages that others had started.
A large portion of my collaborations with Zach during this time period ended up in his book. This led to a social media connection with collage artists around the world and a lot of fun and exploration through collaborations. Zach and I also had a book published of our small collage collaborations titled, “Big Bang”, available through Red Fox Press out of Ireland.
That sounds like an incredible experience. You mentioned working in other mediums, is that something you still do?
I have worked in screen printing, acrylic and oil painting, photography, sandblasted glass, and wood block printing. I’m a graphic designer at heart. I eventually stopped working in corporate graphic design because it was always so limited. When I was younger, I’d shop my portfolio and art directors would tell me, “Your work is great, but how would it apply to what we do here?” I did end up working in commercial graphic design, freelance, and advertising for 20 years, but I got burnt out. Now, I only focus on collage.
At the top of your Tumbler page you’ve written: “Hidden Realities and Elemental Fusions.” Is this a mantra for your work?
It should be my mantra! No, it has more to do with how I describe my work. My mantra is, “Just Breath”.
Great answer! Are you living as a full time artist?
I am currently a preschool teacher. I have three and four-year-olds in my class. They all love to make art and have no inhibitions in the creative process. I think it’s a natural form of self-expression and exploration.
I also have a family now and time isn’t always a luxury. Besides, I like to do other things too. I would (and have) driven myself crazy if I only did collage. I do love it though and continue to create. I’ve recently been focusing primarily on dozens of 8”x10” analog collages on wood panels, but I’m phasing out of that format.
Thank you for taking the time to share your experience – any final thoughts?
The amazing talent and prolific amount of other collage artists’ work on social media are testaments to the shift and growth of the art form. And the quarterly publication of “Kolaj Magazine” is a great resource for people interested in contemporary collage.
More From Scott Neff: