March 2008 Issue
Man of Letters
Delaware photographer Justin Schaefer combines a keen eye and a love of architecture to create customized artwork.
If only there was a demand for all the art projects we were assigned back in high school. Those pencil sketches of people that wound up looking like glorified stick figures, those lopsided clay sculptures that a kindergartner could have shaped from Play-Doh –– we could make a very comfortable living churning out inadequate work.
Fortunately, artists like Justin Schaefer are around to provide a reality check, and to prove that there is, in fact, a market for art inspired by the right assignment –– as long as it’s married with (and this is the important part) genuine creative talent.
It’s been 10 years since Schaefer, then a senior at Delaware’s Rutherford B. Hayes High School, was issued a simple project by his art teacher: Wander the central Ohio town and photograph three alphabet letters formed by architecture.
More than 8,500 photographs and trips to eight foreign countries and 40 states later, Schaefer has parlayed that assignment into PhotoText, a business that creates framed, custom-designed works for patrons around the globe and allows Schaefer to turn his passion for art into a profession.
“This is the way I’ve always been: You just point me in a direction, and I’ll sprint,” says the 27-year-old.
Schaefer’s drive and that assignment’s inspiration today occupy a two-story showroom tucked into an alley on Winter Street in downtown Delaware. Examples of his one-of-a-kind artwork line the walls: The word “WOLVERINES,” for instance, 8 1/2 inches tall and 30 inches wide, and spelled out with photos of “letters” found only on the University of Michigan’s campus –– an “e” formed by the faux flowers and tendrils that adorn one building’s exterior; an “s” spied in another’s ornate, wrought-iron scrollwork. (With blue mat and a bright yellow frame: $164.50.)
“Very big as graduation gifts,” says Schaefer, noting that he’s visited and shot the entire alphabet at all of the Big Ten schools, including The Ohio State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial design. “Or, some alumni member will want their last name spelled out with letters from their school.”
With more than 400 works that he’s personally created so far –– not counting those produced by two employees –– and an entire Web site, www.phototextcatalog.com
, where customers can build phrases from letters photographed in the origin and architectural style of their choice, it’s hard to believe that the same art teacher who gave him the original assignment was also the person who was skeptical of its future success.
“She actually told me not to do it,” Schaefer says with a chuckle.
Joe and Laurie Schaefer (a federal air marshal and middle school teacher, respectively) were hardly surprised when their son, Justin, decided to display his photo text creations at a local art show just months after receiving the project in his art class.
After all, the assignment had already prompted the high school senior to create Christmas gifts for his entire family. He’d scoured spots around Ohio for weeks in search of naturally occurring or architecturally formed letters to spell out the names of 21 relatives –– and found them in such unlikely places as three intersecting drainpipes, shaped into a perfect “n” behind the Toaster’s Five and Dime store in Delaware, and a stepladder on his uncle’s farm in Cincinnati, creating an “a” when perched open and photographed in profile.
“Once I get something in my head, forget it,” says Schaefer, admitting that the project quickly turned into an obsession. “If I have an idea, I have to draw it, plan it out and produce it. Otherwise, it’ll keep me awake for months.”
Despite his enthusiasm, Schaefer’s instructor expressed concern about his entry into the local art show. “She told me how she had done those shows in the past, and that they’re not worth what you invest in them,” he recalls. “That it’d be a waste of my time.”
She couldn’t have been more wrong.
Schaefer won the show’s people’s choice and jurors’ runner-up awards, and his appearance there led to a series of invitations to art festivals in a number of states, where he’d search the landscape for letters to photograph when not exhibiting his work.
“It was like a domino effect,” he says of his popularity. Schaefer notes that his booth at the shows, which promised individualized creations –– arranged into specific words out of letters of the customer’s choosing, then cut, mounted and ready to take home in only an hour –– more than contributed to his appeal. “I’d have to keep adding new shows each year … and I really hadn’t thought of doing this past high school.
“Before I knew it, I had [customers] coming up to my dorm room in college, saying, ‘Are you that letter kid?’”
Fortunately, everything from family vacations to trips to visit friends fueled his need for a wide variety of letters. The “c” that is the St. Louis Arch, the “h” formed by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the “e” discovered in the Chrysler Building’s distinctive chrome design –– Schaefer has become an expert at spotting the alphabet in almost everything.
“We’d be in Paris, and I’d be photographing my family standing in front of the Eiffel Tower –– and then I’d immediately zoom beyond them and shoot the letter ‘a,’” he says with a laugh, noting that the letter that tower forms is now part of his massive catalog.
As his clientele increased through word of mouth, so did the rules Schaefer created in an effort to challenge himself more. Sure, the “b” that was painted on Delaware’s old Bun’s Restaurant window (before it burned down some years ago) has sentimental meaning. And yes, the “n” from the neon Nectar Candy Store sign is one of the most popular letter choices from his PhotoText catalog. But …
“I consider them cheating now, because they’re actual letters,” he says. “I want it to be natural in its environment, something completely discovered. I have to be walking along the streets and find it; I can’t position or paint or bend it. And definitely no digital manipulation.”
But no matter the source or style the photo, all the works hold special meaning for Schaefer.
“I was in Martha’s Vineyard once to meet with a friend of mine, he says. “And he had a friend who was working on a sailboat, so I got to climb up the rigging of this boat and stand out on the lookout tower. And as I look out, there’s the letter “a”: It was the peak of this white, wooden roof, with a crossbeam through the middle. Every time I see that “a” that’s what I think about it.
“Every letter,” he adds, “is a flood of memories.”