Arts, Arts Features

When Words Fail, Maxwell Schenkel’s Art Echoes

If you saw Maxwell Schenkel on campus, it would be hard to miss him. Dressed in brightly patterned hoodies and paint-splattered pants, right away he announces he’s an artist. Schenkel, MCAS ’22, is double majoring in neuroscience and studio art, but when he’s not studying he spends all of his free time creating. Armed with sketchbooks brimming with drawings and characters, Schenkel is only getting started with what he wants to do with his art. 

During his time at Boston College, he’s enjoyed delving deeper into the artistic process.

“In those moments where you create something that you feel like you didn’t create yourself, that just existed, and you just like drag it kicking and screaming from your head and just spit it out onto the canvas, like that is a moment where it feels like you’re discovering it,” Schenkel said.

Schenkel grew up in a creative household. Both of his parents are artists—his mom is a production design artist and his dad is a studio artist. When he was younger, Schenkel said he spent a lot of time copying drawings and creating whimsical sketches. By the time he started high school, he was beginning to explore realistic art. But with the thought of college looming in the background, Schenkel stepped away from art in high school to focus on academics. 

But entering his freshman year at BC, he decided to take a few art courses to fulfill his arts core credit. Although Schenkel said he struggled at first in these courses, they reignited his passion for art.

“I still was realizing how much I enjoyed it and how important it was for my own happiness to do that,” Schenkel said about the courses. “Because if I have little things like art and painting, which are like daily catharsis for me, then it gives me the energy and the strength to kind of pursue more difficult things.”  

By the time he stepped foot onto BC’s campus as a freshman, he was beginning to dabble in drawing again, an interest that would only grow over his first year. During that time, Schenkel came up with the idea for a graphic cartoon character in the spring of 2019, one that he said is still the most memorable piece of art he’s created. In under five minutes of sketching, Echo was born. 

Although most of Schenkel’s artwork bustles with bold colors and angular shapes, Echo forgoes these frills for a black-and-white design. Sketched with smooth lines, the ghost-like character nursing a chest cavity faces a looming black shadow encircling a ballooning question mark. The character marks a time when Schenkel said he was grappling with shifting academic interests—uncertainties which were channeled into the design.

“The simplicity, the lack of identity, the hole represented in the chest was embodying a lot of the existential dread that was kind of like creeping into my mind at that time,” Schenkel said about Echo. “But I like the fact that it wasn’t embodied in an inherently negative way, like he’s not a negative character. He actually looks like someone relatable and friendly even.”

The cartoon would become the face of a new artistic era Schenkel was entering in his life. Echo would eventually become the central graphic for Schenkel’s clothing line, Echoes, which began to take shape during the summer of 2019. He started by just selling t-shirts, but over the year expanded the collection to include additional apparel which he sold on his Teespring site. The brand is an extension of his artwork, as the prints featured on hoodies, leggings, and beanies are directly pulled from Schenkel’s sketchbooks. 

When he began superimposing his artwork onto clothing items, he hoped family members and friends would buy them. But Schenkel also started to receive online orders from rogue customers.

“A lot of it has happened organically and it’s been a learning experience, because I’ve never worked in this capacity before,” Schenkel said. “I want to make sure that when people are receiving it that I’m perfectly happy with it and ready for them to receive it. And if I get a couple of sales here or there right now when I’m developing my fashion-related voice, then that’s just a side benefit.”

When he returned to campus as a sophomore, Schenkel decided to pick up a studio art major to take one step closer to honing his craft through courses at BC. 

Hartmut Austen, a BC studio art assistant professor, taught Schenkel in fall of 2019 in his introductory painting course. After observing his work in class, Austen said he realized pretty quickly that Schenkel was serious about his art. 

“Max is a student that encapsulates why we have an arts program at BC and why it is necessary,” Austen said. “Because some students, especially in the sciences or in business, they need that outlet to articulate or visualize ideas where words fail them in a certain way.” 

As an art and neuroscience double major, Schenkel’s studies are visible in his artwork. While Schenkel was taking Painting 1: Foundations, Austen said he noticed Schenkel gravitated toward depicting figurations. His interest in capturing the human figure in his work expanded to self-portraits, but Schenkel takes a different approach to figurations. 

He often draws isolated hands, heads, and bodies in vibrant colors cast against barren canvases, instead of full figures. Yellow, purple, red, and turquoise shades are concentrated in his designs—contrasting colors that have an acidic and biting quality, Austen said. Looking at his work, Austen said Schenkel captures a pulsating energy on canvas that gives his figurations life. 

“He showed me his sketchbooks which were just overflowing with activity, ideas, colors, shapes, and forms,” Austen said. “And it’s just a joy to look at it. I mean really goofy stuff, cartoonish things often done in markers very quickly—sometimes you wonder if he’s doing that in his neurology classes.”

Schenkel’s art style, although still in a development stage, is distinct, Austen said. He described Schenkel’s art as urban, comparing his work to earlier artists such as pop art painter Peter Saul, along with artists linked to the Chicago Imagists movement from the ’60s, such as Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, and Christina Ramberg. These artists explored figurations and portraits and filled their pieces with eccentric colors, patterns, and graphic components. A blend of these elements crop up in Schenkel’s work.

“His work is already recognizable, and it’s because of some of the colors he’s using, how he’s using the markers and the materials,” Austen said. “So there is an edginess to it, his gesture in his work, which is uniquely his.”

Although hundreds of BC students filter into introductory art classes to fulfill core credits every year, few students pick up art majors and minors, according to Austen. He also said there are nearly 24 art minors and on average eight art majors, many of whom double major, like Schenkel. Only a handful of students go on to graduate art programs to hone their core identities as artists, a path that Austen thinks Schenkel shouldn’t rule out if he decides to pursue it. 

This spring, Austen is teaching Schenkel again, but this time in his Alternative Approaches in Drawing class. Although Schenkel is used to using an assembly of bright colors, Austen’s course will challenge Schenkel to draw in black and white. The art professor said he is excited to see Schenkel’s work progress, pushing him closer to his core artistic style.

“He really kind of reinvigorates the joy of painting, you know,” Austen said. “He reminded me that painting is also an activity that should be joyful and playful.”

Riley Aquilano, MCAS ’22, recognized this energy in Schenkel when they met during their freshman year. With Schenkel decked out in an assortment of rings, baggy clothes, and a bandanna, Aquilano said he knew instantly from his style he was creative across all artistic mediums. Nearly every time he sees Schenkel, Aquilano said, they always end up doing something creative.

“It seems maybe a little cliché to say that everything you do is creative, like well life is creative, but there really is meaning to that when you are talking about Max, because he really does live and breathe art,” Aquilano said.

Spurts of inspiration bring about much of Schenkel’s work. When he’s inspired, Schenkel has created custom pieces for Aquilano, including a pair of sweatpants with graphic references to hip-hop and rap artists like MF DOOM and Kids See Ghosts—artists that connect to Aquilano’s music taste. Watching Schenkel’s work progress since they met freshman year, Aquilano said he can tell Schenkel is starting to find his identity as an artist.

“I think what sets him apart the most is the boldness,” Aquilano said. “I think a lot of people try to maybe evoke some kind of intense emotion in their art, but I think Max is one of the better artists, at least at BC, that I’ve seen to actually express that boldness. I think it literally is just because Max himself is a really intense guy and he really knows what he wants, what he’s looking for with, what he wants to end up with [for] his finished product.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Schenkel’s creativity wasn’t stifled. Instead, the virus influenced his work. To cope with the uncertainty around the pandemic, he channeled that energy into his art. Schenkel focused on personal projects such as a self-portrait that attempted to convey his emotions during the pandemic. Toying with themes of realism, interpretation, and the psychedelic, Schenkel attempted to ground himself through painting.  

“I was kind of filtering all the negativity and the anxiety and all of these feelings of being just oppressed by this feeling of this virus … I kind of channeled that into a lot of my work,” Schenkel said. “I kind of wanted to distort reality in a certain way because that’s how I saw the COVID time, like as a distorted version of like our normal lifestyle.”

While tweets and memes have boasted that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth while quarantined during the bubonic plague, Schenkel plowed away at his personal art projects and set up an Etsy shop, which would house his clothing designs and art prints. Although he was more focused on painting than building up Echoes, he made face masks printed with miniature Echo graphics for his family. 

Schenkel was invited to promote his work on a recently developed student art Instagram space called The Cubby. Although he’s planning on exploring painting for his senior art project, Schenkel’s hoping to try his hand at the gallery scene one day. 

“I’ve always wanted to just see a lot of my paintings in a gallery, just like on the wall and like to see other people looking at them,” Schenkel said. “I want to have that moment because I think it would be like the cherry on top of like the effort that I’ve put in to have that one moment to just see where other people in front of your own eyes are appreciating or at least engaging with something that you care yourself very much about.”

Drawings Courtesy of Maxwell Schenkel

Graphic By Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor

February 8, 2021