by Ann Oppenhimer
When we first met him in 1985, Bernard Schatz (L-15) was living in a rural area near Blacksburg, Va. Tall, lanky, with a receding thatch of black hair and a special twinkle, the artist opened the door to his barn/studio. Peering inside the dark space, we gradually made out an array of phantasmagoric creatures that looked like they had just arrived from outer space. Small figures with white bodies – their features emphasized by red, yellow, blue and green stripes – danced and gestured with wild abandon. Larger creatures, some even life-sized, performed sexual acts right before our eyes. Masks in primary colors were hanging across the wall, their velvet-lined eye sockets making then look like creepy skulls that you might want to poke your fingers into. L-15 used cardboard, wire, fabric, fur, clay and metal to shape his sculptures and painted them in primary colors with acrylic paint.
Schatz claimed he was given the name L-15 in the mid-1950s, by “Intergalactic Guru Angels,” when he was hospitalized suffering from a mysterious case of internal bleeding in Roswell, N.M. Even though L-15 preferred to be called by this strange moniker, he generally appeared fairly normal. He was gregarious, witty and quite ready to share the story of his life. He launched into one of his favorite stories, illustrating it with a video.
While living in Los Angeles in the 1960s, he appeared on the Steve Allen Show (the predecessor of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show) at least seven times, calling himself “Cheyanne Schatz, the World’s Greatest One-Man Band.” (Some of these performances can still be viewed on YouTube.) Schatz would haul his equipment onto Allen’s stage set, dragging more and more boxes, instruments, signs and junk and arranging and re-arranging his materials but never getting around to playing any music. Allen’s reactions and comments, as well as those of Cheyanne, seemed to be hilarious to the audience. L-15 was particularly proud of his (last) performance when he handcuffed Steve Allen to a iron link on the floor, threw away the key and departed, leaving a disgruntled Allen in an awkward position with the television screen going black.
Another activity involved a rented storefront in Santa Monica, Calif.,where the artist had a supply of painted figures – similar to those we had seen in his barn – for sale by the pound. Dressed in various costumes, he also drove around in a decorated car and did impromptu street and vaudeville-like performances. None of these pursuits met with any commercial success, but they were way ahead of their time as performance art.
Bernard Schatz was born in Baltimore, Md. in 1931, but grew up in California and attended LCVA among other colleges, studying theater and art and earning a degree in physical therapy. He practiced physical therapy for more than 60 years, first in Los Angeles and later in Charlottesville, Va. His book, Soft Tissue Massage for Pain Relief, details his technique for treating chronic pain. He also wrote and illustrated a series of small comic books.
In 1983, L-15's art was shown in the art gallery of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, under the sponsorship of art professor Ray Kass. This was the first museum recognition of his art.
In 2001, Tom Patterson initiated a retrospective exhibition with a catalogue of L-15's work at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., showing more than 500 pieces. His work was also shown at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
More than 20 years after his first exhibition, L-15's sculptures and drawings were featured at American Primitive Gallery in New York City, receiving a glowing and detailed review by Ken Johnson in the New York Times. Johnson wrote: “The exhibition’s most compelling works are crayon drawings featuring concentric circles like cartoon eyes. Most are titled ‘Golk Golk,’ the name of L-15's angelic visitors. There are also sculptures representing Intergalactic Angels with bodies made of wire and shaped like airplanes, and rudimentary, ghostly heads of glazed clay. Other sculptures made of wire suggest the faces of alien beings, while mask images painted in bright colors on domed paper forms combine tribal-style primitivism and psychedelic cartooning.” (October 19, 2004)
L-15 was a charismatic individual who experimented with art, performance and theater. He found his calling in serving others in physical therapy, while always maintaining his unique sense of humor and love of the absurd.
Bernard Schatz is survived by his daughter, Anna, her husband and their daughter, Enda. His friend and partner, JoAnn Christy, is planning to inventory his artworks, numbering in the thousands, and eventually placing them in museums and for sale.