Artist and illustrator Craig Slaff '78 joins his love of aviation and naval history with his knowledge of heavy equipment and New Jersey wildlife to create works of beauty, power and extraordinary technical and historical accuracy. On May 18th, Slaff delivered the 2012 Lehman Lecture, "Painting Stories," in Founders Hall.
As a young man, Craig Slaff ‘78 played semi-pro soccer, worked heavy earth moving machinery and designed and built his own passive solar home, studio and barn on 20 acres of rugged land – land which he cleared himself. (He lives there today with his wife and three children.) Throughout his life Craig has painted, melding his knowledge of aviation and naval history with his deep understanding of the intersection of man, machine and nature. His paintings and prints tell stories to millions of viewers worldwide. Slaff’s works have received numerous awards from prestigious museums.
Q. What were your earliest influences?
My father and uncle had a building company. I was surrounded by architectural blueprints; I grew up drawing. My uncle’s World War Two stories filled my imagination; he led a team of Navy Seabees who built landing strips in the Solomon Islands. I absorbed the family saying - “there’s no such thing as can’t.”
Q. Can you give an example of how being told “can’t” influenced your art?
At MBS I should have earned 11 varsity letters. College soccer coaches were recruiting me in my junior year. But my parents had kept me out of school for a year - I had dyslexia that had gone unrecognized in public school. I turned 19 a few days before 12th grade, and an area coach kept me from competing my senior year. I was sad, angry. The art teacher Judy Schmidt and her husband Charles, the architecture teacher, encouraged me to channel my feelings into art. They introduced me to artist Frank Frazetta’s work. Frazetta continues to inspire me: how he captures you, leaves you thinking, “What happens next?” I painted a copy of a Frazetta work for Judy’s class. That painting hangs in my office today, and I’m hanging it in the Founders Hall exhibit.
Q. Did you pursue soccer and art in college?
I went to Hartwick College—then Division I Champions--for both. My eldest child has the legacy scholarship there now. I got more encouragement on the soccer field than in the studio. My art professor would say, “Slaff, stop being such a Renaissance man;” he wanted me to loosen up. My junior year, basketball legends Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe signed me to play professional indoor soccer. I would have left school, but then their deals fell through.
Q. How did you become a full-time artist?
For a few years after graduation, I worked days for the family business. At night I painted renderings from blueprints for architects and builders until CAD - Computer Aided Design - made me obsolete. Then, I joined Local 825 of the International Union of Operating Engineers and worked heavy equipment. Major projects such as the Monksville Dam or Route 287 meant my working six days a week, year round. Other jobs would be seasonal, and I would paint all winter.
I bankrolled most of my wages. After five years of looking, I found the acreage I wanted in Northwest NJ. I paid cash, no mortgage. I knew how hard it was – is – to support yourself and a family as an artist. I married my wife these years, too. Long before oil prices skyrocketed, I explored passive solar energy - using glass and mass. I designed and built my home and studio. It’s a saltbox colonial; traditional in the front, but a window wall lets in southern light and warmth. My studio is there. I design and build my artist’s equipment to let me follow the light. You need natural light to see true pigment colors.
Q. How did you find your subject and your audience?
I paint what I love and what moves me - nature, naval and aviation history, the machines and men who make things happen. I thoroughly research each plane, each ship, each story. Early on, I would go to air shows to sell my work. I met my other art hero, Keith Ferris who did the murals at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. He introduced me to the American Society of Aviation Artists; I’m a past trustee. I have works in the National Museum of Aviation History, the Museum of Flight in Canada, the Naval Museum in Pensacola, The US Air Force Museum and in corporate and private collections. I also do work for the Coast Guard and the US Navy. For many years I continued with construction, but now I paint full-time.
Q. What is your message for MBS students?
Art is a passion – you see something and you have to paint it. I did everything and anything to keep painting. And every day, I try harder. It’s no good to keep copying yourself.