Oakland based artist AJ Schnettler shares with us their journey in discovering what being non-binary means to them and their community through photography and text. Thank you for your thoughtful writing and sharing with us.
Can you describe your studio routine?
My studio routine really depends on my mood to be honest. Sometimes, I want to work on a current piece and edit, sometimes I have an idea for a new piece and want to look into other art pieces similar to inspire me, or I want to apply to shows/residencies/grants. Overall, being in a creative studio space always puts me in a good mental place. I currently use my bedroom as a "studio" so when I open my laptop to start editing, I just have this "go! go! go!" mindset that I cannot really explain. Usually approaching deadlines help with that. Since I am currently working on multiple pieces, I try to work on one piece one day, and the other piece the next. I lose track of time when working, so I listen to music to sort of keep track of time, but that doesn't always work well.
Can you speak to how your work responds to and questions ideas of representation and the portrait?
When creating my work, I always think, who am I representing, how am I going to get my message across, and what do I want the viewers to gain from this? For me, I use my work to represent the nonbinary community. I began doing this because I wanted to come out to my family as nonbinary, but I began to realize that the misunderstanding of the nonbinary community runs throughout a lot of people who aren't in it. So I use this piece to allow these different nonbinary voices to be heard, which is why I have the text. I have the portrait so those outside of the community understand that nonbinary people do not look a certain way; a lot of people assume that nonbinary is the same as androgonous, but that is not necessarily the case. Basically, for me, to represent the nonbinary community, since the word has a different meaning to anyone who identifies this way, I show a varity of people of all different backgrounds, skin colors, hair colors, genders assigned at birth to give the best representation of this community as I can. I also want those identifying as nonbinary to feel like they are apart of this community. In my work, to represent is to teach and inform the viewers who do not relate, and show a sense of validation for those who can
How does the process of printmaking help process the complex concepts you explore? How does your process for photography differ from your process for printmaking?
My printmaking style actually came to me before my photography style, if that makes sense. I found myself making prints in ways that I liked, whereas I was making photographs for other people, so they weren't as strong. Once that was pointed out to me, I was able to become a stronger photographer. When it comes to my printmaking work now, it is more of a hobby, for when I feel stuck with photo but want to still create. A majority of the pieces I create now come from a dark space, because when I have intense depression episodes, I tend to draw. I use these sketches in my lithography pieces. When it comes to my "Safe Space" books, for example, I use printmaking to enhance the images. I am able to show textures and enhance them through soft ground etching and letterpress. But overall, my printmaking is more for me whereas my photography is for the world. I make photo pieces that can help people learn or understand, although I recently figured out that a lot more of my work was about self discovery than I realized, but I'm learning from my own photo work, so I guess the goal of people understanding and learning starts with me understanding and learning.
Could you tell us about your 'What is non-binary' series and the impact you hope to achieve with this work?
With my nonbinary series, I want to be able to help those outside the community to understand us, for those question their gender identity to know its okay, and for those within the community to know their feelings are valid. When I was first introduced to the term, I was skeptical about what it meant, but I was willing to learn and then after a year of being introduced to it, I wanted to identify that way myself and I feel significantly better about myself as a result. The overall impact I want from this series is more acceptance for the nonbinary community, both within and outside of it. A lot of people expect nonbinary people to look and act a certain way, and I have experienced that feel of expectations from people identifying the same as I, alongside others. I want everyone to feel happy in their own skin and to not have to worry about what others think. I think about what other people think of me all the time, so I can relate to others who feel this way. If I can do something to help people feel better about themselves, or help others understand the nonbinary community, I will do my part. The goal with this piece is to create a book of nonbinary faces with their different relations to the term nonbinary. I will then sell the book where half the proceeds will help me include new faces and create more books, and the other half I want to donate to Planned Parenthood.
If you could collaborate with any other artist in the world, who would it be?
A single artist to collaborate with? Wow, that's hard. I have a handful of friends I want to work with, then a few more well known artists. I think right now, the artist I want to collaborate the most with is a friend of mine, April Martin. She makes a lot of work about her being a proud black queer woman, and I make work that helps people understand different perspectives. I am white and asian, but fully white passing, so I definitely do not understand the struggles of being a person of color, so I want to work with April to make a piece that gives different people of color, specifically black people, voices that might not ever be heard. It would consist of text and portraits, because would it really be a piece I was involved in if it didn't have either of these?
What book, movie or video have you read/seen recently that has influenced your work? Why?
The book I am currently reading is Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story by Jacob Tobia. Although i cannot relate to everything Jacob has experienced, it feels super great to hear a fellow nonbinary person's story. If I could include Jacob Tobia in a nonbinary piece, I think I will be complete as a nonbinary artist. They have touched so many souls in the way I hope to do with my photo work, so they are a huge role model for me. Reading their book didn't necessarily spark any need ideas or pieces for me, however, it did influence how I was going to continue to approach other pieces. I have a whole journal filled with different photo ideas that I will one day get to, and this book has added to these ideas to make them stronger I like to believe.