Erick Sahler is a cool guy. He’s an artist. He has played in rock and punk music bands. He owns a double “doghouse” bass with a flame painted on it.
His companion is a huge Chesapeake Bay Retriever named “Chance.” He spends his leisure time driving the Shore’s rural landscape in a mint-condition 1969 Chevrolet Camaro.
In my experiences, rarely have I heard anyone “cool” say that they love Salisbury. The cool thing would be to make fun of the community.
Erick Sahler is cool; Erick Sahler loves Salisbury.
Three years ago, Sahler walked away from the newspaper business to launch a career centering on what he truly loved: art.
But his business, Erick Sahler Serigraphs, would appear to be thriving.
The artist, too, would appear to be loving it.
Sahler, who lives in Shad Point south of Salisbury with his wife and two daughters, is an American Screen Printing Association certified graphic artist. He’s a screen printer who has designed thousands of illustrations, graphics, cartoons and logos since 1983.
Clients have included Perdue Farms Inc., Salisbury Wicomico Arts Council, Delaware International Speedway, Chesapeake Screen Printing and The Daily Times.
A serigraph is a fancy word for a silkscreen art print. It was coined around 1940 by combining “seri” (Latin for “silk”) and “graph” (Greek for “to write”) to differentiate fine art silkscreen prints from more commercial silkscreen processes used to print everything from wallpaper to T-shirts.
All of Sahler’s artwork is hand printed. For each color, he creates a stencil in a high-mesh screen through which ink is “pulled” with a squeegee. Colors are hand printed one sheet of paper at a time, usually working from the lightest to darkest colors, at a rate of two colors per day.
It takes a week or more to complete the printing on most editions. While the process is more labor intensive than printing a digital image or giclee, serigraphs are more bold and vibrant than other types of art prints.
The words “bold” and “vibrant” also fit Sahler’s personality. A keen watcher of events and people, this is a unique local artist with an ability to see, say and create.
Q. You have a very sentimental attachment to Salisbury. To what do you attribute that?
A. All the Sahlers possess a hair trigger for sentimentality. We wax nostalgic about everything.
My Mom Mom could cry reading the phone book.
The first time I took my daughter Alison to the dump, she wept over a line of discarded refrigerators. I get misty every time I hear a marching band.
So sentimentality is in our DNA. It’s how we’re wired and that’s the root of my attachment to Salisbury.
But also, I’ve been fortunate to live a wonderful life both growing up and raising my own family here.
So it seems like anywhere I go, the memories of one good time or another are always flooding back.
Q. Have you been able to transmit those emotions into your art?
A. Totally. Maybe not in a personal way that reveals my own stories or feelings — I’m no abstract expressionist — but certainly in the subject matter of Salisbury and the parts of the Eastern Shore I choose to portray.
We live in an area that stirs people deeply. I have intense memories of City Park, logrolling down the hill as a child, riding the swings late into prom night, taking my come-here girl to visit the old cannon.
So when I create a piece that celebrates City Park, I want to capture the ideal of all those elements so many of us have experienced.
All the things I love about here — the rush of the stock car races in Delmar or the sense of magic crossing the old swing bridge into Chincoteague — there are lots of people out there who feel the same way I do. My art taps into those shared memories.
Q. What are the unique opportunities for an artist on the Eastern Shore?
A. They are endless. We have a unique culture that provides unlimited subject matter.
We also have a constant stream of visitors who have the means to support the arts. What convinced me to walk away from a 22-year career to become an artist was the notion that within one hour in every direction from Salisbury is a destination where folks come to vacation.
Think about it: Lewes, Rehoboth, Bethany, Ocean City, Chincoteague, Onancock, Crisfield, Cambridge, Oxford, St. Michaels, Easton — not to mention all the cool little towns closer in, like Berlin and Snow Hill.
And we celebrate the craziest stuff here — like scrapple and hard crabs and swimming ponies — with festivals and events that always draw big crowds.
Other regions in the U.S. would give something pretty to have just one or two of those attractions. We’ve got it all.
And those who visit us on vacation always want to take a little piece of the experience home with them. That makes for a huge potential for Eastern Shore artists.
Q. What do you like the most about this area — the people, the scenery, the nature?
A. Well, mostly it’s the humidity.
Over the past five summers, Tracy and the girls and I have driven all over the United States. In fact, our road trips have taken us to all the states in the “Lower 48.”
And you know what? No matter where we go, people want to tell us how special the place is where they live. And I’m no different.
In all our travels, there was no place I’d rather live than on the Eastern Shore. Those two words are magic to me.
Look at the map of the U.S. The Delmarva Peninsula is separate from the rest of the country, and that gives us a distinct culture. We really are special.
The folks who hammered out their lives here for generations were extraordinary, so yes the people are part of it. The scenery, especially along the water — and we have so much that — is breathtaking. We have some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world.
The fresh fruits and vegetables and seafood are an absolute bounty.
And most importantly, my family is here.
In fact, in Shad Point alone, our roots go back for centuries, so there’s all this heritage and tradition, and the bonds that come with it. So it’s really all those things combined that make the place so dear to me.
Well, that and the humidity.
Q. How did you first get interested in art?
A. When I was a kid, my grandmother used to get “scratch pads” from Gillie Rayne, who had a print shop at his house on Riverside Drive.
One of my earliest memories is sitting at her kitchen table, filling up those pads with drawing after drawing.
My mom is artistic — she can draw or paint anything — and her mom was constantly working with her hands, making needlepoint pieces as she listened to the Orioles on the radio.
Also, I had an uncle — Jimmy Spencer — who made oil paintings. So I grew up around creative types, and making art was natural, just something we did.
Anyway, I quickly discovered that my art was a way to get noticed by my classmates, so I was constantly drawing or making cartoons to get attention.
When I was at Bennett Junior, I desperately wanted to be in Mr. Harris’ band, and there was no room in my schedule for art classes. That’s when I began taking lessons from Keith Whitelock, and it was Keith who really taught me everything I know about drawing and painting.
Keith introduced me to Dave Rossi, who owns Chesapeake Screen Printing. Two weeks after my 16th birthday, I went to work for Dave, designing and printing T-shirts.
That’s when I decided I wanted to become a commercial artist.
Q. Describe your art.
A. The medium is silkscreen prints — the fancy word for it is “serigraphy.” My subject matter is the Eastern Shore and its iconic places and events.
I “pull” all my prints by hand, one color at a time through a stencil in a screen using a squeegee. Except for a vacuum table that holds the paper in place, there is nothing mechanical about the process.
It takes a week or so to complete a 10-color print.
Q. You have some amazing “pop art”-type work, but you also excel at more-traditional work.
A. I was fortunate to grow up artistically in two different worlds.
Keith’s approach in teaching me drawing and painting was purely traditional, and when I went to college to study art there were no computers.
So if we needed typography, we lettered it by hand. If we needed a color illustration, we drew it or painted it ourselves.
Working in the T-shirt shop, our approach was more minimalist because we could only print six colors on the press. To create a design, I would squint at a color photograph — usually some mud truck or racing boat — until I could reduce the number of colors to six or less.
My work became more graphic, and I came to appreciate the pop artist screen printers: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, all those great WPA poster artists of the 1930s.
When I decided in 2009 to get back into art, we were at the height of the “Great Recession.”
There was no way I was going to make it as a painter on the Eastern Shore, taking a month to finish a piece and hoping to sell it for thousands of dollars.
That’s when I was struck with the idea of making multiples — prints — but hand-pulled prints, not the giclees or digital prints some other artists were pushing. The pop art style and processes I had practiced in the T-shirt shop back in the 1980s just naturally fell back into place.
Q. Who are some of the local artists that you admire or appreciate?
A. Well, Keith Whitelock, of course. He is my mentor and my hero, and it was while working with him in the late 1970s that I came to see the Eastern Shore as someplace special.
In addition to being an incredible painter, Keith is the expert on all things Chesapeake.
I love Lynn Lockhart’s brushwork and her eye for composition — she sees the world differently than the rest of us.
I admire Jinchul Kim’s eerily solemn portraits, especially when he inserts some stunning woman into an Eastern Shore landscape.
Jess Cross also paints amazing portraits, but in a looser, more ethereal style.
For pure illustration and utter cleverness, JP Flexner is one of the best artists to ever come from the Eastern Shore. And that dude who does the fliers for Salisbury Roller Girls, his stuff is awesome.
Oh, and Ghost Gardner and all the artists at Subterranean Underground. The list goes on and on …
Q. What are your thoughts about artists such as the Ward Brothers?
A. You know, we had carvers in my family so I grew up around decoys. Not so much for hunting, but as folk art, so I appreciate the craft.
I can remember going to the Ward Foundation’s shows at the old civic center when I was a kid. But Lem and Steve Ward brought so much more to the table.
The library has their book of poetry — read it, it’s amazing. I totally identify with their “dumb ol’ country boy” sentiments — be grateful for what you’ve got and don’t put on airs. It’s very Garrison Keillor.
They drew, they carved and they painted their decoys — and their decoys actually worked. They floated in the water and looked like real birds.
So those guys were true artists and I think we as a community have done right by them to continue their legacy.
Q. Where would you recommend people go here locally to take in great art?
A. Everywhere. It’s all around. Open your mind to it.
Check out Salisbury’s Third Friday and other events like it. Talk to the crafters at the local festivals. There is so much cool stuff out there.
Some of my favorites are Dot Truit, who makes cat bells and other really fun ceramics, and Laurie Ellison, who makes incredible jewelry.
The soap guy — Uncle Jon — is branching out into handmade skateboards that look so good you want to hang them on your wall.
We have lots of great potters and SU is churning out glass artists like crazy.
But if you meant where to go to visit a great gallery, then visit Bishop’s Stock in Snow Hill.
Ann Coates is the matriarch of the Eastern Shore arts scene. The state has honored her for her commitment to the arts, and her gallery is regularly named one of the best in Maryland.
Every month she features a new show of work by one or several artists. She has done so much for the artists on the Shore that many of us wouldn’t be here without her.
Go check it out. Bishop’s Stock is the best gallery on Delmarva.
Q. Is there a difference in doing art commercially vs. doing it for pleasure?
A. Yes, absolutely. I have never made a print that I wouldn’t hang in my own house. And creating the artwork and pulling the prints has never ever felt like work to me.
So there is tremendous pleasure involved in what I do. But at the end of the day, it’s still a business and I have always treated it as such.
That means I give lots of thought to: what prints do I have the best chance of selling?
What shows or events are coming up that offer me the best opportunities to sell? Do the shops that carry my work have pieces that are “local” enough for their customers?
How do I keep my work fresh and market new pieces to those who may want to buy it? How do I grow regionally but still remain “local”?
These are questions I ask myself regularly, because if the art I’m making is not putting food on the Sahler table, then I’m just a hobbyist.
And hey, all you budding artists out there, for the love of God please go take some classes in business and marketing. You can thank me later.
Q. You’ve been a close follower of local issues here for many years.
A. It’s just curiosity, really. I see things and ask why.
Why did we build a bypass around Salisbury, then allow development of a commercial district at the end of the bypass? Why do we have deputies at every event on county property?
Do we really need a deputy at every high school field hockey game? Well, perhaps we do at Parkside, but what is that costing us?
What caused the church fire in Hebron?
Stuff like that. I’m just curious.
Sometimes there are good answers, but oftentimes not.
Q. It has seemed like Salisbury was “on the ropes” during a few periods in the past 20 years. How are you feeling about the city now?
A. I have always believed in Salisbury. That’s why the first print I made when I started Erick Sahler Serigraphs celebrated Downtown Salisbury.
I wanted to show all the naysayers that I still believed, that I was still proud to call Salisbury home.
And now so many good things are happening — look at Feldmans, the firehouse, the riverfront condos, the new restaurants and shops on the Plaza, the Mill Street corridor.
You can see it and feel it in the air. The future is bright.
Q. You’ve also seen lots of starts — and false starts — when it comes to Downtown Salisbury. What are your hopes for the downtown?
A. At this point, things are clicking.
My biggest hope now is that we don’t sell out too easily in the name of progress. We did that on the north end and it’s a mess.
It’s Anywhere, USA. There’s nothing special about it.
Cities like Easton and Charlottesville have been wiser and allowed development only on their terms. All the commercial buildings have brick facades and lush landscaping. It makes a difference.
Look at how long it took for Baltimore to approve the new hotel across from Camden Yards. They took their time and did it right. We need to take the same approach.
Salisbury has a huge potential. My advice to city leaders is to not jump on the first plan that comes along, but to do what is best for the city in the long term.
Q. What kinds of ideas do you have for downtown?
A. We don’t celebrate ourselves enough.
Have you ever been to Hershey, Pa., and seen the Kisses on the light poles? We should have chicken legs on ours, or something to tell the world we’re the home of Perdue.
SU has won a slew of lacrosse national championships. It’s crazy, but you wouldn’t know it driving through town.
Put that on the standpipe. And paint seagull footprints on the roads leading to the stadium.
The free downtown wi-fi is a great idea — when it works — and it should be expanded to City Park.
And how about growing some green grass in the park? Surely, the sod companies could help us figure that out.
Of course, the Shorebirds stadium should have been built downtown where the Perdue plant is, and the Perdue plant should have moved to where the stadium is, but we missed the boat on that one. I like the idea of a live arts venue.
Charlottesville does it with a small amphitheater at the end of its plaza. That’s cool, and hopefully our firehouse project will fly too.
I like the SU gallery downtown — SU and PRMC, and Perdue and Wor-Wic — should be at the table whenever there are discussions about reviving downtown. They are the institutions that keep us afloat in lean times.
And one more thing — fix the freaking courthouse steeple. Who let that happen?
It looks like a Baltimore tenement all boarded up with plywood, and it’s an embarrassing way to present ourselves to the world.
Q. The Third Friday events seem to be a big success for Salisbury. Does it surprise you that an art-focused event has succeeded?
A. It’s a total shock. The success of Third Friday is due entirely to Jamie Heater and her hardworking crew. I have been to “art stroll”-type events across the shore.
With apologies to the “Coolest Small Town in America” and others, we do it best.
Our crowds are the biggest, we have more artists and musicians, and we have the most fun.
The brilliance in Jamie’s plan was get the 20-somethings downtown. The free booze helped — while it lasted — but it’s still a party every month. I really enjoy sitting back and watching it unfold. And it’s cool all the creativity we’re exposing our community to.
That’s where the dreams and new ideas come from.
Q. What do you think of the art-focused housing community being built by Chesapeake Shipbuilding?
A. Look, those new buildings are far more attractive than that half-finished concrete hulk that preceded them, so kudos to progress.
And if calling them “artist residences” is what it took to move the project forward, then so be it.
I wish them well. But seriously, I haven’t heard of a single artist who is planning to move there.
I’ll bet you in two years they’ll just be plain old condos on the river.
Q. Do the correct leadership and economic conditions exist to make real changes downtown?
A. Absolutely. If you want proof of how well things are going in the city right now, just look at how many people filed to fill Terry Cohen’s seat.
And they weren’t a bunch of ding-dongs either. Many were eminently qualified to serve.
That bodes well for our future.
Q. Do you have a favorite building/structure/house in Salisbury that you find architecturally significant?
A. I do. Check out 901 Evergreen Ave. It’s utterly minimalist. A square house with windows in each corner. Truly unique and totally cool. I’d love to know the story of it.
Q. Who have been some of your favorite political leaders/community leaders?
A. I am inspired most by those who give quietly and selflessly.
Carol Hobbs and Faye Wilson leap to mind, for their devotion to their churches and communities. Allen Seaton and Don Fitzgerald, also. They have given endlessly to girls softball.
I am constantly amazed by the commitment and dedication to our kids by Gary Hammer and Butch Waller, and that’s tough to say for someone who bleeds Bennett red. It’s inconceivable how many lives they have touched during their careers.
I believe Mike Lewis, Barbara Duncan and Matt Maciarello pulled this community back from the brink. Kim Hudson rescued Winter Wonderland and Mike Dunn saved the Fourth of July fireworks.
And Jake Day truly is the catalyst who sprung Salisbury forward.
Q. Where has been your favorite place to live? Quantico, Shad Point?
A. You know, I’ve lived most of my life within a couple miles of the Wicomico River.
During my childhood years, our house was on Main Street in Quantico, which is a nice little village for old people and their parents, as they say. It was a wonderful place to grow up. It was quiet and life was simple.
We played outside until dark every night, shooting baskets and riding bikes and throwing dirt. My girls don’t believe it, but we really did throw dirt clods for fun. I am grateful for the innocence and security it provided — it was a real Tom Sawyer sort-of place.
But Quantico was never really home. Shad Point is where Mom and Dad were from, and where their families always lived. It’s where we went on weekends and holidays and for big family gatherings.
So it really was a dream come true, for me at least, to be able to buy land in 1994 and build our dream house near Shad Point.
Q. You’ve had a long association with the church in Allen. What has that community church meant to you?
A. Every so often in life you feel yourself pulled in a direction and you don’t realize it as it’s happening, but in hindsight it makes perfect sense.
Allen and its people are very dear to my family. They have taken care of us in times of need and prayed for us in times of distress. And they have helped to raise my daughters.
Through our worship together, my faith has grown and I have learned to trust in God. As I was about to leave my job, I asked God to put me on the path He wanted me to be on.
There is no way I would be doing what I am now without that little church in Allen. I am so grateful for the support of its pastors and congregation.
Q. What is your favorite memory of growing up in Salisbury?
A. I was at JMB during the glory years. Dad was in the first class (1966) and played football, basketball and baseball. I’m pretty sure I was the first “second generation” Bennett kid, so my loyalties run deep.
I was in the band and a manager of one of John Usilton’s state championship football teams. Back then, Bennett was winning everything and the bleachers were always packed — I mean packed — for every game. It was just a great thing to be a part of.
We all got along and supported each other, like a big family. And it was a more innocent time. I had a Jeep, and my friends and I would go out and cruise around town — the old mall, City Park, wherever — and never worried if we were going to be safe.
Everywhere we went, it felt like the whole town was looking out for us. I grew up thinking that’s how the world was. And I didn’t realize how special it was until a few years later when I came home from college.
It’s like the city had turned upside down. Campbell Soup, Dresser and Crown had closed, and that led to the breakup of a lot of families.There was talk of drugs and gangs.
I went to a couple Bennett games, and the crowds had disappeared.
And that’s when it hit me, that what we had growing up in Salisbury — and especially at Bennett — in the early 1980s was an extraordinary alignment of the stars — great people and great times — that will never ever be replicated.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org