Invite graduates to return to class

It was nine months after the pandemic sealed off much of America, and the directors of Maine’s famed Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture were faced with a challenge.

Summer 2020 was only the second year that school was not in session, and no one wanted 2021 to be the third. But it was virtually impossible to predict what the next year would look like. (The Delta variant wasn’t even a factor yet.)

Co-directors Katie Sonnenborn and Sarah Workneh knew that if they admitted a course for the summer of 2021, it would have to be much smaller than the usual 65, to allow for social distancing. This would greatly reduce the opportunities for networking and exposure to the practices of other artists.

“And wouldn’t that be a disappointment?” Workneh said dryly, in an interview in his office this summer.

Instead, they devised a solution to offer something the school had never offered before: two shorter sessions for smaller groups of alumni, giving graduates the unprecedented opportunity to return to the classroom. campus and celebrate its Diamond Anniversary (75th). (It was an equally unprecedented chance for a writer to visit, as the press is generally verboten.)

“It’s like Navy Seals,” artist Henry Taylor told Artnet News. “An elite thing.” He was on the faculty in 2018. He not only taught, but also collaborated with some of the resident artists on performances. And although he was suffering from a recent hip replacement (his doctor urged him not to follow through on the invitation), he couldn’t say no to luck. “You don’t want to call sick.”

An aerial view of the Upper Campus and Red Farm in Skowhegan. Courtesy of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Founded by four artists in 1946, Skowhegan has grown into a program that is not exactly a school, residence, or retreat, but combines certain characteristics of each. The teachers teach various skills, but there are no lessons; participants come from all over the world to take advantage of nine weeks to create, reflect and read; and the setting, a 350-acre campus on Lake Wesserunsett in the town of Madison, with a population of less than 5,000, deserves a restorative retreat.

Recent guest artists include Theaster Gates, Josh Kline, Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. The attendees are also exceptional: between 2008 and 2018, the acceptance rate was three percent, very similar to that of Navy Seals (in comparison, Harvard’s is four percent).

The program occupies the family farm of co-founder Willard W. Cummings. But it has also grown over time with purchases of adjacent properties (guest artists are housed in the Cummings family home). Its offerings are as broad as the media that contemporary artists usually use, if not wider – it is one of the only American schools to teach the ancient art of fresco. (The mural barn is not far from the computer lab, with modern stereo systems, cameras, and a green screen stage.)

The facilities are named after supporters, but where a college donor’s name may appear in bronze, in Skowhegan you’ll find hand-painted signs advertising Louise Nevelson Studio, Moffett-Gober Studio, or the Store. of Acquavella sculpture. Some of these long-standing studios are in converted chicken coops and stables. There are also several from more recent vintages. The program operates with an annual budget of around $ 2 million, raised through an annual gala, donations from wealthy foundations and supporters, and abundant support from artists.

Skowhegan has notably served as an incubator for many color artists. Among the acclaimed black alumni are Laylah Ali, Pope.L, Whitfield Lovell (a member of MacArthur), Shinique Smith and Hank Willis Thomas. The directorate also featured people of color, including Workneh and former principal Linda Earle, now a professor at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture.

Artists Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Clarine Knight in Skowhegan in 1974. Courtesy of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Artists Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Clarine Knight in Skowhegan in 1974. Courtesy of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

The alumni regaled this reporter with some of the lessons they learned during the summer they attended the program. Taking a break from sculpting serving bowls for the dining room, Cathy Fairbanks, class of 2011, recalled artists who visited that year, including Vito Acconci, Suzan Frecon and Dave McKenzie. But perhaps the most memorable lesson came when she went jogging with Chris Ofili, who compared her artistic technique to her running form. “You’re just shooting,” he told her. “You don’t push. Use your ass! “

Accompanied by the sound of loons at lakeside picnic tables where artists and teachers dine when the weather is favorable, Robert Franca, class of 1972, recalled the impressive list of artists who have lectured this that year, including Jacob Lawrence, Alice Neel and Louise Nevelson.

Hollywood legend Bette Davis, who had ties to Maine and occasionally attended conferences, interrupted Neel, Franca recalls, to say that she never let the artist paint it. But why, Neel protested? “You see too much of it,” Davis said.

“Well,” Neel said obliquely, “you’re either one thing or the other.”

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Kayleen C. Rice

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