By Brian Goslow
Worcester, MASS — While he’s now best known for his large abstract paintings, David Skillicorn’s artistic career began as a videographer and documentary filmmaker in the 1970s. It was during a 1998 visit to Cape Cod to film master painter Steve Allrich at dawn that, inspired by watching the process in which a few strokes transformed a blank canvas into “absolute magic,” that he decided to trade his camera and gear for brushes and canvas – but not before completing his project, which became “Cape Cod: Through Artists Eyes,” which aired on Channel Five in Boston. Over the past two decades, as an artist, Skillicorn’s built a strong portfolio of abstract paintings and found success on both the East and West Coast.
His work can currently be seen alongside that of Alicia Blaze Hunsicker, Gary Niswonger, Laura Radwell, Marlene Rye and KC Scott in the “Out of the West: Pioneer Valley Artists” exhibition at the Sprinkler Factory in Worcester, Mass. On the eve of the exhibition’s final weekend (which includes a closing reception this Sunday, December 3, from 1-4 p.m.), Artscope managing editor Brian Goslow conducted this email interview with Skillicorn, whose studio is based a beautiful big space on the second story of a 1840s-era barn in New Salem, Mass., to talk about his work in the show, how it came together, where else his work can be seen, and his plans for 2018.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR TWO LARGE WORKS IN THE SHOW …
The paintings showing at the Sprinkler Factory are from a series I title Della Terra, “of the earth.” There is a reason for that. The paintings are very organic in nature, and almost geological at times with stratification, texture and body. They are utterly abstract, but as we so are wired in our DNA to make sense of the world, many find in the paintings references to the natural world as you suggest. I do as well. Often, some of them seem to me to be a view across a pond surface with lots of reflections, leaves floating on top etc.
However, I do not set out to paint the landscape, or even reference it in any direct way, other than perhaps very obliquely as my own visual experience comes into play intuitively. What I do try to do is create paintings that aren’t so much “about” something, or “art objects” per se, as they are opportunities to trigger an emotional experience. If someone looks at the work and something stirs in them, even if it is simply curiosity, then I feel the painting is successful.
I believe that through focused intensive engagement while making a painting, that it is possible to imbibe it somehow with a residue of spirit, an intangible essence that gives the work a sense of presence. This is the thing that potentially can be felt by a sensitive viewer and moves the work toward the realm of art, as opposed to decoration or craft. This is a prospect worth pursuing and what I try to bring to each and every painting — although I must admit I have no formula for this, and it remains a mystery to me. I guess you could say I know it when I feel it, and I try to get there by being completely present and authentic myself when actually making the painting.
So, my process is one of diving in and applying paint liberally, carving and digging back into it, and building up layers as I go along. The whole time I am utterly engaged with the work and letting my intuition be the primary driving force, although I am also using my training and experience to make hundreds and hundreds of decisions along the way as well. Through this process of application and excavation I would say that I “find” the painting as much as “make” it. I know the work is done when I stand back and it just hits me all at once as being resolved visually and having a strong sense of presence about it. This can sometimes happen quickly, but more often than not, it takes months.
READING THROUGH YOUR BIO AND ARTIST STATEMENT ON YOUR WEBSITE, YOU WROTE THAT “HAD TO BECOME AN ARTIST” AFTER A NUMBER OF YEARS AS A DOCUMENTARY FILM PRODUCER. WHAT WAS THE PROCESS YOU FOLLOWED TO MAKING THAT TRANSITION?
I did have an epiphany one morning while filming a master painter (Steve Allrich) at work out in the dunes on Cape Cod. I recognized the feeling, as I had had a similar experience when I first discovered video in the 1970s. I followed that impulse then and it lead me to an amazing working life filming all around the world. So, when the feeling washed over me that morning with the painter, I took it seriously and decided right then and there this was an avenue I was going to pursue.
I had utterly no inkling of being a painter before that moment, and had no clue how to even begin. A month later, I was back to the Cape with another painter I had profiled for the same documentary, with a blank canvas and my rudimentary paints and brushes. As she painted away flamboyantly next to me, I stood there absolutely petrified, gripping my brush to point that it hurt, and completely afraid to commit anything to canvas. I had literally no clue. She eventually noticed this and gently pushed me across the starting line. And so, began this amazing and wonderful journey looking out and looking in. With one foot in front of the other, looking at tens of thousands of paintings over the years, painting a thousand or so myself, and with a lot of study, I taught myself to paint. It was also central to my process and my belief to walk this walk entirely on my own, which is what I’ve done. I wanted to find my own way, my own voice, and develop a deep authenticity and understanding just what painting is for me.
HOW DID ONE BENEFIT THE OTHER?
Through nearly 25 years filming documentaries throughout the world, I figured out one day that I had roughly framed up, focused, set exposure and composed over one million images. I came to perceive the world visually in terms of pure color, form and contrast. How could this not have a tremendous and lasting imprint on any painting I might make? There is also a strong connection for me on the intuitive level. When editing and creating my documentaries, often alone in the edit room, there was a strong sense of intuition guiding how and what I was assembling, what and how I was to tell the story. It is very much the same zone for me when “telling a story” now with paint.
DO YOU STILL PRODUCE FILMS OR VIDEOS; IF NOT, WHAT’S THE ONE IDEA YOU’VE LONG WANTED TO BRING TO REALITY?
It took me several years to transition from filmmaking. But at some point, I needed to make a clean break and devote myself entirely to painting, which I finally did around 2006. I sold all my cameras and equipment, and that was that.
HOW DID THE “OUT OF THE WEST: PIONEER VALLEY ARTISTS” EXHIBITION COME TOGETHER?
KC Scott and I sought each other out a couple of years ago after seeing each other’s work on social media. We’ve become friends and colleagues. He drummed up this possibility and invited me to join in. I’m glad I did, the space is spectacular. It is not easy to find exhibition venues with such a large volume and high ceilings like this. Context matters a lot when exhibiting your work, and I am very pleased with how the paintings look in the space there.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF PROMOTING A SHOW OUTSIDE OF YOUR HOME REGIONS?
What isn’t a challenge? Outside your own area there is no following, no friends and no name recognition, so everything has to start from scratch. Like most things, there is a direct correlation between getting the word out and the success of the show.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
The benefits for us have been the opportunity to show in a beautiful space and get a bit of exposure in a new area based on the reputation and patrons of the Sprinkler Factory.
IS YOUR WORK CURRENTLY SHOWING ELSEWHERE?
I was recently in the Western Massachusetts Biennial exhibition in Northampton and currently have a show up through the end of the year at the beautiful Diana Felber Gallery in West Stockbridge. I also have work on continuous display at the Paul Mahder Gallery in wine country north of San Francisco. Also, a very big and beautiful space.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW AND WHERE WILL YOUR WORK BE VIEWABLE IN THE NEW YEAR?
I am currently developing two other series of paintings in addition to the Della Terra paintings, Sensorium and Botanique. They are quite different and I am quite excited by them. The initial paintings from the new series are up on my web site. I will continue showing at my galleries in the Berkshires and California in 2018, and will see what other exhibition opportunities might develop.
(“Out of the West: Pioneer Valley Artists” continues through December 3 at the Sprinkler Factory, 38 Harlow St., Worcester, Mass. For more information on David Skillicorn, visit his website at davidskillicorn.com.)