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Martha Skinner's Landscape Drawings

May 14 - August 25, 2002


An exhibition of new work by Taos artist Marsha Skinner will open at the Harwood Museum on Tuesday May 14, 2002 and continue through August. The exhibition consists primarily of pencil drawings, although a few paintings will also be included. A special display with the exhibit will feature poetry by Renée Gregorio and Greg Smith and pinhole photography by Michael Mideke.

According to curator David L. Witt, "These are not conventional scenic depictions, but are more akin to calligraphy, accomplished with a precision showing what it is that animates the landscape."

Created in 2001, Skinner's drawings were made out-of-doors around the artist's Questa home. Drawing upon her years of experience drawing dancers, the natural objects alluded to in the drawings exhibit a dynamic sense of motion.

Quotes from the artist can be found in the following interpretive essay by Witt.


Marsha Skinner's Landscape

by David L. Witt, Curator


These are not conventional scenic depictions, but are more akin to calligraphy, accomplished with a precision showing what it is that animates the landscape.


Few artists have attempted depiction at such an absolute level as Marsha Skinner. The images in her drawings and paintings present a sustained contemplation of patterns in nature. Her works are landscapes in the sense that she takes direct inspiration from work done out-of-doors. But they are recognizable more intuitively than exactly, being not literal copies of outward things, but interpretations of inward or underlying forms. (left: Marsha Skinner, ink drawing, 2001)

I do not mean to attach a label of mysticism to this description -- for all that the most successful art does seem to have an air of the spiritual about it. Instead, the complex flow of lines in the drawings achieves a kind of bare truth about the messy tangle of twigs and branches and leaves and of amorphous shaped rocks and running rivulets below.

There has been for Skinner an intersection of plants and calligraphy for a long time. By 1980, she gave up representational depiction of trees (and landscapes) in favor of making drawings about how she felt about trees. She had held a special place in her artistic heart for sagebrush, which became a frequent subject of her work: "Before I began using it as a brush, I thought it was subject matter." Wild sprays of sagebrush naturally lent themselves to calligraphic interpretation. The brusque but informed calligraphic strokes of the ink brush drawings show up as energetic charged particles/occurrences, subject to chance while formed by conscious action.

Plants continued to play a role, sometimes literally, as leaves, sticks, and seeds were incorporated into paintings. Representational flowers, including a series of chrysanthemums, came about after John Cage, the famed composer and friend of the artist suggested that he would like to have one of her paintings to hang with his green plants. This led Skinner to consider a series of questions which lingered long after the flower series was finished: "How do I make small large? How do I:make a series of things that change yet remain the same? How do I use light in painting as ceremony? Where is the line between figurative and abstract?" Skinner discussed this in an unpublished 1993 interview with novelist Carol Dawson who asked. "You realize don't you, that in a post-modern art world very few heresies are possible, but that making small paintings of flowers might be one of them?"

The heresy is even deeper. Skinner might also be accused of the heresy of thoughtfulness, of making the creative process itself of least the equal of the artistic destination of the finished piece. Also, there is the heresy of mastery of technique, the artist's imposing control on mediums and the instruments wielded in their application. This is further coupled with the practice of strategic withdrawals from intent -- being rather than doing -- and thus threatening to the art system as we know it. Both the questions and the heresies have been vital in the process that Skinner has followed.

Part of this process includes seeking guidance through the I-Ching. The I-Ching has guided ethical thought and personal decisions in Asia from the ancient beginnings of Chinese civilization, It involves the interpretation of patterns (sixty-four hexagrams) made by sixteen tossed sticks (or three two-sided coins). The person who throws the sticks is in one sense the chance creator of the arrangement, but at the same time has no control over the outcome of that arrangement and so is simultaneously out of the way of the result.

Can the artist make something of similar magnitude in drawing the sticks and bones of the land? Marsha Skinner's work can be thought of as a sort of nature calligraphy. Skinner has been drawn to Asian calligraphy throughout her artistic career, but her apprenticeship in this ancient art form took a more formal turn with her chance meeting with Shoseki Abe, a Japanese master who visited Taos around 1984. (left: Marsha Skinner, ink drawing, 2001)

Skinner said of him, "The most interesting thing about that day was that he had each of us come sit beside him while he drew a character. He put our hands on his belly and it was like putting your hand on a living granite boulder." In the months that followed, she sent her drawings to him. He would send "models" (drawings) in return and she would struggle to get at what he was showing her in the drawings. The goal of this discipline was to gain complete control over the calligraphic marks, the formal process for observing intervals and spaces.

In a 1990 exhibition catalog from the Jonson Gallery of the University of New Mexico, One and Ten Thousand Marks, Skinner observed that Chinese calligraphy is, "...the most beautiful art form on earth. It is still alive -- it is the most ancient art form. It has a history of 4000 years and it is still considered the vital art form in Japan and China. It's like pure form -- it's the closest thing to vitality itself which can be expressed most simply. And when they talk about it, they liken the brush marks to masses of clouds moving in from the East -- rocks falling off cliffs or ancient vines that are still growing and clinging, gnarled and terrific -- or.to dancers."

The sense of motion in the drawings is akin to a dance. Wind-swayed branches make arcs in the air, gracefully slow or blurred with speed. Capturing movement in the inherent stillness of a drawing has always been a daunting prospect. So too are framing the questions that must be asked in coming to terms with this artistic problem. Several years ago Skinner was given a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. Asked to give a gallery talk about her work, she instead chose to list forty-eight questions that arose for her in the making of art. Among those: `What is the quality of attention needed not to draw dance, but the pure energy of dance?" And, *Is it possible to draw movement without knowing what stillness is?"

Skinner has long been recognized in Taos as one of its most philosophical artists, She moved here from Boston in 1976. This was something close to a homecoming for the Colorado native who grew up in the plateau country a couple of hundred miles north of Taos. In between, travels and studies took her to Antioch College and later to New York's China Institute where she studied Oriental art and philosophy. She also lived for a time in India to gain first hand experience with Asian culture.

Art at its most successful is not merely depiction of something seen or remembered but is a matter of what is experienced or emotionally felt, coupled with the ability to project that feeling through a medium. The success of these drawings and paintings derives from their experiential origin. Any important art must always hold within the folds of its lines and volumes an element of surprise; otherwise there is no heresy.


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