Radio Maine Episode 24

Ann Sklar Unexpected Influences


Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today I have with me in the studio a long time artist of the Portland Art Gallery and also a friend, Ann Sklar. Thank you for coming in today. 

Ann Sklar:         

Thank you, Lisa. And thank you for having me to your beautiful studio to talk a little bit with you about work and life and things like that. And also if you don't mind me thanking you for recognizing the Portland Art Gallery and what a wonderful place it is for artists to show their work and be involved. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

Ann, how did you first get involved with the Portland Art Gallery? 

Ann Sklar:         

It's been a long time. I think I am from the very beginning. I was showing at the gallery in Kennebunk.  That was my first, I guess that was my second Maine gallery. And there were a few of us still left from those early years who have stuck through everything thick and thin. And I just felt good about the way my art was shown and the people who worked there. And then eventually when the gallery opened in Portland and you had that gorgeous new space added in, it was really the perfect place in Portland to show because of the display areas, the high ceilings, the lighting, everything was great. And the people, Emma became manager and she’s so wonderful to work with. And then all of the people who have joined since then, they've all been great. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

You have experience yourself with art gallery ownership.

Ann Sklar:         

I have. When I finished art school, I met a woman during my time there and she and I became friendly and both decided we weren't sure what we were going to do when we finished. And we decided to open a contemporary American craft gallery. So we sold museum quality crafts. It wasn't a little craft shop. It was very serious crafts and that included everything, clay, metal, which meant jewelry, glass, furniture, tapestries, and that was in Chestnut Hill, which is an area of Philadelphia, an old traditionally oriented kind of place with cobblestone streets and a trolley car. Of course, the year we opened, they decided to dismantle the trolley cars and rip out the runners for the trolley. And it was also a recession. And you could only get into our gallery by going through the parking lot at the back. 

Ann Sklar:         

So it was a good learning experience, but eventually we opened a second one in downtown Philadelphia that was called Swan Gallery. And that was very well received in the city. It was only the second one that they had. At the same time, I must have had more energy than I do now. I also was one of the founding women for a women's cooperative gallery called Muse in Philadelphia, which still exists many years later with a new core group of women. And two years ago, I believe they had a reunion for people who started the gallery. And there were only three of us left who were available and it’s in a new location, but it was so nice to see that it had continued on. And it was partially because of the woman who taught printmaking when I was in art school. She was a very big feminist and very involved in women's rights. 

Ann Sklar:         

And we all joined the now chapter and the Muse gallery grew out of that. So it was a lot going on at the same time and little kids.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Meaning your little kids.

Ann Sklar:

Yes, my little kids. I remember coming home one morning. She'll be embarrassed if she listens to this, but she was five I think, and had been in nursery school and I was late and she couldn't wait for me. And she had to go to the bathroom very badly and I got home and she was standing there with her legs apart crying because she couldn't wait. And that was so typical of the hecticness of my schedule at that point. So it was a fun time.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

I don't know if she'd be embarrassed or not on that one. At least we won't tell which one of your daughters it was. 

Ann Sklar:         

Okay. That's fair.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

We won't ever on that one.  But I can relate to this. I think this is always the struggle that more women, but also, I think some men also are trying to juggle family responsibilities, children, other household responsibilities, and a career and a profession. It's very, very difficult. 

Ann Sklar:         

It was a difficult time, but my husband is extremely cooperative. So he was as involved as he could possibly be with his work schedule, but it all worked out in the end. And I don't think they’re any the worse for it. I think they saw what it's like for a woman to have a career and have a family at the same time. Which both of them have done off and on for different periods of their lives. So that was a good thing. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

Why printmaking? What was it about the printmaking that appealed to you so much? 

Ann Sklar:         

It actually didn't appeal to me at all. It was the woman instructor, the professor, she was a printmaker and she was the best thing at my art school. And I think everybody became a printmaker major because of her. And she was such a great role model. She had been printmaking for a long time and in every medium of printmaking and somehow at some point she had gotten her hand caught in the printing press. She was missing two fingers on one hand, but it didn't matter in terms of anything in her life as far as I could tell. She was funny. She was also late for class one day because she had a flat tire and she had to change it and she did. Then she went on to become a provost at Rutgers University afterwards. So she's a very accomplished woman. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

You use many different influences as you ponder your art. And one of them is Helen Frankenthaler. One of the things that you've said previously is just this idea of feeling like it's okay to break the rules and do things differently. How has that influenced your life? 

Ann Sklar:         

Well, I think that she was one of the women who were active in the abstract expressionists movement, which was a very important movement especially in the United States. And most of the other women involved were wives of other artists. She was not. And so she was accepted into the group and I'm not quite sure I could guess why.  She was quite a beautiful woman and I think that may have had something to do with her being accepted, but she also was very creative. She was the first woman I'm aware of who became well-known for pouring on art her paintings. And I've never done that, but I always want to get as far away from printmaking as I can and be as loose with my painting as I can, which although I may not pour, I may have no idea what color is coming next. And that kind of inspiration, I think came from her.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

You've also mentioned that Rothko is one of your influences. You mentioned Josef Albers who we've heard from other artists that he's very important because of the work he does with color. You've mentioned Paul Klee, it's a kind of an interesting constellation of people that you have in your creative stable.  

Ann Sklar:         

I guess I could go on as well, but when I started to do the dark paintings that are really sort of midnight blue and black, like the one you have here, I thought of Rothko because he has this chapel in Houston. I don't know if you're aware of it, but there is a small round circled chapel in a museum there. I guess it's in the museum and everything in there is black and it's overpowering cause there's so much of it, but it's also very quieting in a way. And I liked that.  Aside from the floating colors that he's able to do to make your mind sort of settled down, I think, and I'm always interested in having an attitude or I guess being able to get to the feeling of contemplating some quiet, some place where you can relax. And as we both know, someone has said breathe, especially during COVID. And that feeling of peacefulness has always been one of my goals in painting. I don't always know where they're going when I start them, which is another thing, I don't paint from photographs. I like to see what happens when I go into the studio and what the result is, is very often a surprise to me, but I think it works best for me anyway. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

Tell me about this piece that's behind us. Describe it for people who are listening to our conversation on the podcast. 

Ann Sklar:         

Well, it's a larger painting. It's 30 inches by 40 inches and the primary colors are very dark blue and black with a hint of light on the horizon and some small strokes of a lighter blue in the black, which to me could be the trails from stars or fireflies. I did another painting that was dark called Fireflies. And I think that that hope on the horizon is what I feel when I'm painting. And again, to go back to COVID, it seemed like that was a good response to being in my studio by myself for so long.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

In one of our earlier Radio Maine conversations, we spoke with Brooke Jackson and she describes receiving one of your pieces and how it actually did bring her quite a bit of solace during a difficult time. The piece that you did for her, well, not, you didn't do it for her, but that she bought for herself that you had done is lighter. The blues are much lighter, it's much more soft, and it does kind of evoke the sense of quiet contemplation in a really different way than the piece that you were just describing that's in the studio with us. 

Ann Sklar:         

Right. And it was interesting in your interview with her to hear her speak about the painting and her response to receiving it. But it was also interesting to me to hear about the rest of her life, because we have a lot in common, which I think many women do. We both like to read a lot, although I probably read more of a combination of fiction and non-fiction than she did. I used to love to work in my garden which she also talked about. I've never had any psychology courses after high school, I don't think. But I think by the time you get to be older, you kind of have been around long enough to absorb some of the general ideas of what it's like to work with people on that kind of level. 

Ann Sklar:         

And I just want to mention one other thing.  I went toward it a little bit when I was talking about a husband and wife relationship and paintings. The art world is a hard place for women and always has been. It's much better now than it used to be, but there's an enormous amount of conflicts going on in museums now with the people who run them, the people who support them with their philanthropy–I don't think I said that right– but, I think that it's been extremely difficult to find galleries, good galleries that were important steps for women artists and Portland has certainly been that for a lot of women. I have a fun story about Jane Dahmen, who's one of Portland's artists. Long before I met her, I was looking through other artists in Maine and their work and everything.

 

Ann Sklar:         

I came across Jane Dahmen’s paintings of trees and I got so fascinated by it. I printed the whole thing out and I have carried it with me for 15 years. It's so funny to me. And then I met her, which was so surprising that she was the same woman. And after meeting her and hearing her talk, I don't think it was in this recent interview, but have her talk for her artist statement. She talked about wearing coveralls when she paints. And I thought that was the best idea because I am a very sloppy painter. And she said that she had found these and she just keeps them in her studio, takes them off when she leaves and puts them back on when she goes in. So I wanted to find them. I started searching online for these coveralls and I was getting really frustrated. So I was at my daughter's house one night and her son enlisted, what do you mean you can't find them? And within two minutes he had ordered me black coveralls. So I have one set here in Maine and one set in Florida and I'm trying to be really good and not leave my studio room until I take them off. So you never know, your past just sort of gets tangled. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

I think that's very true. And today you brought with you several different, interesting things. You brought with you a couple of little Buddhas because you obviously are aware that I have an interest in that. And you also brought with you rose quartz and some stones that you were given and you also brought some worry dolls, which you didn't even tell me about. But these things seem to mean a lot to you.

Ann Sklar:         

Well, they do. I also have a number of little Native American, oh, those little bears. And I forget what they're called, but at any rate, they're very important spiritually to Native American people. And these things are important to me. Although I may not talk about it very often or show them even very often, we used to belong to a little Tsonga group with our neighbors in Maine and we would go meditate with them in the morning. And it was a very good experience to just sit there. She led us in the type of meditation, which is non-talking, it's very quiet. You don't have a word that you are chanting in your head. You just sit and breathe. And it was very inspiring, I think to both me and my husband to have that experience. One day we did a full day meditation of walking and sitting and eating an appropriate meal in the middle. And she had this wonderful gong that she would hit when meditation was done. And on the walking day when it was time to be eating lunch and then time to be finished. And I'm sorry we can't do that anymore because I think it was really helpful to my painting too. What's going on in your head comes out on your canvas. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

Tell me about that. Was it helpful because it cleared your head? Was it helpful because it provided clarity on issues you were working with or what was it about the meditation particularly that you found worthwhile? 

Ann Sklar:         

Well, I had done yoga practice before, so that had been part of my routine, but I had never thought about how good it is just to give your mind a rest. And sometimes we would sit there and I know for me, that was really difficult. My mind would be going every which way, but some days worked really well. And I was very grateful for that. It was very helpful. And I think a lot of women search for those kinds of things all the time. I'm in a women's group now here in Maine. One of the emails that keeps going back and forth is the gratitude that we all have for the group and for being in it with each other. And it's a meaningful experience for a wide range of ages, of people. But that doesn't matter either. It's just being there for that. It's a little different from a book group which is important to me also because I'm a big reader and our new book group is terrific. It goes deep into the books and what they're really about, not just the surface of them and some challenging books, some Toni Morrison and some Marilyn Robinson and things that really have a lot to say in a lot of ways.  

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

When you showed me the rose quartz you said, “you may think this is a little nutty,” which I have actually happen to have rose quartz and in no way do I think it's nutty. Do you think it's sometimes hard to bring these conversations about energy, mindfulness, meditation, spirituality into everyday conversations? 

Ann Sklar:        

Maybe yes, but I know that when I was really being conscientious about doing yoga and my grandchildren would come to visit, they would want to be included. And I think that was, it was fun, but it was also teaching them how to stop for a minute, even if it was only a minute and do something different from holding their phone in their hand or that kind of thing. And I think the woman who passed these along to me–I don't think she could live without them now. They're so important to her. I have been a little neglectful but I did manage to bring them from Florida to Maine and that was a good step. They made it as far as my desk. And then I was looking at them last night when I was gathering some notes to talk about with you and saw them sitting there. And I thought maybe that will make it easier for me to talk.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Has it worked?

Ann Sklar:

Well, I never stopped talking. So I guess, yes, I guess so. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

I agree with you. I think that there is more of an ability now to talk about things like yoga and mindfulness and taking a breath and gratitude than there was certainly when I first started learning, say acupuncture or mindfulness-based stress reduction 25 years ago now.  And I think that's wonderful. And I also wonder if there isn't some sense that we somehow always need to be so rational. We need to be so scientific in our approach. We need to use that side of our brain that sometimes connecting to that intuitive, creative, difficult to define aspect of ourselves, sometimes that doesn't come as easily, or maybe we're not able to welcome it as much. 

Ann Sklar:         

It's not one thing many of us would have learned from our parents. So to find it at whatever point in your life you do is a wonderful thing I think. And my husband gets it as well, but it's a little harder to move us to get to practice as much as we were doing for maybe four or five years. It was something special. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you think you'll get back to it? 

Ann Sklar:

Well, I don't know. I mean, I think I will. I mean, I always do some small meditation and some yoga, but whether or not we will ever go back to a group. I don't know. It probably would be a good idea.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

Well, I'm not that different from you. I mean, I feel like there's an ebb and a flow to these things. I've been part of groups that have done medical qigong for example. And now I'm lucky if I do my own qigong on a daily basis just to get it done. And my yoga practice that used to be classes, now, it kind of goes along with whatever I can stretch into before or after running. So I guess I can relate to that. You know, some people have a really strong practice in one of these areas and carry it through their entire life. But maybe the rest of us just pick up pieces along the way. And when they're important to our lives, we may bring them back again and in a more significant manner. 

Ann Sklar:         

Well, you use those words, ebb and flow. And I was thinking about those very words because when we came to think about moving to Maine, we thought, oh, a house on the ocean. And then we thought, no, we don't really like the ocean, it's too noisy. So we were looking everywhere from Portland up to going across the bridge in Wiscasset and looking up that far. And one day we got a phone call from a friend who had already moved here and he said, “there's this beautiful meadow along Route 128. You should buy it.” We weren't thinking about buying a meadow or building a house or any of that. So he went to the meadow and took pictures of himself and his wife and a friend walking through the meadow. And it was beautiful and it was all white because it was winter and you couldn't see where the water began and the meadow ended.

 

Ann Sklar:         

So we bought it. And then we came up to buy it with the understanding that if, when we got here, it would not be something that we thought was a good idea. So we came and walked around and we loved it. And we were told that it was a cove of the river, the Kennebec river. And we didn't really know what that meant. So we bought it and we came up when the season had changed to talk to someone who was going to do the building for us. And there was no river there basically. There was water, there was some rice grass, there was a little bit of water and there was a bunch of mud. So we didn't really know what ebb and flow meant until we got there, moved in and decided that it was perfect, that it just felt right to be in that kind of a place where the water's quiet. You can see it coming in, but you can't really hear it. And we learned to love that. So that was a chance thing. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

This idea of water in the horizon line, that seems to figure very prominently in your work. So even though you've said, maybe I don't love the ocean, somehow the ocean keeps appearing in things that you create. Why do you think that is? 

Ann Sklar:         

Well, I spent a lot of time at the shore in New Jersey for many years and I did love the beach and I did love the ocean. I did not really love all the people. It was just too crowded, too much going on. So that I could appreciate the beauty of what it was, but not in the crowdedness. I'm just not good with that bigg a crowd of people. And so the decision to build where that was not the case was far better for us, but I'm sure that all my years at the beach have had some influence on the painting of the horizons. And when you learn to paint, initially, the very first thing that you learn about is the horizon line and vanishing points where you can't see the horizon anymore. And for me, it must just be stuck in my head because it comes out when I go to paint. The paintings I'm doing for my upcoming show at Portland, there's a lot of horizon line, but also a lot of evidence of Maine's particular horizon lines with rocks and nooks and crannies or that kind of thing.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

So even though you may not choose to live right on the ocean right now, it's always within you. 

Ann Sklar:         

Yes. Don't you think that water plays a big part in everyone’s life? Well, I guess it doesn't play a big part in everyone's life. My sister lives in Utah and she's a mountain person, so she grew up in the same house, but she's a bit younger. She did spend years at the beach, but now it’s the mountains. So I think just nature is really the case. So if you can find a place in nature, that's good for you, you're very fortunate. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

I would definitely agree with that. And I know that we have an upcoming show at the Portland Art Gallery. I hope people will take the opportunity to take part in that. The last major show that I remember sharing with you was after a fire, which was in 2018. So let's hope. And even though that went on after all the way that it needed to, let's hope this show does have any sort of major structural or calamitous problems associated with it. But I will say that through that whole opportunity you really did proceed with grace. So I've always thought back to that time. And that particular day when there was a fire at the Portland Art Gallery, which Emma and I were just talking about on Radio Maine, and the idea that you showed up, you were there, here's your art, we're still going to celebrate this.

 

Ann Sklar:        

It did work out very well. And I was very appreciative of how Emma and the other women at the gallery worked so hard to get that to be able to happen. And I know that behind the scenes somewhere, Kevin was also making sure that happened and it was good. It was another good learning experience, you know, expect the unexpected because it pops up. My show between that one and the one that is coming up was during COVID and, you know, we all stood there and looked at each other pretty much when we were talking about our work. So it's the unexpected.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:  

And here you are, despite all the unexpected, you are still here.

 

Ann Sklar:         

Yes. And happy to be here for sure. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I've been speaking with artist Ann Sklar today. You may visit her work and maybe visit her at the opening of her upcoming show at the Portland Art Gallery. You can also look at her pieces online. She's really a wonderful person, a wonderful artist. And it's been my pleasure to talk with her today on Radio Maine. Thank you for coming in. 

Ann Sklar:         

Well, thank you Lisa very much for the opportunity to talk a little bit about my work and tell you how much I love the Portland Art Gallery. And I will be there at the opening.