Bill King, Skowhegan Governor Emeritus (A ‘48, ‘51, ‘52, F ‘67, ‘75, ‘77, ‘82, ‘89), passed away on March 4, 2015 at the age of 90. Bill left an indelible mark on Skowhegan, its program, and its governance structure. His life long dedication to his practice and his belief in making the choice to be an artist each and everyday serves as an example to us all in the Skowhegan community. He will be missed, but we are better off with his influence, never seen more prevalently than in his last show at Algus Greenspon. To commemorate Bill’s passing, we have reproduced an excerpt of the oral history interview conducted with the artist in 2011.
…it’s still there, you can see it, in those letters that students, I think they’re obliged to write now, say that Skowhegan is the pivot, and people that get in there, for better or worse, they’re, that’s where they make the eternal, decide the eternal question, which is very simple: wake up in the morning, are you going to go to the studio and make art, or are you not? Two alternatives. And that’s every morning, every day, all the rest of your life, that’s the decision you gotta make.
For an edited version of the complete transcript, see below:
SKOWHEGAN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Oral history interview with William King by Liza Zapol
East Hampton, NY
September 14, 2011
Biographical/HistoricalNote:William King (1925-2015) is a sculptor in Long Island, NY. He was a participantat Skowhegan in 1948. He stayed at Lakewood in 1951, and created a fresco forthe South Solon Meeting House in 1952. He was a visiting artist in 1967 and1975, and resident artist in 1977, 1982, and 1989. He served on the Board ofGovernors from 1972-2008, and in 2009 was named Governor Emeritus.
LizaZapol (1978- ) is an oral historian in New York, NY.
Restrictions: Copyright by SkowheganSchool of Painting & Sculpture, 2012. Permission required to cite, quote,and reproduce. Contact repository for information.
General Interview Notes:
Skowheganbegan an Oral History Project in 2011. The Skowhegan Oral History Project includes a collection of thirty to forty interviews with artists, staff, and members of the Boards of Trustees and Governors to document the stories, observations, and insights concerning the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. These interviews elucidate the organizational and structural development of Skowhegan, as well as the personal resonances of Skowhegan within the biographies of key individuals.
Oral History is a method of collecting memories and histories through recorded interviews between a narrator with firsthand knowledge of historically significant events and a well-informed interviewer, with the goal of adding to the historical record.
The recording is transcribed, lightly edited for continuity and clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee. Oral history is not intended to present the absolute or complete narrative of events. Oral History is a spoken account by the interviewee in response to questioning. Whenever possible, we encourage readers to listen to the audio recordings to get a greater sense of this meaningful exchange.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. For the more information on how to access the complete transcript and audio, please visit www.skowheganart.org/archives
Zapol: So, this is Liza Zapol, it’s September 14th, 2011, for the Skowhegan Oral History Project. I’m here with -
King: William King!
Zapol: And we’re here to get his reminiscences, and thoughts on his time, and, with Skowhegan, and interactions and memories with Skowhegan. So, as I said, shall we begin at the beginning: how did you first hear of Skowhegan, a young man from Florida, at Cooper Union. Do you remember or recall how you first heard of Skowhegan?
King: I do, vividly. Graduated Cooper Union June ’48, with no idea of where to go or what to do, but, a month previous to graduation, I had won the city-wide competition for a summer school up in Maine called Skowhegan. So, that’s where I went. And not, knowing nothing of Maine or Skowhegan, it was total immersion, shock therapy in a way. Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture, it was called then. Begun in, two years earlier, ’46, I believe, Henry Poor, Anne Poor, Bill Cummings, on a chicken farm, owned by the Cummings clan. And Henry Poor and Anne Poor, that’s right, as well, they turned it into an art school, and it was very, very rough…accommodations, let’s say, and studio space. But it had that feeling, right from the beginning.
So, Jose de Creeft was the sculpture teacher, instructor. He’s known for stone carving. And, how should I put it: de Creeft’s idea of contemporary sculpture, this is ’48, was to stand up in the sun with no shirt on, with a hammer and a chisel, working on a piece of fieldstone, preferably, granite, from, plenty of it in Maine. I didn’t go for that. I thought, ‘that’s the hard way.’ I, like I say, got a city-wide, won a competition for New York City for this scholarship, which was quite an honor, and I’d done a lot of work, but very little of it carving stone. I thought, ‘this is a lot of effort for very little outcomes.’ So de Creeft, I think he told somebody that I would be better off being a writer, or critic. He didn’t tell me that, but I got the picture pretty well. And he was old-world, you know, Spanish, and he was original, one of those artists that came out of Paris, in the teens and ‘20’s, and he knew the Dadaists and everybody like that, but he thought that the way to do art was permanent stone carving or bronze-casting, if you could afford it.
But he had a wonderful sense of humor (laughs), he, to lighten up the summer, you know they have a costume party, and they have beer parties, and it was wide open there, you know? And he said we’ll have a Dada show, in one of the sculpture studios. And he did most of the Dada, because the sculptors were not tuned to, you know, loosening up and making Dada things, so he did most of it. He got a old frying pan from the dump, great big thing, holes in it, and took wood chips and cut up a Lucky Strike cigarette package, which was green in those days, and red, put some, oh, pieces of red crepe paper in there, and other things, and mixed it around, and called it Spanish rice, and I thought that was just dynamite. And he made two or three or four birds out of beer cans, and they were fabulous, and I thought, ‘This guy’s wasting his time, you know, busting his head carving stone.’ So I must say, I, but we didn’t get along, you know, just, there’s some kind of physical antipathy, he’s small, wiry and dedicated to, you know, hitting a chisel with a big hammer, and I was somewhere else.
So, anyway, I moved over to the Fresco Barn, and studied fresco with Henry Poor and Anne Poor. And fell in love with it. We did a lot of test panels. They had some Italian art books, of, you know, della Francesca’s frescoes, Masaccio, and we’d copy those. And then we did originals. I did two or three, in the barn, they called it then. And that was wonderful. I fell in love with it. Still am. I get goose bumps thinking about fresco. Don’t need it anymore, I mean, with acrylics on masonite or wallboard, it’s just as permanent, and a lot easier to do it. (laughs) But just the sheer physicality of it, you know, putting on the plaster, and you only have a certain amount of time to do it, and then you have to do this, and don’t do that, and it was wonderful. Just wonderful.
William King, Self Portrait (Date Unknown), 10X12 inches
So, the summer passed. ’48. And I think that’s about it, the students, I remember being, what’s the word, a community. Which was the good thing about Cooper Union. Though the art department at Cooper was just an afterthought, a byproduct. A huge engineering school, and architecture, and lettering. It was a trade school. They gave a degree; no they didn’t give a degree, they gave a certificate, three years. So there was a community, and there we were, and I remember them kind of en masse, you know, cause I looked at your list of students and I didn’t recognize most of the names, just maybe two or three. But we were a group. And that was wonderful. No, it wasn’t wonderful. What’s wonderful at that age? ’48, let’s see, twenty-two? I was twenty-two, twenty-three. It was a terrifying prospect. I knew I didn’t want to do anything but what I do. But, how to manage that. I was so scared, I got married. Lois Dodd, fellow classmate, and I were married in September, and moved to 29th Street, in Manhattan. An apartment abandoned by one of her sister’s acquaintances. Right near Bellevue. She was in – anyway, we were there. So that’s the summer of ’48. Bill Cummings was helpful, he says, I think, I get the impression, you know, you got a sculpture scholarship, you’re a sculptor, but you don’t have to, you have to do what you’re gonna do, fresco, you know. And he liked the frescoes. They were pretty good.
Zapol: Tell me more about your first impressions of Bill Cummings when you first met him, and your impressions of him as a person as a student, in 1948.
King: Oh, fragile, but definitely the nearest thing to a genuine aristocracy this country has. And I thought he was real, in the sense that he cared about art, you know? And artists. Really. And he was a painter, a portrait painter. But his was a different world, but here he was, you know, messing around in this cesspool of art students, god knows where we’re from, pretty messy, too, but he kept the thing going. And I think he got along with Henry and Annie Poor, and I don’t if Sidney – Sidney Simon was not there, it was de Creeft, and visiting artists would come, some of them, you know, old-line people. But Cummings, let’s see, he was the real thing, in the sense that he cared about growing a crop of artists, and how to arrange their seedbeds so that they would, you know, come through, as best they could. And continue. He didn’t have to be encouraging, he just took it for granted that that was the way, if you got this far, to Skowhegan, why not go the whole hog. He didn’t see anything wrong with that. He wasn’t particularly, you know, cheerleading or anything, but I got the definite impression – it might be sort of a romantic idea now, because at the time everything was life or death, you know, and struggle, and, you know, a big question mark in the future. But anyway it was unspoken, and it’s still there, you can see it, in those letters that students, I think they’re obliged to write now, say that Skowhegan is the pivot, and people that get in there, for better or worse, they’re, that’s where they make the eternal, decide the eternal question, which is very simple: wake up in the morning, are you going to go to the studio and make art, or are you not? Two alternatives. And that’s every morning, every day, all the rest of your life, that’s the decision you gotta make. Skowhegan pointed it out. Because that’s the two sides of the mountain, one’s the sun shining, and one, it’s all gray. Which are you gonna do. Sometimes the gray is much more inviting, particularly if the sun shining part is, you know, is full of question marks, and economic puzzles and all sorts of stuff. But, that was what happened at Skowhegan. You gonna go to work, or go down to the coast and drink beer. That’s Skowhegan ’48.
Zapol: You just mentioned also the fresco class, with Henry and Annie, and I wonder if you can tell me about one of the days that you remember working on fresco in ’48. If there’s any day or event that you remember, just, as you said that you fell in love with it – can you describe that for me?
King: Yeah, I painted a fresco of one of the picnics, it’s about eight feet long and four feet high, maybe ten feet long. My impression of one of the picnics, and Abe Rattner, Abraham Rattner, had been there, I think the week before, or maybe at that very time, and I was wondering where to place the moon. There were two banks of trees coming down, and then there was a bonfire, and students lying around, it was pretty corny, but, the technique was, I thought was very interesting, but I didn’t know where to put the moon, so Rattner came in the barn and I asked him, ‘You know, I’m having trouble painting, where to place this moon?’ He said, ‘Well, you use the golden section.’ And he showed me, the Greek, you know, foundation of golden section. So I’m doing three-four-five triangles all over my cartoon, they call it, you know, a full-size drawing, a color drawing on brown paper, to get the moon right (laughs), and suddenly it occurred to me, just put it where you want it! And then you can always make enough three-four-five triangles to come up with that exact place, so it doesn’t really matter, you have to just do it, and see how it looks! So I did that, and I’m painting away, making like, brushwork was all check marks, you can only do a certain amount every day, as I say, the wall dries out, you have to stop. But there’s no going back, if you do it, it’s there, or you scrape it off and start over. So there was this huge thing with these colors, muted, they weren’t so muted, I guess, I can see it, you know, the moon and everything, students lying around the bonfire, I guess it was corny, but it was all painted with these checkmarks, like two-thing, a bird in flight, take the brush, you know, like this, all over, the whole thing like that, it was buzzing, I thought it was wonderful. (laughs)
I remember that. And also copying heads out of the art books, della Francesca. Just heads of angels, and one of those paintings. It wasn’t a fresco painting, it was, or maybe it was, Piero della Francesca, maybe it was. And…you’re supposed to paint on fresco and leave it alone. But I painted something on one of these panels, and then ran a trowel over it. Which didn’t exactly smear it, but it brought up a lot of under painting and stuff to the surface, and made it like a glaze, water, just a thin film of water on it, and I thought, ‘Jesus! This is fantastic!’ And left it alone, and then the next day, looked at it, looked even better, cause it dried out, and the fresco, that’s what preserves it, is the, is it the calcium or something? Dissolved in water, comes up to the surface, and sets, and makes a film, and the colors keep from fading and everything. So I was doing that, I’d make some more and run a trowel over it, and Henry and Annie, they saw it, and they said, ‘Wow, you know, that’s something new, to trowel a fresco! Come on, you know, that’s, that isn’t done.’ But I did it. And it was good. Very good. So those are two events. Painting fresco. And I didn’t do any sculpture at all. Never went near the place. (both laugh)
Zapol: And you talk about Henry and Annie, so can you describe them a little bit? As teachers, as faculty.
King: They were icons, I mean, they were the real thing. They’d been artists all through the ‘30’s, when, you know, to be anything like, quote, modern, was, that’s a hard road to hoe then, you know, cause, you know, this country and culture, I don’t think ever really came to terms. But they were, they were…what’s the word I want, like, not role models, but monuments, in a way. But they’re human, you know, we made fun of them, and wouldn’t pay any attention to what they said much, except to come around, but we were, I was in awe of Henry. He was a fencing champion, apparently, and Bill Cummings told me he was with Henry one time and Henry had a sword, he was displaying some of his skill, and he said, ‘See that apple sitting on the mantle?’ or something like that, ‘Look,’ and he lunged, and skewered the apple, just like that, you know, with this foil. So there’s that, you know, and Annie, I don’t know much about her life, except she seemed to be kind of sardonic, maybe. But they were the teachers and we were the students, and regardless of what we thought of each other. And then there’s the Skowhegan thing. Which was, I guess kind of improvised, in a way, on a chicken farm, you’d still see feathers and things around, and sheds for the sculptors and lots of parties, lots of bonhomie.
Zapol: What do you remember about where you stayed that year? Where you were living? And your studio?
King: Yeah, we were down in a man’s dorm, and I was rooming with Richard, what’s his name, a guy from Boston. Very finicky, very, very small. And he was kind of tight, I mean, he would, I remember he had one of the first electric razors, or something, so he’d shave with his razor and then he’d open it up and with the brush he’d take a long time to get all the little hairs out of it, you know, and brush his – I don’t know how he lived in that, in that atmosphere, because we, (laughs) some of us were not sloppy, but not very, what’s the word, I guess you’d call it military, clean, you know. But not, you know, we weren’t unacceptable. As far as living together. But there was like one bathroom for, I don’t know, four or five guys, something, that’s an awkward situation, but, you know, twenty, twenty-two, you don’t mind. And, you asked me about other students?
King: Don’t know. I think that was the summer, there was a student named Claire Ames, and she’s not on there, any of those. I’m not sure about the year but I think it was ’48, maybe ’51, maybe ’52, but she oughtta be on there. Cause she, I was crazy about her. And married to Lois at the same time, Lois in New York and Bill up in Skowhegan again. One of those things. Messy.
Joe Bolinsky, I remember. Charles Cajori, he was there, yeah. Paul Frazier, yeah, he was one of the stone carvers, out in the sun with his shirt off, banging away on this. Richard Kamm, that’s it. That was my roomie. Richard Kamm. Sarah Linder, I remember her. Philip Moose, that was a good name for (both laugh) being… David Ratner, yeah, yeah. Some of these names. (laughs) Herbert Simon, yeah, yeah. William White, yeah. Oh my.
Zapol: So this was a time, were there still GI’s that were at Skowhegan –
King: They were older, and they’d seen more of life. And they were, I don’t know if cynical’s the word, but they knew more what they wanted. And how to proceed. I think most of them were aware of the, or maybe it’d run out by then, we had them in Cooper Union. A lot of the guys were returning veterans. And they weren’t high school kids anymore, you know, they weren’t gonna take anything from anybody.
Bill White was a GI, he washed out of flight school. He crash-landed, and they went up to pull him out of the plane, and he was laughing. Hysterically. So they threw him out of the Air Force, and the Army, said he’s psycho. Turned out he was kinda gay, or neutral, anyway. But (laughs) he was a great guy.
1977 Class Photo
Zapol: So what brought you back in 1951?
King: Alright, here we are, ’51, yeah, Shirley. Bernie, Blakie Langlais, Morty Lucks. Yeah, ok, Al Katz, Jeannie Katz, Tom Boutis and I were asked to come to Lakewood, that was the summer resort across the lake from Skowhegan, a summer theater, going concern, to turn a double garage, with a bad repair, into an art gallery. You know all about that. Bill Cummings says, ‘You come up and make an art gallery and show things to the summer people, and you can have a cottage there, and rent free, and so we did. We drove up in, Alex’s brother, or some friend of his father’s was a used car dealer, and he got us a Chevrolet, a good one, an old, old one, it been washed so many times, the red under painting was showing through the blue paint. But it was a good car. So Tom Boutis, Jeannie and Al and Lois and I went there and started a gallery. Put this garage in shape and showed works, Bill Cummings had some things, and Henry and Annie had some things, and, I think maybe Sidney Simon was there that summer, I’m not sure. So we ran the gallery, and we’d go over to the school on Saturdays, especially for the parties, at the masquerade, we went over…all four of us. Five of us, with Tom. We went over there, and, go to the lectures, and the parties, and everything, and Skowhegan was cookin’ along like it always was, it had gotten a little, you know, some stature in art education, it had a name.
Zapol: How did you know that it had a name at that point?
King: Because people would say, and then, I lived in New York then, around and around, and people would talk about it. They’d say, ‘Skowhegan, you know,’ and then Skowhegan was busy with their propaganda machine, and they’d send letters, not so many, that indicated that they were alive and well and producing, and they’d, one thing, they’d say, ‘Well, you know, graduates from – ‘ this is later, probably in the ‘60’s, some statistics as to how many graduates of normal art schools, you know, studio and private, ever had a solo show. And compared to graduates from, who’d done Skowhegan. And I think art schools, American art schools, there was one in twenty-five hundred, ever had a solo show at that time. And Skowhegan was, I think, one out of eight, something like that. So they were very proud of that. As well they might be.
Zapol: In light of that contrast, and before we go ahead, I’m curious about your experience of Cooper Union, and perhaps other art schools, versus Skowhegan as a place of learning.
King: Oh, well, Cooper Union, even, (laughs) even at its, you know, trade school close, was still a, you know, a serious, not a vocation school, but it was higher education. The engineering school, I think they gave a degree in chemical engineering, and they were very highly regarded, you know, you don’t have trouble getting jobs. And design, and textile design. Lois was studying textile design, and it was structured, and it was winter, and, you know, it was classes, and regular educational setup. Skowhegan was more like (laughs)…more like Walpurgisnacht or something like that, you know, where the students take over the…where the servants take over the halls, something like that. And they weren’t opposed by the faculty. Henry, Annie, Bill Cummings. Billie Cummings was there, he had a little baby girl. So, there was a big difference. Skowhegan was short. I think it was six weeks, eight weeks. Cooper Union was from September to June.
Cooper Union, it primed me for Skowhegan, I mean, I decided, probably the second year in Cooper, that’s what I cut out for. Moved to the, Sidney Delevante, Delevante, they called him. Took us around to his New York artist friends, and he’d take us to shows, he took us to see David Smith at the Buchholz Gallery, he took us to the Museum of Modern Art for a Nadelman show [Eli Nadelman]. And we’re going around in there, and it hit me again, this feeling, I’m looking at these things, thinking, ‘I could do that.’ (laughs) So I started working after class, in a sculpture room at Cooper, a couple of times, I made some things, and the teacher’d come in, [Milton] Hebald, lights were on, he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m making, I’m working,’ he said, ‘What’s that you’re making?’ ‘Sculpture! It’s a sculpture!’ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘lemme see,’ he says, ‘oh,’ he says, ‘that’s pretty good,’ he says, he goes out and sticks his head back in the door and said, ‘Bet you could sell that.’ He said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I bet you could get fifty bucks for that.’ ‘My god!’ I said. You know? You ever read Sister Carrie? Theodore Dreiser? There’s sort of a moment like that. So, there it was, the idea I could actually make a living doing what I wanted to do, and what I was good at, was unheard of, where I come from. South Florida. Oof! So there it was. So I just turned up the heat, much as I could, I said, ‘I’m gonna,’ there wasn’t any question, thinking, ‘I’m gonna do it,’ just did it, there wasn’t anything else.
One time, Lois and I were at 29th Street, I had a storefront for a studio, sort of, a couple of houses away, and times were really tough. Lois had a job designing necktie patterns, she’s textile designs. And she was the one that kept us afloat. Of course that was customary, you know, wife go out and work, husband stay home, be the artist. (laughs) Imagine that….So, I thought, it’s always at the back of my mind, ‘If I flop at this, I’m gonna be a pastry cook.’ And I looked in the Yellow Pages, and sure enough, there was a school where you studied pastry cooking, so I called – I didn’t call up, I went, I either called ‘em or wrote ‘em or went there, they said, ‘Oh sure, we’ll take ya, if you give us 350 bucks.’ Tuition. Well, that was out. (Zapol laughs) So I didn’t become a pastry cook. But if I’d’ve had it…I’d be a well-fixed pastry cook by now.
Zapol: History would be different. (laughs)
Zapol: Well, I’m interested in, I think the next year that we’re talking about now, 1952, was the year that, of the South Solon –
King: Margaret Blake?
Zapol: - meeting house.
Zapol: So tell me about that competition, how you became a part of painting the frescoes for the South Solon meeting house.
King: God, it’s, I remember there was a pump organ up in the choir loft, you’ve seen that place, right? I don’t know if it’s still there, but it was in pretty good shape. And I could play on it a little bit. I had, it’s around right there, on the corner, a similar one, like the Salvation Army uses? Violin case on top of it, right now, out there. I got that in school in 1945. There was a reed organ up in the loft, and for some reason or other, what the hell were we doing in there – measuring or something, we hadn’t started the competition or anything, just the idea of doing something in there, I don’t know, and Stuart what’s his name, and Micheline Beaumont, and somebody else, were messing around down there where the choir and the pulpit and the walls were, looking around, and I was up in the loft playing (laughing) playing on the pump organ, Handel, I had some Handel, very simple kids’ songs, and some Bartok, very simple kids’ songs. Sounded good up there. Good, very good acoustics – good organ! I mean, they weren’t toys. And Margaret Blake comes in with Bill Cummings or something, just touring, or something like that, and she walked out playing the organ, and she’s looking in this church, and she had some kind of epiphany, or something, and I think she said, ‘Let’s fresco the place, I’ll pay for it, have a competition.’ I think that’s how it happened. Cummings says, ‘Oh, great.’ Now he was good, you know, with donors or something, cause he took it for granted, I think, that it was worthwhile, and he wasn’t daunted by, you know, social class, or anything like that. So that’s how that started, and the competition was…I remember doing a sketch, for the whole place, except the ceiling, I thought you shouldn’t do the ceiling. Big mistake.
But I had the whole thing taped out, from the creation on up through, God knows what, all the way around, and in front of the pulpit and back of the pulpit, that thing, you know, with the Ten Commandments coming out. (laughs) It was really good, you know, so, like a comic strip, and on brown paper with charcoal pencil and pastels rubbed in to look like fresco. And I won the competition. But Phil Bornarth and Micheline Beaumont had entered things, and they didn’t want the judges, I guess it was Henry and Anne and Bill Cummings, judged it, I think, and they thought that they’d have the three winners work on the fresco. I didn’t like that at all, but didn’t know how to change that, to where I was gonna do the whole thing. (laughs) with a lot of help, plastering and stuff. So we did the, we were given on well, that’s right, they wanted to have other artists do the sidewalls, and the ceiling. Ceiling, big mistake, ruined the thing. They should have let me do the whole place – it would be a monument now. It’s a good, it’s a good scheme. So we kinda crammed the whole thing, and they had some special elements. Phil wanted to put the seven plagues of Egypt, and Micheline wanted to put angels, two big angels, which are in there, and the seven plagues boiling down frogs, and stuff, (laughs), I’d say it kinda ruined it. But we painted it up, we painted it anyway.
Zapol: Your vision was initially the Ten Commandments and what else, on that wall? What was your vision for that wall and for the whole space?
King: Well, it was the Old Testament, start on the left, I had the world being created with two hands with the world swirling around being made. I didn’t feel bad doing it, I’m not religious. Or, I’m not conventional religious. So there was that, and then it was on up through, oh, the Old Testament story, and where it got to behind the pulpit, the Ten Commandments, Moses coming down saying, you know, ‘Don’t do this.’ Ok. That’s the main thing of religion, you know, treat other people the way you wan them to treat you. What’s complicated about that? Then it went on up. I think, I don’t know if I got into the New Testament, I doubt it, there was a lot of Biblical history in there, you know, Jews crossing, oh there was the Red Sea parting, you know, oh, that was good! That got dropped out. A whole lot of really good stuff. Henry kinda said about the world being made with two hands, something, he says, ‘Oh, Bill, those are your hands, aren’t they?’ I was blushing, I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I do my work with what I got,’ and, anyway they decided they’d have the three of us do the front wall. It was awful. Three of us cooped up in the studio doing a full-size cartoon. And fighting over it. It was the angels. Had to have the angels, big, ugly angels, flying around, and something else totally unacceptable. But I got to do the fire ball or whatever you call it, angel wings and trumpet and music, and then the Ten Commandments coming out the bottom like a, like a coin machine, you know, you get a candy bar out after you put in a quarter. (both laugh)
And I was disgusted, and I think everybody else was, the three of us, you know, we just never spoke to each other after that, I don’t think. And we stayed, you had to stay after school closed, way late into, you know, the autumn, painting on this thing. And we finished. And Henry and Bill and Anne came to look at it, maybe Sidney, I don’t know. Henry says, ‘Well, I’ve got to touch it up a few places, here and there.’ Turned out, he covered up the windows, and he went in there, and he locked the door so that we couldn’t get in, and he re-touched the whole goddamn thing. With this kind of, I’m gonna cut loose here, kind of vomit-y colored ochre wash, you can see it on there now. And that just destroyed the whole thing. I’m still, I still like that sunburst, the cloud, fireball, or whatever you call it; that came out, that was the only thing. And then there’s Moses and the golden calf. I got that left in. And a couple of other things. If I saw a picture I could probably tell you what part I did, but it’s all Henry. Poor old guy. He was embarrassed to have that come out looking the way it did. It didn’t look so bad. But I thought that was very over the top. Covered the windows so we couldn’t watch, locked the doors so we couldn’t get in, and paint – he was in there, you know, three or four days, I think.
Zapol: What happened? What were you doing, as this was going on?
King: Phil and Micheline and I were staying in the red barn. Bill Cummings I think was back in the city, and we were sort of on our own. (laughs)
Zapol: Did you try to get in?
King: No, we knew, he told us. ‘I don’t want any interference.’ You know, he wasn’t brutal about it, he just – that’s the way it was. Now that’s my memory of it. You might get a different story of it from somebody else. I mean, but it was, bad scene. I thought. Because it could’ve been so good, if they’d let me do the whole thing. (laughs) Ego.
Zapol: What do you remember of those arguments with the other two? With Micheline, with, what were the other two who you were creating it with?
King: We were trying to decide, make compromises of what to put in and what to leave out, and being pared down to one wall instead of the whole thing. So what do we leave in, what do we put out, and also, working on the cartoon, three people, making a drawing, you can imagine what that’s like. A big drawing, you know, the size of that wall. And we (laughs), we did it, because that’s what we were supposed to do. You can’t walk out on something like that. I felt obliged to Mrs. Blake. She had a good idea. And maybe it’s alright now, maybe it’s mellowed. I haven’t seen it in a while. I gave a talk there one summer, and I’m from south Florida, and I went up to the pulpit and gave a, a talk with, you can’t say…you know, what’s the word, where you make fun of something?
Zapol: A parody?
King: Yeah, kind of, an imitation, funny, a comic imitation, of a sermon. So I gave a talk in there, and I thought, ‘Well, you know, it’s not so bad.’ It’s bad but it’s not – it’s bad compared to what I thought it should and could have been, but as it is now I guess it’s alright. But the ceiling is – anyway, I’m talking. (laughs) They all sit in, Sidney sat down, the students, I got up on the pulpit to say, ‘BROTHERS and SISTERS, I come to tell you tonight about your salvation. It’s this: a life in art!’ And went on and on, and so, ‘And if you don’t do God’s will and make your art, you’re gonna go to HELL! (laughs) ‘And you know what Hell is? Hell is you gotta get a JOB!’ (laughs) Stuff like that. I still remember it. I enjoyed it to the hilt. And I had ‘em in stitches, and it was (laughs), I don’t know if they taped it or not, but I really thought that was a pretty good move. That’s the last time I saw it, I think. Fun. Scary, but fun.
Zapol: Why scary?
King: Well, that place has a history, and, you know, to be lampooning religion in that place, it’s, to me, it’s, borders, you know, like sacrilege, or, it isn’t done, maybe, but I thought they’d understand, whoever the antecedents were, as they say. They were sort of sense of humor people in Maine, maybe they do all over the world. It’s hidden a lot.
Zapol: What kind of interactions did you have with the locals in Maine? The people in Skowhegan?
King: Oh, not too much. We were sort of sequestered up there. The truck would go into town once a day, the students would stand up in the back, they had wooden fences up on the side of the pick-up so they wouldn’t fall out. I didn’t go very much, but they’d go down to buy supplies, or drink beer or something. Not much. Our contact mostly with staff. Minnie Harville not too much, she was an august being: cooking, serving, giving, dishing the food up. And Ernest Dunbar, old guy, was sort of head carpenter, and art, Logie, Laurier LeClair, Laurier, they called him Logie, and he, I think that was about it. They had some people that, women that would straighten up the barracks, the dormitories. And, but that was it. Mostly on-campus experience. I didn’t want to go into town so much.
Zapol: Why not?
King: I don’t know, just…nothing to do. But stay on the campus. Much more going on there, it seemed to me.
Zapol: What was your impression of the town?
King: Of the town? It had a waterfall. A river. The…I don’t know…Skowhegan…seemed to me it was kind of like Toccoa, Georgia, where my grandfather, who’d come down in the world, was, had a chicken farm. And we would go up from Coconut Grove, Florida, up there, some summers, to stay, my brother and mother and father and me. Like a small Southern town. Instead of red dirt it had rocks, you know, Maine granite. And the nice setting on the river, well a usual small town, in the ‘40’s, been the way for, who knows, a hundred years. I think maybe they had a plant that had closed? Run by the waterpower? I’m not sure. Maybe I got it mixed up with another one. The school, technically, is in East Madison, not Skowhegan. (both laugh) I did a fresco in East Madison High School, I think it’s still there.
Zapol: How did that happen?
King: They had a competition. Or maybe they just asked me to do it. I’m not sure. It was pretty good.
Zapol: Was that while you were a student, or later?
King: No, much later.
Zapol: What was the fresco that you made for the high school?
King: Oh, I thought it was pretty good, it was history, the history of Madison, or East Madison, something like that, there was the river and there was mountains and there was roads, and there were buildings, and there was historical events like the Voyageur, the French, you know, trappers that first came up in that country. They were there. I had a lot of trouble painting them. God, I remember, there were things that would represent other things. Like, to make a road, a yellow brick road kind of thing, just a highway, starting, you know, pretty large in the foreground and going around in a curve and receding in to the background, was made by the tops of school buses, yellow things, all parked very close together, lined up like that. The only one you could get depicted was front of them, was a school bus, and you could see the other ones were identical. And I think, I’m not sure, but some of the forests were made up of dollar signs, you know, like the paper companies? Stuff like that. Equivocal imagery. And I wish I had a picture of it. They kept the sketch, cartoon. That’s the last fresco I painted. But it was, it was a lot of work. I had some help. Plastering. Well.
Zapol: When you returned to Skowhegan as a faculty member, how did that, how did that come about?
King: I think I was sort of backup. Phil and maybe somebody declined at the last minute, or maybe they chose me, I’m not sure. Was I teaching fresco or sculpture?
Zapol: I don’t know.
King: What year was that?
King: You know, I don’t know. (both laugh) I have no idea. I don’t know.
Zapol: What was it like returning as a faculty member?
King: Oh, gosh. Skowhegan is a zang, xanadu, or Shangri-la in a way, in my consciousness. I’d go there anytime, any circumstances, to do anything they’d ask me. It’s a bit too much of a chore to get up there for the weekend, also too expensive, for the, you know, faculty and governors and all that stuff. But I’d go. I guess it’s a challenge, and then, you know, the shoe’s on the other foot.
If I was teaching fresco, that’s one thing. If I was teaching sculpture, I’ve no idea what I did. I tried to do the right thing, that is to say, you know, that the core decision, like, you know, are you gonna get up in the morning and go to work, or not? A too-big decision. I mean, one decision. That was the main thing. Because here’s where you’re gonna learn it in spades. You know, it’s very condensed and acute here, Skowhegan. That, that eternal, you know, problem. That’s number one. Also…it seems to me that they, those that were interested would want to know pretty much what we’re talking about, other years, years back, ’67 to ’48, that’s a long time, in young people’s lives. And I didn’t feel, you know, like an old geezer then, but I could tell that, well, my work was very familiar to them at that time, and I think they were interested in moving on. But what I taught, quote-unquote, I’ll never know.
King: I know that I think the best learning place would be New York City. Or Paris. Or Vienna, or London. You know, where there’s art. That and if somebody who you believe says your work is really good. That’s vitamins. I don’t think you can continue without that coming from some quarter. Happened to me a couple times, made a lot of difference. All the difference. So those two things. That’s about all I had to say, that and, I think that was about when I figured out that I could see in what sculptors, students produced, was like a…a stew, you know, like there’s some, you, some parts, they did for themselves, like they couldn’t help it, and then some parts they do for their parents, or instructors, and then some parts they do for somebody else, their significant other, or whatever, you know. But I thought I could always tell and point out to them the part that they did for themselves, sort of because they couldn’t help it. And generally I think that they would know what I was talking about, and agreed with me, and that, that’d make this kind of tough on ‘em, to continue that and only do things they do for themselves. That’s hard. Cause you think, you know, if I do something that so and so will like, then I’ll get rich, or, I’m not sure how that works, but a lot of art is produced by, you know, sort of, ricochet, you know, it’s not direct from what is inside the artist and wants to get out. That’s the, THAT I thought I could, that I can tell, I think, still can.
Zapol: So what is it bouncing off of?
King: A perception of success, or good criticism, or pleasant…like, if somebody talks about your work, in terms you want to hear, it’s hard to get through, if you, I think, I’m not so sure now, but it’s tempting, I mean, to do things that you think are gonna be well-received. I was lucky. I thought, ‘I’m gonna do exactly what I want to do, and I just think it’s wonderful, and I know other people are gonna think it’s wonderful, and I’m gonna sell it, and I’m gonna live happily ever after.’ (both laugh) I don’t know how kids feel nowadays, but that’s the way I felt.
I think that’s about when I stumbled on to that idea. And I might’ve. I might have. But I’m not sure. Maybe that came more into play later on. What year was that? 1967? Yeah, I think I was onto it by then, and I could point it out to them, what I thought was the part that was genuine, that’s to say had come straight from their muse to the work. Nothing intervening, much as possible. I think, yeah, I think I could do that.
Zapol: So, a couple years later you joined the Board of Governors.
King: Yeah. Is that right?
Zapol: I have it ’72.
King: Yeah. Yeah. Ok. I think they asked me. But Skowhegan was maturing, let’s say. They knew they had something, and I think all kinds of people saw it as a, a career. You know, either directing it or shaping it, or having to do with it, wanted to get their oar in, somehow. And I thought most of the improvements were huge mistakes. (laughs) My idea of Skowhegan was a chicken farm with fifty students and a committed faculty and sort of a raw edge, take-it-or-leave-it approach, not the, not, it wasn’t a system. And by ’72 a lot of things had happened. The library, they decided that it was sub-standard and had to build a new building, the fresco barn had burnt down sometime before, and they rebuilt a better barn.
They’re right, of course, that more and more people wanted to come to Skowhegan, fifty. I made an awful fuss, I was a pain in the ass about it, you know, and made up this number that, I said scientifically, psychologically speaking, fifty-five, a group of people, and I think I read it somewhere, some magic number, fifty-two or fifty-five, is a community, and after that, it splits up into cliques. And it’s true. They finally boosted the, the students up to, I think sixty-two it is now, something like that.
Zapol: Sixty-two, sixty-five, yeah.
King: Sixty-five. Way too many. It’s an institution. It was in the cards, I just, I didn’t like it. There’s so many things I don’t like. (laughs) But, having said that, I was on the Board, and I’d make a fuss, and I said, ‘The library’s fine,’ and drew a plan, it was just a peaked roof, and put on, lift the roof up, from going like this to going like that. And have skylights in, and more shelves, and put a little bit more on, you’d have a wonderful building, and keeping with the campus. Art, you know, sort of, no, we’re gonna do something institutional, and, you saw the library building, I guess. A big mistake. It’s pointless, and it doesn’t really work. That, you know, students will tell you that it doesn’t work. And all kinds of things like that. Architects, what do they call it, all the architects there, they’re gonna restructure the fresco barn, and they’ll re-do this, and re-do that, and, Skowhegan started to be a place where you could make a good living being in administration, and also at the same time shape its structure and its mission. And I was on the Board of Governors all that time, and, gee, I thought it was awful.
Zapol: What in particular, and were there specific personalities, or people that you rubbed up against?
King: Some of the staff, I guess, I don’t know, but they were just a totally different vibration. Skowhegan had, some say progressed, I say deteriorated from something improvised to something that’s an institution. And the muse and the process that brings art, any kind of culture, into being, is inexplicable. I figure it’s like, art’s like, like gravity or electricity, everybody knows what it does and nobody knows what it is! You know, you can harness it, and sell it and buy it, but, I guess you can produce electricity, but gravity and art and things…I, they don’t know where it comes from, don’t know where it goes, but let’s harness it. And I didn’t get very far with it, but I remember that a lot of people agreed with me, but, I think, but either too timid or just too, you know, like, it’s like a landslide, something, tectonic plates shifting, somebody’s gonna get out there and stop it? Nooo. Well, you can see, I don’t know how you feel about the contemporary art scene, but it’s not very nourishing or exciting to me, I don’t know.
Zapol: When you’ve gone back, where are the places, and where are the places that live in your imagination, that you go back to when you think about Skowhegan?
King: Just, the setting, for one, and being, when I was there, it’s quite set apart from New York, or any of the other places. There were students there, even foreign students. It was all set apart, it was sequestered in a way, you know, it was like, certainly not like a monastery or a convent or anything, (laughs), god, but it was wall-to-wall art, take it or leave it. And the concerns about shows and criticism and sales and the business side of art, now, the market, it’s a culture. I don’t think, either didn’t exist, or was just a faint echo off there somewhere down around New York. I’m, my mind is probably a lot more pure than it really was, but, there it is. I thought, still now, I don’t think so much, no, but that’s just cause the, the definition of art has changed. It’s not just Skowhegan of Painting and Sculpture. It’s Skowhegan. Probably anybody that was there at that time that would talk about it would say pretty much the same thing: it was good then, it’s gotten too commercial, and too frazzled out into different things that are considered art now. So for me it’s the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in all its purity and grandeur. (laughs) And slovenliness and insanity, and the uncertainty, and everything else that goes along with studio life. And I don’t think people should be kidded into thinking that they’re gonna be an artist – what I call a real artist – they’re not gonna have an easy time of it. I don’t care how much money they make, or what’s written about ‘em. If they’re gonna do it right, they’re gonna suffer. Who wants to hear that? They tell you that? Yes, they did, didn’t they. I can tell. Is that what you want?
1989 Class Photo
Zapol: What do you wish for the future of Skowhegan?
King: Oh, Skowhegan’s out of my welkin now. I’m a Governor Emeritus. And I don’t get in New York to go to the things, and I don’t know any of the people in the Board, and – the vision I have of its future? It’ll keep going, it’s an institution now. I think it’s indestructible, cause it’s maybe the one last outpost of art for arts sake. (laughs) Still is, I think. I don’t agree over what they call art at all, but that’s to be expected. I’m not mad at ‘em or anything, I just, it’s not my ideal of sixty-two years ago.
Zapol: When I said where do you go in your imagination, and when you think of the ideal Skowhegan, you said the landscape, but what particularly, is there a particular place or detail of the landscape that you see, when you think about the place?
King: Yeah, walking up that path on a dark night, you can barely see. Or the parties, or swimming. It was really, you know, budding artists’ heaven. Thorny. Inadequate. Uncertain future. And of greatest importance, somehow we knew that, you knew that. I’m proud of it, having been part of it. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Probably if it weren’t for Skowhegan, I’d be a pastry cook. (laughs) I bet. That experience’ll stay with you. It’s very sustaining. Even with their, you know, darkroom and computers and dance, what was it, performance. (laughs) All seems kind of funny, now I think of it, this old codger sitting here bemoaning passage of time, that’s all it is. (laughs) I’m grateful.
Zapol: Well, I think this is a good resting point for us. Thank you for your time.
King: Oh, my pleasure! Get to fulminate (laughs) a little, and reminisce. Thank you, Liza.