Fresco: The Golden Time

An interview with Skowhegan Fresco Instructor Sean Glover (A'03)

Participants in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 2013.

Participants in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 2013.

Fresco has been part of Skowhegan since its founding in 1946. Campus remains one of the few places in the United States where this technique is still taught and practiced by contemporary artists. In this interview, Fresco Instructor Sean Glover (A '03) gives a history of the medium at Skowhegan and a provides a glimpse into the practice on campus today.


SMH12.jpg

What is the history of fresco at Skowhegan?

Skowhegan was founded by four artists  (Bill Cummings, Henry Varnum Poor, Sidney Simon and Charles Cutler) who came together after  World War II, at the end of an era in which social realism and mural painting were very popular. They wanted to create a space not only for artists to go and practice and reflect and learn from one and other, but also pick up practical skills. Because fresco was still a part of the broader artistic conversation of that moment, people could learn fresco at the school and use that skill to get commissions for major jobs. Henry Varnum Poor had worked on frescoes with Diego Rivera, and we still use some of his techniques at Skowhegan today.

Since then, the culture has shifted. There are different materials, different approaches to making art— post-studio practice, conceptualism, time-based media like video—all of these things have come into the fold and fresco has moved to the periphery. So when I talk about fresco at Skowhegan, I try to emphasize that by participating in it, you're contributing to the history of the school and coming into contact with its foundation.

Fresco is a unique process that has emerged in many different cultures, often ones that  have had little or no contact with each other. When you work with fresco, you’re interacting with something really ancient, but also something very immediate. You're touching base with different sites and architectures, different cultures, and of course a broad range of subject matters. I describe it as a kind of "meta-process," or "meta-material." It's loaded just by participating in it. Fresco is unique in that way.
 

Sean Glover (A ‘03) and participants preparing pigments for fresco, 2015.

Sean Glover (A ‘03) and participants preparing pigments for fresco, 2015.

What is fresco?

Fresco is the process of painting into wet plaster. The plaster is made of calcium hydroxide, or lime. When you paint into the plaster, you're participating in what is called a "fresco cycle," where the material begins as a rock, is processed and aged, and then is applied to a wall. When the plaster is applied to the wall, it wants to return to its initial rock state, so your time painting is actually the very end of that cycle. As the plaster dries, a calcium carbonate crystal forms over the paint and retains the pigment, which is what sets fresco apart from other mural painting: the painting is physically a part of the wall, physically set into the architecture. It's not laid on top; it's fused with it.

Working with fresco requires negotiation with the surface. A newly formed, newly wet wall—what I call a “young” wall—does not completely absorb paint, forcing you to temper yourself and slow down. Then as the wall begins to dry, it becomes important to approach the painting holistically, hydrating the wall by adding water to the entirety of the surface as you work. This process extends the painting and forms stronger crystals.

The Fresco Shop is an interesting dovetail to the time-based work done in the Media Lab, where you can go back and edit your work. You can go back in time in a certain way. In fresco, it's not as easy: if you try to go back and lift up or erase, you compromise the surface in a way that actually dampens the color. So there's this kind of balance you have to strike with the surface.

At the end of the fresco cycle, a shift occurs where you are able to start employing the traditional conventions of blending and moving paint on the surface, techniques that you initially have to put aside. This stage is what the Italians call the “tempo doro” or the golden time.

There is the romantic idea of the artist working alone in their studio and having this kind of intimacy with the image. Tempo doro is a rare moment where the romantic image of the artist and the chemical reality actually coincide. By spending your time working with the wall, you actually earn that moment. It's a transformation that you bear witness to which can only happen if you're working with the wall constantly, with sensitivity to the character of that material.

What impact does fresco have on the participants?

I trust the participants to make their own image. I don’t give them input on the image during the workshops, but I do hold them accountable to the wall. In addition to participating in the history, and having that moment where it’s just the artist and the wall, I want them to understand that the labor put into the surface is inherited by next year’s class. Participants work with the wall for roughly three hours. This can be a revelatory experience where they start to confront labor and really begin to understand the intensity of having to refine themselves and respect the craft. Often people remark that this experience really shapes them and makes an impression on their practice.

In the painting process, the inability to edit as you go has sparked conversations with participants about accepting mistakes and then actually integrating them into the work, as well as the concept of “perfection.” Putting aside some of the preconceptions of what painting is lets new gestures—new ways of working and thinking about the wall—emerge. This is generally how things shift: by offering flexibility, you end up with some surprises. I find it really exciting to hear different approaches of working with the material. As I've taught over the years, the conversations have shifted toward thinking about working with something other than ourselves, and exploring how that translates to more than just painting.
 

During the summer of  2017, artists at Skowhegan created a 25 ft. x 15 ft. Fresco Grotto, linking the history of meditative sites of refuge to the experience at Skowhegan as space of creative practice and reflection.


How did this project come into being?

The Fresco Grotto began with resident faculty artist Angela Dufrense saying, "Why don't we try doing a fresco that is off-site, away from the barn?” She started with this theme of “the grotto.” With Angela Dufresne's aesthetic, it aligned with not only the way she paints, but also the way she thinks of the world, or some of her interests in the world. People became really energized and excited about that possibility, and the class’s openness and willingness to contribute is really where it began.

We took some risks with the Fresco Grotto, because we had limitations regarding the installation—we couldn't attach a permanent fresco inside the building without having to dismantle it or figure out a tricky way to attach to the wall, so it needed to be temporary. We found an underutilized space and created this system of splicing together foam, which, with respect to the broad history of fresco, is a brand new approach. The participants organized themselves to build this in phases over the course of the summer.

All together, I believe there were 20 to 25 people involved in the creation of the Fresco Grotto. Not everyone was interested in painting and instead simply wanted to participate, contribute, and help others realize it. They wanted to see what they could do, and how they could collaborate to make a unique presentation of fresco on campus. There was a spirit of curiosity and a willingness to do some hard work. They pulled it together and made it happen. It was really remarkable and I couldn't be more pleased with it.

After the 2017 session ended, a group of alumni with advanced fresco expertise participated in a 10-day fresco intensive on campus with Fresco Master Renato Giangualano who traveled from Italy to lead the workshop. The group took a deep dive into materials and techniques that expanded their knowledge of the medium, passing the tradition of this material from one generation to the next, and ensuring that Skowhegan will continue to hold knowledge of this increasingly rare practice.


A second workshop was held in August 2018. This session also concerned the conservation of an outdoor fresco from 1955 by Annie Poor commemorating Skowhegan’s Founding Families and located at Sap House, next to Red Farm. Preserving this part of Skowhegan’s history and recognizing Poor’s critical role  in the first three decades of the school are meaningful in setting the stage for Skowhegan’s future.


What are the next steps of this restoration?

The wall on which Annie Poor’s fresco is mounted is a little unstable, in part because it is wicking up moisture and salt through the cement. Currently, we're in the process of creating alternate vents so that the wall no longer draws in salts from the ground, which is damaging to the fresco. This process began with Bill Holmes, Grounds and Maintenance Manager, and his crew excavating underneath Sap House and putting mechanisms in place to ensure that not too much water comes up. We're doing the final parts of that process, slowly going in and reinforcing the back of the wall and coating it with materials that allow it to breathe, but not draw in water.  

The other part is the restoration of the face of the fresco. Fresco Master Renato Giangualano, who led the workshop, helped us devise the restoration plan. He is lending his expertise for all aspects of the restoration, but with regard to working on the face of the fresco itself, he will actually come in and have his hands on it.


Each participant in the fresco intensive came from a different background. Was Renato Giangualano surprised by the diversity of experience?

He was excited by it, while also bringing his own traditional knowledge and perspective. When people would share their own methods, he might say, "You can do it that way, but here’s the way it is traditionally done." He's very well versed and intimate with the process, but he understands that he's just one voice in the tradition. It’s more important to him that people are invested in learning and exploring.

In my case, I am a sculptor. My first encounter with fresco was when I signed up to be a fresco monitor during my summer as a participant just to hang out with Daniel Bozhkov, A '90, F '11, and longtime fresco instructor. I am not really trained as a painter, but that has never waivered Renato’s interest in sharing his knowledge with me. I'm really grateful for that, and that's something I know Oscar [Rene Cornejo A ’14, Program Coordinator and Fresco Assistant] and I try to provide to participants as well. We want to engender a kind of openness and push things toward that spirit of curiosity.

What Renato appreciates and what he loves about Skowhegan is that investment in exploration. People here are very committed to searching through material and art with real sincerity. They let down their guard and they can show that sincerity in a way that’s not always possible outside of this place. And it’s that tendency toward openness which begins here at Skowhegan that can often resonate beyond the summer.

 

An Oral History of Fresco

From the Archive

Pariticipants in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 1947.

Pariticipants in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 1947.

Over the course of Skowhegan’s history, fresco has been taught by a small group distinguished fresco artists, including founder Henry Varnum Poor, Anne Poor, Stoney Conley, Walter O’Neil, and Daniel Bozhkov. These knowledgeable and dedicated artists have added to Skowhegan’s rich catalog of recorded lectures with their presentations on the history and technique of fresco.


Presented below are excerpts from the lectures of Stoney Conley, Walter O’Neil, and Daniel Bozhkov. These lectures are included among the over 650 lectures in Skowhegan’s Lecture Archive. Dating from from 1952 to the present, the Skowhegan Lecture Archive comprises recorded talks delivered by visual artists, poets, architects, philosophers, journalists, curators, historians, and choreographers to artists-in-residence during the School's annual summer program. 


To view our complete holdings or to schedule a visit to the Skowhegan archives, researchers may see here. For questions or more information, please contact Paige Laino at plaino@skowheganart.org


Anne Poor

The Italian Tradition of Fresco, 1972

Anne Poor on the steps of the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 1957.

A lot of the things that you’ll see when you look at the Italian High Renaissance, and all the frescos done in Italy, are the insistence on architectural detail. This was something that is also part of their way of life. If they didn’t have windows where they wanted them, they painted them there. They used the most primitive means to achieve a kind of elegance. And they painted marble surfaces, they painted every kind of surface they wanted to have. The houses are almost all masonry in Italy, so you have this kind of rich, decorative finish to every wall, and the way it was finished, the thing at that time, was fresco. Of course [now], we’re in another situation.

The point about tradition is that it gives you freedom. And I think that nothing changed very much, basically, through all these years in Italy (I’m just going to talk about Italy). Things were developed and they were repeated over and over again by different artists. It was sort of a competitive thing, to see whether you could make a better man than the next person. And if you see, there are two—there’s a Michelangelo of a man holding another man, a dying man. He did that in his Sistine Chapel; Signorelli did exactly the same thing. This was a fascination and, I think, is sort of what you call a tradition.

The fact that we don’t have any tradition makes us isolated. We depend on ourselves and we are kind of—there’s a word for that, when your energy is kind of absorbed, enervated by this. I feel that everybody is aware of it. It’s what Paul Jorges was talking about, and I feel that this is why when you go to a museum and you see a white canvas on a white wall, it means something; it means that this person is making a statement about the world he lives in.

So you’ll see in these pictures that there was something they wanted to say. They were telling stories and they made everything as real as they possibly could. They were explicit. If they wanted to show that God was there, they stuck him there, up in the sky. And if Eve was coming out of Adam’s rib, she came out—great, big, fat woman—and floated through the air. They had devils, and they had torture, and they had every kind of violence they portrayed in their paintings from the very beginning, in all the churches. They’re pictures! It’s like a picture book. They did the grandiose and the extravagant, but they also did the unexpected. And I think everybody did a little bit of it.

 

Stoney Conley

Preparing the fresco surface, 1984

Participants in the fresco shop, 1984.

Participants in the fresco shop, 1984.

Okay. Now in the next process we're applying thin layers of the prepared mortar, with the trowel. The idea is to cut slices and press it into this layer, at about an eighth of an inch, between an eighth and a quarter, consistently in depth, because you want it to dry at the same period.

Now this is the hardest part for Americans to learn, because we didn't grow up in a culture that had a lot of lime stucco houses, and none of us have done a lot of troweling. If you go to the Mediterranean, everybody does it. Every time they have a crack in the wall they slap some up, and the Italians are the best plasterers in the world. They're usually the people who do this.

I'm hoping you'll be able to see over my shoulder. It's a process of cutting thin slices, forcing it onto the wall, pressing in, and pulling down a little bit. You can see how a team of plasterers would be considerably faster, which is why this is usually done, especially in the old days—Every painter had a workshop where you went to apprentice, and learn the trade from them.

The other part about this is that you get a surface—if you press this in, and every time you trowel across it you pull off a certain amount of lime, out of the sand, it sticks on the trowel and you want to get rid of it, you want to wipe it on anything available—if you glop that into the surface, that's where your cracks appear, because you get high concentrations of lime without any sand. So as it dries, that part dries quicker or slower, depending on the temperature. [Sounds of rubbing and troweling].

So in the old days—assuming that we're talking about a Renaissance workshop—the painter—say, Ghirlandaio, would be up here with a trowel, with a couple people throwing water on the wall (including the young Michelangelo), and he'd have somebody else behind him doing the second part, where you're doing a finishing trowel, getting it all smooth and making sure the seams disappear. If you can imagine—Michelangelo frescoed the Sistine Chapel without any help. He had some help from Florence but he didn't go on with them, and he fired them. He didn't spend a lot of time in Ghirlandaio’s studio, and he considered himself a sculptor. But when the Pope summoned him, you don't turn down the Pope, so he agreed to do it, and he spent two, three, four years doing this. [Laughter].

 

Daniel Bozhkov

Mexican Mural Painting, 2006

Daniel Bozhkov and participant in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn.

Daniel Bozhkov and participant in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn.

Mexican mural movement was so powerful, and also time-wise fit, and somehow historically captured such a vast amount of that cultural imagination of that time that it’s too difficult to—I spoke recently to a curator in Austin who is like one of the foremost curators of Latin American art in the States. And he was still complaining about—it’s difficult to see other artists of that time working with, in a completely different kind of like vein, like a conceptual artist and other, because these things were so kind of dominant in some ways, in terms of how art was kind of like understood and what art is for and all that. Of course now we’re slowly getting out of that, but it was a very particular period. As you know, a number of so-called New York School painters, through the WPA and…many of them were actually quite connected to the Mexican muralists, being assistants and, directly, I mean Jackson Pollock was very involved.

So there is this kind of strange kind of heritage there that has to be rejected to come again, formally as well.

In the history of Skowhegan itself, one of the four very closely involved in the beginning of the school, in the founding of the school was Ben Shahn, who was himself an assistant of Diego Rivera and participated in the scandal of Rockefeller Center frescoes that, Diego Rivera painted and then Rockefeller wanted to remove because he painted a portrait of Lenin in the center of Rockefeller Center.

[...] And it’s very interesting to me how we, contemporary now, currently, what is our view of type of work as well, that particular art that has a very specific agenda, that has a very particular kind of political position. It’s unapologetic in what it’s trying to teach you, almost like didactic stuff that many of us now would completely, stay away from or not  be interested in at all. But it’s interesting the angle we have here, and what this particular kind of work comes down to and what it does. Almost like what is it for in a way.

 

Walter O’Neil

Fresco At Skowhegan, 1990

And just in closing, why is fresco done in Skowhegan? It seems like a really weird place—you have contemporary artists coming to Skowhegan every summer, you people from all over the country and all over the world coming here and there’s fresco going on.

Fresco is part of Skowhegan because [one of the founders], Willard Cummings, loved fresco and did fresco as well as Henry Varnum Poor, and Cummings starting the school in the Forties, sort of out of that tradition of WPA people doing frescos; and... it’s continued ever since. This is an example of a fresco by Joel King—that far back wall—that was done in 1954, well—along with six other artists, in the South Solon Meetinghouse, which is six miles down the East Madison Road; that the Skowhegan School arranged for them, took plaster—and it’s really—to paint it in true fresco; and it’s really wonderful to see... I mean, it’s sort of... the Sistine Chapel of Maine, in a sense. (laughter) And there’s a wide range of techniques that are used there as well, so it would be interesting for you to go see sometime. We might have a class trip sometime in July to go visit it as well.

Walter O’Neil with participant in the Fresco Shop.

Walter O’Neil with participant in the Fresco Shop.