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.

 

Helen Frankenthaler at Skowhegan

From the Archive


Helen Frankenthaler came to Skowhegan during the summer of 1986 as a visiting faculty artist. In addition to conducting studio visits with participants, she gave a lecture on campus in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn. This talk, excerpts of which can be explored below, is preserved in Skowhegan’s Lecture Archive, a trove of lectures by faculty and other artists who spoke at Skowhegan dating back to 1952.

On October 5th, 2017, Skowhegan announced that it has received a $250,000 gift from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. The funds will provide for a new studio building which will be named in Frankenthaler’s honor, acknowledging her deep commitment to studio practice, and will accommodate discrete workspaces for three visual artists. When complete, the Frankenthaler Studio will be the 15th studio building on Skowhegan’s 350-acre campus, joining those named for other artists who taught at Skowhegan, including founder Willard “Bill” Cummings and Jacob Lawrence.

Read the full release to learn more about the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation's gift.

TRANSCRIPT


Helen Frankenthaler:  “Okay. New work. I wrote this in the middle of the night, in quite a panic, one night, feeling I'd been looking at all this new work and very alone for about a year and a half. I had this body of work, and I felt, I don't know if it means anything. Then I felt, well, what about my past, and other artists' pasts, and everything else. So for a few nights, on and off, I would just make some notes about new work. These are some of them, in no particular order.

New work: People often go up to an artist and say, ‘Are you doing any new work?’ Or, ‘I hear you have a body of new work.’ The artist is usually taken aback by such a confrontation. Recently, after many such inquiries, I literally sat down and gave some thought to what, really, new work means.

  1. What does it mean when an artist presents new work? Recent work? Or fresh work, the beginning of a new phase, or spirit? A new direction or the hint of one?

  2. Does the artist fully realize what he's accomplished, what he's doing, what he's up to?

  3. How does it look different?

  4. How has it developed? Does it make a new statement? Hopefully, does it enlarge one's truth? Are we shocked or puzzled by it in a fresh way? And are we shocked in a way that goes beyond initial shock? That is, beyond entertainment, but, instead, a shock that eases us into seeing and enjoying, and growing with beauty?

  5. Is the new work a minor departure or a significant breakthrough? A new way ‘to see’? A magic that combines a repetition of the past within a new vision, within the context of the artist's whole aesthetic gestalt — the eye, the mind, the wrist, the leap of heart that physically places the mark.

When an artist is developing a departure within his aesthetic, there is an initial shock, or surprise, of a first picture. For myself, I can think of how I felt first looking at Mountains and Sea, 1952; or Sesame, 1970; Roulette, 1978; or the blue one [Out of the Blue], 1985; the one I said I'd painted just about a year ago, the first of a series.

Then a body of work usually follows those pivotal pictures and grows within the context of that initial shock. Eventually that core of work enhances and restates and explains, that first surprise picture. Nothing comes out of the blue. Mountains and Sea, for example, was followed by many years of soaked, stained work, placed on unsized, unprimed cotton duck. Which really isn't true. It wasn't many years. It was maybe one of the first, but many years of pictures that led up to it. Also, what I forgot to write was that I'd spent a summer of doing nothing but landscapes in Nova Scotia that year and suddenly did Mountains and Sea after many, many small landscapes. I'd already been an abstract painter, but I spent the summer just doing what I call ‘verbatim landscapes’ — the tree that looked just like the tree.

Small’s Paradise, 1964, and Buddha’s Court, 1964, reinforce the format of the square and also began what later, much later, became tinted ground, tinted ground rather than merely leaving the duck the color it is, naturally.

The blue one painted in June 1985 spawned many pictures. I would guess about one third of those I destroyed in the process, right or wrong, out of doubt.

The following new body of work, what you saw, hopefully continues to resolve that first surprise picture, which seemed awkward, inevitable, and at the same time to have the sense of rightness, the certainty of the mark. A new painting has the authority of saying, in effect, ‘I had to be made!’ It has the sudden look to it, and to the artist himself. But when we look at that one, seemingly simple gesture of the new work, of a new picture, all the effort, search, failure, confusion, and often depression that preceded it seems to show not at all.

That is one side of the coin — it doesn't show at all. [From the other,] you know that, in order to do this, the artist must have felt certain ways — and I think the older you get the more you appreciate that — even if it's the most sunlit, primary-colored, left-handed dream of a picture. Well, that's one reason you can tell the difference, in a flash, between a kid's picture and a grownup's. Very often people say to you, ‘Who made this?’ And I'll say, ‘A very free, wonderful four-year-old who has no guilt yet, just an angel, but a kid.’ And they'll say, ‘Gee, I would have sworn it was a Matisse.’ I feel [like saying], You dope! [Audience laughter] It’s another trip.

Where was I?

It's only a lucky moment, all things combined, that the artist and the picture itself, together, say ‘give’.

And then I just have some other notes, such as space and light: The shapes and forms that one first puts down are the need and excuses for putting down the right colors, exactly where they belong, in a given space. There should be a constant dialogue between color and line, and all within the perfect scale and light. And you have an intuitive sense of placing within that scale.

And that's it on new work. So. Speak. Or don't.”