Sheila Pepe (A '94, F '13)
When was the last time you said the entire name of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture? When I talk, I say “ Skowhegan,” or sometimes, “Skow” (my siblings called me “Sheil” for decades). I really like the anachronistic parts of Skowhegan’s full title — they speak to my fondness for fixed, but leaky categories like “painting” and “sculpture,” and a pastime of slowly spinning words in my head for inspection. In this case, mentally rotating the term “school” against an array of possible “Skowhegans.”
None of my notions of “school” ever match up to Skowhegan in the here and now. Yet retaining the word in the title proves valuable in a numbers of ways — it marks a history, honors connections and hopefully ensures that the place does not take a short turn as a social sculpture of pedagogy. The use of the term “school” reflects a long-practiced expectation of learning rather than teaching in the traditional sense. For, unlike most schools (no matter hard they try!), Skowhegan fosters a state of learning for all of its participants, from the 65 accepted into the program, to the resident and visiting faculty, to the deans and staff.
After my summer as a Skowhegan participant in 1994, I discovered my ability to sustain a life of making and thinking. I knew I would live as an artist/teacher, a hybrid that has served my studio well. For twenty years, my aim has been to keep parallel tracks of inquiry feeding each other in a tortoise-inspired path toward equally great works in different domains. So serving as resident faculty this past summer was pure bliss as it combined these two important forces in my life. The demand that one immerse oneself in hard work and risk reinvention lies at the heart of the Skowhegan experience. It’s an exalted state of learning available to all who would grab it, no matter what level of experience they arrive with.
I began my role as faculty inside the intergenerational and international group with a simple mix of hugging and prodding. I played my part as the older artist with a long, unusual collection of experiences, someone who loves history and, perhaps most important, who is not afraid to be out of sync with or ignorant of popular trends and opinions. As an experienced educator, I wanted to take the prescribed notion of “teaching” out of the picture. So I began searching for new information and new ways to convey my values and priorities to the group. I quickly realized that the stunning — and now fully digitized – Skowhegan lecture archive would provide the key.
For my seminar, we came together and learned how to wield yarn with a small hook and nimble fingers. At first I tried sharing some texts meant to be read in tandem with the handwork, then quickly realized that this was way too much like graduate school. A night spent on beers and ping-pong or reading on craft – which would they choose? A number of people wanted to listen to music while we crocheted. So, we listened while we worked — not to music, but to selections from the Skowhegan artist lectures. History is important to me; using the Skowhegan archive meant that I could personalize art history through the voices of those who had come before, especially for those participants who viewed history as an anonymous platform upon which to build. I threaded together a series of talks that pivoted one upon the other through a series of specific “mentions,” starting with the lecture given by Governor and visiting faculty member Byron Kim.
Prompted by Byron’s admiring citation during his own lecture, we listened to Ad Reinhardt’s 1967 lecture as we worked. For the participants, it brought history much closer; for me, it was both thrilling and comical to see a bunch of people crocheting to Reinhardt. The intent in using these lectures was not to teach historical context as such, but to individually expand the intricacies of art tropes, practices and relationships. So where could we go to further explore these layers of complexity — not just in my work as I did in my own public lecture — but in the universe of works and their relationships in time? Luckily Reinhardt gave me a precious lead. During his lecture, he cites Lucy Lippard with a hint of pride and affection, quoting her description of his work,“ ...these were the first of the last paintings – or the last of the first paintings.” It was a perfect segue.
Lippard’s capacity for holding exquisite contradictions in hand, while sharing aspects of her own intellectual evolution, provided the next listening material for the group. We would listen to Lippard’s 1979 masterful lecture (including knocks on the lectern to cue the next slides) in which she presents ideas later published in her 1983 book: Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. I had a hunch the New York participants might have seen the Brooklyn Museum’s landmark exhibition “Materializing ‘Six Years:’ Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art.” I wasn’t sure if they knew that she had written such classics as Ad Reinhardt (1981); From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art (1976) or Eva Hesse (1976), to name but a few. And yet I knew Overlay would be a critical find because of its relative obscurity and more important— how it intersected with so many of the ideas floating around campus.
It was a rare perfect Maine evening and we lay out on the grass in front of the Fresco Barn, listening and passing around the book. As the bugs began to bite, we paused the lecture and went inside. The image of participants, resident and visiting faculty, all listening intently, stretched out on benches or seated with yarn-filled laps is
one of the more indelible memories of my summer. As Lippard’s words filled our space, we heard the descriptions of both ancient and contemporary works, situations and projects that set aside the term “art” in pursuit of meaning. Those of us who had read the book when it first came out enjoyed this re-boot of Lippard’s ideas in her own voice, as well as the surprise that registered on younger faces when hearing about social, cultural, political and performative works that predate current didactic terms.
The recorded Q+A was long and fascinating. The first participant’s question prodded Lippard to take a traditionally critical stand in relationship to “works of art.” In response she asks,”...what is the critical thing? Is it about going into a magazine having seen 5,000 striped paintings and saying ‘this striped painting stands up very well in relationship to other striped paintings’ – or ‘wow that really does me in!’?” She goes on to express a deep questioning of her practice, revealing an intellect willing to challenge her role as critic in order to find significant cultural experiences.
That night, thanks to Lippard and to the other artist-lecturers that we listened to over the summer, I could leave behind my role as teacher. I could point to the brilliance of my predecessors’ words to show my new mentees what is important to me as an artist. What better way to show how relationships function in time, how people change ideas and work. If we are lucky – we help each other towards meaningful evolutions. That’s history. It’s the thing into which we work so hard to be included.
I am not sure exactly when Skowhegan stopped being a school that predictably supplied an alternative to contemporary higher education curriculums. No doubt answering that question requires a deep understanding of the teaching philosophies that grew up and around Skowhegan over the years. In the end, one thing is clear to me: the unparalleled, ongoing 50+ year collection of diverse voices that is the Skowhegan Lecture Archive, how these voices have come to be accumulated, and that they have been preserved, stands as the pedagogical core of this school and is what sets it apart from all others.