As a child, I picked up my first pencil along with my coveted set of 64 crayons and began to draw. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, our backyard was old growth woods, fresh water lakes and the Puget Sound between the multiple mountain ranges. My parents surrounded my sister and me with art of the Northwest mystics, taught us about our environment and encouraged our creativity with instruction and available materials.
It became clear I was able to reproduce what I saw, which placed me on the path of an illustrator. My first twenty years as a professional artist began at Stanford University, illustrating for the Biology Department professors. While working on my biology degree, I also took art classes, this at a time when the San Francisco Bay Area Figurative Movement was in full force. In Frank Lobdell’s figurative class, multiple large paper sheets were filled with sumi ink, applied by bamboo pen and brush. I still use this medium and recently attended a workshop in Venice, Italy, investigating East/West calligraphy. Mark-making and drawing continue to play an important role in my work. My painting class was oil on canvas (no acrylics allowed!) with Nathan Oliveira.
After graduation, marriage and a year as a VISTA volunteer in Atlanta, Georgia, I moved to San Juan Island, Washington. We built our home, grew our own food for three children and had multiple farm animals. I learned to spin my sheep’s wool, weave textiles and knit. My illustration concentrated on marine invertebrates and algae for field guides, books, graphics and research papers. Extending this to watercolor and ink nature drawings and batiks, my work began to be exhibited on and off the island. I took weekend art workshops.
As my children began to grow up, I found the needed space in my psyche to explore painting again. I began in acrylic, then egg tempura – which the dogs and cats always tried to lick. I learned to make paper, but the mice ate this as my studio was basically a little wood cabin in the forest heated by a wood stove.
In my mid-thirties, after an amicable divorce, I remarried. Together we built and operated a farm and garden store called Haymakers Mercantile for five years in Friday Harbor, Washington. When we moved to Seattle in 1990, I renewed my commitment to full-time art making, utilizing the skills I had acquired in graphic design, biological illustration, retail work and island life. I returned to oil painting on canvas – exploring color and texture as well as the simplicity and complications of abstraction.
Traveling increased my knowledge and visual library of cultures that fascinate me: Asia, South America, Cuba, Africa and Europe. I am attracted to places of worship and natural sites where people gather in pilgrimage or simply seek a deeper relationship to locations of metaphysical power. Cultural memory lies within the physicality and history of place. What offerings do people bring and leave behind to indicate their presence? We live in a world where it may be difficult to feel a part of the whole and, ultimately, we try to bond with each other through our time spent in these places.
Investigating these displays and patterns in sacred spaces has become my connection with many different cultures. In the deep woods of Bhutan, burgundy threads are placed upon a branch at the confluence of pathways. Torn from the hems of monks’ robes during pilgrimages to the mountain temple, these threads have been tied as an offering to guardians of the earth. On a Himalayan pass, prayer flags are wrapped in the trees and up wooden poles, twisted and tattered from the fierce winds, sending prayers continually into the sky. In Japan, a stone, paper fortune or beautifully prepared bundle of rice is left as an offering. An ancient Jewish synagogue in Tunisia has thousands of prayers written on papers placed in metal grills high on the inner sanctuary wall. And the heartbreak of notes, ribbons and photos marked loss in our current American culture, as witnessed on the chain link fence that for years surrounded the site of the World Trade Center in New York City.
My work often pursues a deep investigation of the symbolic number 108, a number both rich in arithmetical power and numerological symbolism associated with Eastern religion and philosophy. My use of repetition and primal tantric forms allows both the artistic and spiritual dissolution of myself into the universal whole. This then becomes my connection with the collective thought and heart of all sentient beings.
The constant thread in my work is the elemental archetypes of the physical and cosmic world: water, ether, earth, fire, wind and woods. All the elements come into play in actual physical form: beeswax, resin, graphite, oil paint and oil stick; stones, lead sheeting and precious metal leaf; textiles dyed with natural materials; and old book pages and hand-made papers.
Since 1991, I have completed over twenty-five hundred paintings and sculptures. My notebooks and travel journals catalog this journey of ideas, completions of series and references to contemporary art practice. The words, colors, drawings, notes and photos are incredibly valuable to me, as I revisit and reexplore them.
Now dividing my time between studios in Seattle and Santa Fe, I work full time as a multidisciplinary artist in oil and encaustic, printmaking, photography and sculpture. My sculptures are cast-glass and bronze, occasionally incorporating textiles, wire and found objects.
I have spent twenty years developing my techniques of working with encaustic wax using beeswax mixed with damar resin. The wax layers, transparent or opaque, may be built up, erased, scraped or fused, balancing the elements of the work “under fire.” The addition of thick waxy oil stick or thin staining color is melded into the wax layer, using a heat gun or a torch. This back and forth of layers and opposing colors adds to a feeling of a memory or dream. If there are images below the wax layer – often my printed photographs – their intensity is reduced by the wax. I use many paper variations – silk tissue and antique papers – collected during my world travels. Thinner and smaller papers are glued to the wood panel. For larger, heavier papers I use a mounting adhesive. There emerges a seeming fragility of the components within a durable, lasting medium.
Each artist explores their own color sense, which may change over time. I have an earth red that continually speaks out to me, sometimes even just as a final spot or single line. I will counter indigos and ultramarines with pale tinted grays. A pale turquoise on edges pops the shapes and my blacks are often Payne’s gray or mixed deep colors. And I find that beeswax mellows with age and alters the color intensity (especially with the addition of the damar which hardens the surface).
If you listen the work will speak. I have an intuitive sense of composition and I sometimes turn a painting in all directions to check the balance. When a work is almost completed, I let it sit on the wall to see what else needs to be added or changed. Wax on linen can be heated and scraped down to complete a new painting on top of the old layers of color. Between solo exhibitions, I use the time to explore new ideas and techniques that have been developing in my notebooks and mind.
The mission is to “do the work.” Staying focused requires being present in the studio. Each piece represents my personal truth. When the dialog between me and the work is complete, the art must be released, the power within the work becoming a magnet for others. Feedback is necessary, but sometimes distracting. Sculptor Anne Truitt, with whom I had a master artist residency at Santa Fe Art Institute, described vulnerability as the guardian of integrity.
Over the years, I have built an extensive library of monographs and art books which allows me to study and therefore broaden my concepts. Morris Graves, Montien Boonma and Wolfgang Laib are known for their relationships with nature, simplicity and their expression of Eastern philosophies. Gerhard Richter breaks the code of traditional painting, not staying within what is expected. Picasso worked in any medium that his art demanded. Anne Truitt had a steadfast career in sculpting and writing, amidst family demands and an art world’s criticism. Nathan Oliveira, with whom I returned to SFAI in 1999, had a love of paint and texture. He taught the concept of the space created by the four lines of the canvas edges. Cy Twombly, a master in mark-making, had his love of line and asemic writing.
My latest series fall under the category of Accumulations: Stacks, Reiterations, Reach, Ankana, Between the Gates and most recently, Azimuth. This last series is 108 encaustic-covered panels, each with a different monotype of black with a touch of red. As in Between the Gates, these paintings relate to our precarious political situation, as well as having personal resonance. Last summer a nine-foot flash flood decimated our Santa Fe property with tons of debris, destroying structures and fences. The question I struggle with is how to paint the hope and majesty of our world within the confines of environmental destruction and the new “norms” to which we are becoming exposed.
Writing, bookmaking and publishing came later in my career. In 2008, I published Unleashed – an anthology of animals which reveals our relationship to each of them, portrayed through their eyes – with the Woodland Park Zoo, distributed by the University of Washington Press. The 2010 book, Speak for the Trees, was published by the Friesen Gallery and features my piece depicting two 8 foot Northwest trees flanking a panel of 108 ensō circles with a wrapping of textiles marking sacred space. Others Will Enter the Gates, a 2015 poetry anthology published by Black Lawrence Press, used one of my works on the cover, featuring 108 Burmese Buddha eyes with an applied gold leaf triangle. The Art of Discovery, Exploring a Northwest Art Collection, published by the Junior League of Seattle, also features my work on the cover and on two teaching pages.
In 2013, I began the process for publishing my book, 108. Working with Elizabeth A. Brown as curator and featured writer, we edited and selected twelve years of my multimedia work that explored this number in various ways of repetition. Radius Books of Santa Fe published it in 2016.
My fifty-year journey as an artist continues. I have worked on old tables with three children running around them, in shallow basements and tiny attics; had work destroyed by fire, ice and mice; experienced the joy of writing, often using my poetry for my statements; and I have honored the masters and mentors. What I have learned, I share with others of all ages and encourage their work. Who I am in mind and spirit endures as my personal pilgrimage.
All images copyright and courtesy of Catherine Eaton Skinner
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