One of the first things I did upon arriving at Colby College’s Bixler Art and Music Library was break a compact disc. I’d come to listen to recordings from the Skowhegan Lecture Archive, and my first request was for CDs of the presentation that painter Lois Dodd gave in 1979. But the discs, long unplayed and a bit neglected, were fragile things. None of the student employees who helped me had ever handled this part of the library’s collection, nor did they know of a device I could play them on. This surprised me, considering Colby is one of the few places in the world where one can access this vast and remarkable archive.
Established in 1946 on a 350-acre farm in Madison, the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture provides accommodations and work space for nine weeks each summer to artists from all over the world. Its founders were inspired by European art schools and their rigorous programming and prided themselves on inviting artists with “divergent viewpoints” and countercultural roots. Faculty and residents were there to learn from one another — and, starting in 1952, from the big-name artists invited to lecture in the rural campus’s white-clapboard barn. The lectures vary substantially in scope — where some artists just click through slides of their work, discussing their approach, others meander through fascinating stories of lives lived in the arts or hold forth on aesthetics, politics, and culture.
“We don’t tell anyone what to say at all,” Skowhegan archives manager Paige Laino told me. “There are no parameters. We try to emphasize that even though the lecture archive is public, it’s hard to access, which gives people license to be a lot more candid than they would in other contexts. What people choose to do with that is kind of their own prerogative.”
The Skowhegan Lecture Archive is little promoted, with copies housed at fewer than a dozen institutions, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, LA’s Getty Center, and the Yale University Library. Laino calls it “a little arcane secret you get to access if you know the right pass code.” The archive today comprises more than 700 hours of audio, of which I have now listened to exactly eight.
My small taste of Skowhegan was strange and overwhelming but inspiring. I began by pulling a few familiar names, painters like Lois Dodd (a longtime Skowhegan instructor and, eventually, board member) and Alex Katz (“Mr. Skowhegan,” according to an intro to one of his nine Skowhegan lectures). It turns out, great painters aren’t always fantastic speakers, and Dodd’s talk was hard to follow without seeing her slides — or the second disc in the series, which I cracked while removing it from its jewel case. So instead, I spent much of my morning with Katz: CDs of lectures from 1962, 1975, and 1995.
It was fascinating to hear the different Katzes. You’d expect later iterations to be more formalized and confident, and they were: Katz became a better speaker over the years, his stories smoothed, his pauses for laughter better timed. He spoke repeatedly about becoming a better viewer, learning to see with the eyes of an artist. “Seeing is developed,” he explained. “The process of seeing is developed through an interest in art.” In his earlier lectures, he seemed to focus his gaze on landscapes and the beauty of Maine, the Earth, the colors and tones and textures and ridges. As an older man, he became more interested in documenting his “encounters with glamour,” clocking the clothes of his fellow New Yorkers. It was the same man speaking, the same mind, and it was gratifying to hear the shifts and movements that happen within an artist.
Less uplifting was a 2000 lecture by the Guerilla Girls. The group of anonymous female artists, who wore gorilla masks in public, made waves in the art world, beginning in the ’80s, by calling out structural sexism — one famous poster pointed out that women represented some five percent of the Met’s modern-art collection and 85 percent of its nudes. At Skowhegan, discussing their work as artists and activists, they were funny and sharp (and masked), and their points about misogyny in the art world felt no less salient 23 years later.
After this depressing realization, I took a break to stretch my legs in the Colby College Museum of Art. My next request at the reference desk was inspired by artists I saw there: Yun-Fei Ji, Susan Shatter, Neil Welliver. On a whim, I also requested Marguerite Zorach’s 1954 lecture and a 2002 talk by Kay Walkingstick, two names I didn’t know but found intriguing.
Quality of insight didn’t correspond with name recognition, which I should have expected and yet, somehow, surprised me. Walkingstick’s crisp, entertaining presentation covered the Cherokee artist’s eclectic use of Indigenous patterns and iconography. Sitting at a desktop, I was able to pull up images of her abstract paintings as she described them, and I felt like I was in the room with her, focusing on unwound tepees, wondering at the expertly muted colors and unfamiliar forms. Cherokees never lived in tepees, she explained, but her art “wasn’t about that — it was about the view of Native people from the outside.”
Unlike Walkingstick, I knew Zorach’s name because I’d heard of her husband, sculptor and painter William, who has many lectures in the archive. Marguerite has one — informal, digressive, and surreal in its distant touchstones. She spoke of the first show of American modern painters in New York, in 1913; the 1915 founding of the Provincetown Players; and other early-20th-century icons I knew only from textbooks. I found myself tearing up listening to her voice, the sound of it, that now-extinct Transatlantic accent. Her stories. (“How can anybody who looks like a perfectly nice girl paint such perfectly horrible pictures?” was her husband’s incredible pick-up line.) I felt suddenly very lucky to have access to these recordings.
The lecture I thought about most over the following days was the last one I heard, by painter Neil Welliver, who lived in Lincolnville and was known for his large-scale landscapes. In his 1973 talk, he expressed frustration with the art-worlds’ labels, the “chauvinism” of new realism, and the human tendency to degrade nature. He also spoke, unpretentiously and with great conviction, about the grace granted by attentiveness. “There are moments,” he said, “brief intervals in one’s eye and mind where everything is, for a second, real and clear. They are the most fleeting moments of all.” For him, these moments tended to happen in nature, and thus it was not the scene he was placing on canvas, but rather the feeling of having one’s “entire psychology” encompassed by awe: “The air is crystalline. The direction of the wind is absolute. Light falls with astounding clarity. Every object sits in its designated space or moves with unbelievable precision. Every gesture is right.”
I left the library that evening blinking against the light, my eyes, ears, and mind exhausted, craving sunglasses, water, and silence but still wanting to be blessed with some sudden beauty. Maybe I could have a Welliver moment, I thought. Maybe I’d glimpse a rainbow or get thrown into a thunderstorm. But there was no moment of glory along the muddy campus walkway or in the gritty parking lot, just a fleeting melody floating from a music-building practice room, a piccolo sweetly piercing the March air. It was good enough.