Sculptor is a realist who favors the collective goal
Despite centuries of advancement, people still think of craft as “a straw broom or itchy wool sweater made by their aunt,” admits furniture maker and UNCA art- and art-history professor Brent Skidmore. “But that’s not usually the case.”
Skidmore talks a lot about what he calls the “new generation” of craft — a blurring between the aestheticism of fine art and the functionalism of heritage craft. His Boulders series straddles those two identities with pieces that are part sculpture, part home goods.
“I try to create active but stable chaos,” says Skidmore, describing the collection. Inspired by a trip to southern Utah in 1997 and his time outdoors in Western North Carolina, he started carving rock-like structures from wood in 2003. The forms are various shapes, sizes, and textures. Some could be likened to a river pebble — spherical in nature with a polished surface — while others are rough and angular.
After creating the individual components, Skidmore balances them on top of one another in a weightless, gravity-defying way. “The composition is done on the fly,” he says. “I might have some loose sketches, but it’s mostly improv.” He then paints the wood metallic shades of orange, red, yellow, and brown, creating a final product that’s more reminiscent of sandstone than basswood.
But Skidmore is a realist. Propose the notion that his furniture implies a deeper meaning, and he will strike it down. “My coffee tables look great, but they don’t do much besides hold your drink,” he says with a laugh. “With two art degrees, you would think I’d have a message. I just want people to come into their house and enjoy what they see.”
Skidmore studied sculpture and functional design at Murray State University and later received his MFA at Indiana University. As a young maker in the 1980s and ’90s, he came up during the second push for studio furniture — a sub-field grown out of the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement that focuses on low-volume production of signature pieces. Knowing that buyers appreciated handmade furniture more so than sculpture work, Skidmore started creating clocks and mirrors to sell at craft shows.
“People use mirrors to change a space. They also like looking at themselves,” Skidmore explains. “It’s not anything hugely conceptual.”
But a good friend and fellow maker soon offered some advice. He said, “Your family is going to starve to death if you don’t have a box with legs on it.” More plainly, Skidmore needed to hammer out some cash cows — buffets, cabinets, coffee tables, and the like. His aptly named Function series then took root. Typically commissioned for clients’ entryways, pieces in this collection often incorporate a storage component, as well as elements of Skidmore’s signature modernism.
One such buffet sits in his own home. The top is made of brightly colored squares of Formica (a high-pressure laminate) arranged to resemble a quilt. The front is reminiscent of lap siding he saw adorning an outdoor produce set-up in Saluda. “They had just painted it a brilliant red. When the light hit it, the building glowed,” says Skidmore. Maybe the buffet nods to his Kentucky upbringing, or maybe it reminds him of the friend he was driving to visit when he passed the produce stand.
Either way, it’s the only piece he cannot part with. And ego has little to do with it.
In 2013, a serious bicycle accident forced Skidmore to re-evaluate everything. He says he realized he’d been living an inauthentic life and that he needed to make great changes and move toward collaborative, community-based projects while getting his personal life in order. In 2016, he co-founded UNCA’s STEAM Studio, an art and technology facility that unites mechatronics engineering, art, computer science, and new media under one roof. He has since been closely involved with “Crafting Passages,” a collaborative project with Journeymen Asheville that provides group mentoring and making opportunities to middle-school-age boys. This is also what Skidmore means by the “new generation” of craft — students who will not only preserve but also reinterpret what it is to be a maker.
“If I disappeared off the face of the earth and could no longer create, the world wouldn’t change,” he says. “My personal voice is not where my focus lies these days — I focus on what collective voice I can support. All that is to say, my most important work is not my studio work, but my community work.”
Brent Skidmore is an artist in residence at Grovewood Gallery (111 Grovewood Road, Suite 2, grovewood.com). The artist is represented locally by Blue Spiral 1 Fine Art + Craft Gallery (38 Biltmore Ave., bluespiral1.com). Skidmore’s work will be shown at the group show Handmade: Crafts for Home + Holiday at Upstairs Artspace (49 South Trade St., Tryon, upstairsartspace.org) through Dec. 31. For more information, visit brentskidmore.com and steamstudio.unca.edu.