Professor’s art challenges people’s perceptions

 
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Shawn Skabelund, a professor of Figure Drawing, stands in his Flagstaff home with an art piece from a 2004 project titled “Drawing On Nature.” On Saturday, Skabelund had a new art piece placed near the Communication building. - Seth Eisner/ The Lumberjack

Shawn Skabelund, a professor of Figure Drawing, stands in his Flagstaff home with an art piece from a 2004 project titled “Drawing On Nature.” On Saturday, Skabelund had a new art piece placed near the Communication building. - Seth Eisner/ The Lumberjack

Professor Shawn Skabelund is perhaps NAU’s most controversial artist. His installation pieces (a type of sculpture art) are large, intricate and invoke a lot of symbolism. For example, “The Gift From Joseph Beuys,” a stuffed coyote in a box, was threatened with censorship during last year’s Faculty Art Show.

“Whenever you use materials like that, people want to censor you,” Skabelund said. “It can get to that point, because they don’t understand what the art is.”

Annette McGivney, a journalism professor, became friends with Skabelund because their sons went to the same school. 

“As an artist Shawn is very committed to exposing truth, whether people like it or not,” McGivney said.

“Winter’s Verge,” recently featured in the Faculty Art Show, was another piece thought to be dangerous. Made of four long boxes, each one representing a different season, “Verge” hosts an array of artifacts Skabelund found, such as deer and squirrel skeletons, acorns and a plastic test tube of uranium.

“There was no censorship, but there was a question,” Skabelund said. “The director of the museum was sort of worried. But it’s not unsafe, not at all. Unless an earthquake happened, and it fell off the wall and someone started licking (the uranium) up. But it’s in a plastic test tube, so the likelihood of it breaking is pretty small, and I don’t think anyone’s going to get on their hands and knees during an earthquake.”

Even in the classroom, Skabelund has run into some trouble. Skabelund taught an installation class in 2006, where he designed a piece and had students construct it. 

“We brought over specimens from the biology department as part of the piece,” Skabelund said. “It was all about water in the Southwest, and so we used different amphibians and reptiles that are local to the Southwest. And the person in charge of (the exhibit) at that time had a conniption. She thought they were unsafe, because they were in formaldehyde.”

No one asked Skabelund if the specimens were dangerous. They just assumed they were. It turns out the specimens weren’t in formaldehyde at all.

Skabelund said artists such as Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp (who have also had their share of controversy) have had a tremendous influence on his practice. His most famous works are installations. Considered a Dadaist (an art movement precursor to surrealism) by some, Skabelund prefers the term “social realist,” someone who uses unaltered materials to make a social statement.

Skabelund graduated from Utah State University and got his master’s degree at the University of Iowa. He took art classes in high school but mostly developed his interests and talents on his own time. 

“I sorta didn’t fit in at school,” Skabelund said. “I wasn’t into sports except running, so after school I’d do either two things: I’d go in the mountains and stay in shape by running after deer, or I’d go and sit in my bedroom and draw.”

Now Skabelund teaches his own students. 

“I was a student of his open live drawing session,” said junior visual communications major Mercedes Contreras. “And he really opened my eyes to some drawing techniques I’d never seen before, such as painting with wet media and dry media together.”

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