Sky Pape: The Landscape Explored

Yellow Box Gallery

The Landscape Explored: An Interview with Sky Pape by William Forrestall
From the exhibition catalog, “Sky Pape: Selections from the Bellagio Suite,” January 2013
Yellow Box Gallery, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sky, you are carving out a successful creative career in arguably one of the most dynamic settings in the art world, but going back can you tell us a little bit about your growing up and early life in Canada?

I’m third-generation Canadian, and Toronto was where I danced away much of my misspent youth in the early days of punk and new wave.

Any inherited creativity stems from my father’s side – my paternal great-grandfather was a flautist for Czar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and my grandmother, his daughter, was a painter. Grandma Sara was keenly aware of the great 20th century modernists like Hans Hoffman, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, etc., and I’m indebted to her for expanding my visual horizons. Not one to keep her opinion to herself or ever varnish it, she took a critic’s razor to even my earliest drawings, pointing out what I could work on, what I could do better.

When I was around ten or eleven, I wrote to the famous painter Ken Danby, asking advice about pursuing an artistic life. His reply arrived in the mail, and though I’m sorry to say I can’t specifically recall those kind words of wisdom, his encouragement and generosity in taking the time to respond to a kid’s questions has stayed with me, cementing the value of artists helping artists, and age being meaningless in terms of connecting.

You attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, before enrolling in Parsons School of Design in New York and then the Art Students League. What precipitated your decision to go to New York?

My first experience of New York was a weekend visit there in my teens. I was gobsmacked by the pace, the art, the people, the architecture, the food, jump seats in checker cabs, the inability for anything to be effectively brushed under the carpet, by everything, and I instantly knew I was in Misfits’ Paradise. Unable to afford NYC, I had been at Queen’s University for a year when Parsons School of Design invited me to apply. The second I was accepted, I resolved to move to New York even if it meant starving – which at times it did. I was 18 when I arrived, and for a while, I got by on a 10-lb bag of rice, and soup made from ketchup packets, occasionally trading rice with a friend for one of her oranges. My landlord charged extra for heat, which was beyond my means, so my toilet froze into a block of ice. If I had been Mr. Duchamp, perhaps I could have turned it into a valuable work of art.

Your works, although quite complex, can be described as landscape.  How long have you been exploring landscape, and how did you start?

A connection with nature is intrinsic to my work, rather than an exploration of landscape, per se. The ability to make a descriptive rendering of what one sees is a valuable tool I’m glad to have, but forces intrigue me more than places. Considering my work as a whole, the pieces resulting from my time in Italy are the only ones that so readily suggest “landscape,” and even those vistas quickly dissolve upon closer inspection.  There are, in fact, no shimmering lakes, no trees – just the residue of mist and rain and plant soot. I find it fascinating that the materials seem to insistently provide an image that describes themselves through their very nature.  It still makes me smile to read the words a petulant Thomas Eakins penned to his father, “The big artist does not sit down monkey like & copy… he keeps a sharp eye on Nature & steals her tools.”

You have developed a unique way of drawing, an intimate and elemental partnership with chosen materials and nature. How did you develop this practice?

When I first exhibited professionally, I identified myself as a painter. That changed when the intrepid efforts of 225 firefighters couldn’t save my studio and home from the blaze set by a mentally unstable neighbor. Coinciding with the deaths of half my immediate family, having lost far more than merely 15 years of my work, in shock and homeless, I turned away from paint, canvas, and color, eliminated figuration, and sought my bearings through abstract drawing. Thus I became a “drawer,” inexhaustibly passionate about the modest materials that sustained me.

Can you describe how you go about creating your works?

  1. Show up.
  2. Put a beautiful sheet of paper on the ground.
  3. Look.
  4. Leap.
  5. Make a mess.
  6. Turn things upside down and over.
  7. Stand, stretch, furrow brow. Curse, if necessary.
  8. Repeat steps 3 through 7 until done.

Landscape offers visual artists a range of engaging challenges, one of which is based on the observation that one does not so much look at a landscape as experience a landscape. Your work seems to acknowledge this; indeed your drawings could be considered their own universe of elemental expression. What role does intent play in creating (or discovering) new or as of yet unseen, worlds or landscapes?

My work does not result from just random marks and happenstance. Intent is perhaps most important in making the initial decision upon which path to embark. Which materials will I use? What scale? From there, a lot hinges on being open to possibilities, and attentiveness to what unexpected things emerge. Intent kicks in when determining which of these things to accept, develop, ignore, or destroy. Discovery involves experimentation, risk, perseverance, willingness to set aside what you think you know in search of what you don’t, and readiness to make irremediable mistakes.

In your drawing practice, what is water?

I refer to water as both my medium and my muse, because it serves as an inspiration for much of my work as well as a creative material. The pieces I call the “Bellagio Suite” were made using water in its various forms of mist, ice, rain, and snow, each of which make a different kind of mark when combined with the black Sumi ink.

In your drawings, one can see what might be the edge of a local pond, or the dramatic birth of a galaxy. Who created the universe?

Every single being out there possesses some knowledge that I don’t. Not that I celebrate my ignorance, but I’m very accepting of the fact that there will always be a whole lot that’s beyond my grasp. For now, that includes the answer to your question, “Who created the universe?” I’ll let you know if I find out.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Residency, from which these drawings originate, is a well-known creative residency in Italy.  How long was your residency and what impact did the residency have on your drawing practice?

My residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center was for one glorious month, and resulted in my work intensifying on many levels including form, content, and the birth of new techniques.  It was a prolific and expansive period which continues to inform my current practice. Among the many things I took away from that transformational experience was the justification — even the imperative — of dreaming as big as possible, and not giving up on the pursuit of those dreams. The Rockefeller Foundation wisely values the influence that interdisciplinary and international discourse can have upon innovative thinking and problem-solving, and with insight and generosity, provided an ideal setting, uninterrupted time, and the right number of high-achieving people for a sublime, alchemical reaction to occur. Some might call it magic. I remain in touch with most of the fellows I met during the residency, all of whom continue to thrive and accomplish remarkable things.

You talk about your drawing practice as one echoing history, as part of a continuum or collaboration with preceding generations. What elements of your practice do you think might sustain further inquiry generations from now?

In an increasingly digital society, I would like to think that future generations will still value the hand-made, and that the traditions related to making paper and ink will somehow manage to survive. Drawing is a mindful practice, a useful self-help tool for gaining understanding and compassion for one’s world and oneself. The interaction between eye and hand stimulates the imagination, and is known to encourage brain plasticity, build new neural pathways, and sharpen the senses. I would be pleased if my work inspired a continuation of the cycle of curiosity and discovery.