Every piece of art carries a secret history, a record of its creation encodedin paint or metal or stone; or, for Columbus artist Libby Skamfer, in the layers of acrylic, paper, and other media that make up her work on wood panel. “Each layer I put on a painting is occurring while I am experiencing some emotion in my life,” she says.
Her current work, complex in structure and eclectic in palette, is an outgrowth of her study with the online cooperative Art2Life, directed by Nicholas Wilton, who encourages his students to see their work as visual poems informed by their own experience. Skamfer found in Wilton’s course a language of shape, color, and texture she could use to chart her path. Comparing her work from previous years, mostly in muted oils and cold wax, to her most recent output — brighter, bolder, with more unusual color arrays, done in acrylic — marks a border between exploration and discovery. “I began to understand that contrasts within shapes, values, in textures —versus smooth and so on — are tools useful in strengthening a painting,” she explains.
The abundance of life lessons and transition underlying the work might never have come to pass if Skamfer hadn’t abandoned her initial inclination to pursue a career in science and mathematics after arriving at the University of Colorado. Between her original classes, she found herself drawn to the school’s art studios. The two observational approaches — one intellectual and objective, the other intuitive and subjective — didn’t seem in conflict, but her decision to switch to an art major ran up against the art program’s requirement for a portfolio of prior work. She had none to offer, so she left the university to learn silversmithing in Boston, and, later, embarked on a transformative five years in Italy to study working with gold and bronze. By the late ’70s, she had returned to Chicago as a qualified master goldsmith, and it was then she took up a paintbrush for the first time, during a ten-week class with landscape artist/illustrator Walter Parke, working from live models.
It sparked an interest she later carried to New Mexico: “The painting I did in Santa Fe was very casual, something I could do for a creative outlet as time allowed.” The pastel-based pieces initially focused on portraiture but soon evolved into landscapes and still life. For the next 20 years, though, painting remained mostly a leisure-time activity, supplemented with Skamfer’s lifelong attachment to horses and their training — a big reason she eventually settled in Columbus and surrounding Polk County horse country four years ago.
But barely a year after moving to the mountains with her life partner, his unexpected death turned her art from a hobby into a coping mechanism. “I needed a creative outlet to focus on … to pass the time while I traveled into the world of tragic loss and grief,” says Skamfer. It was then she taught herself to use oil and cold wax, finding a degree of solace in the texture and layering the combination offered — a kind of physical confrontation with her own emotional struggles in the way the painting could be manipulated, scraped away in some areas to expose underlayers, or built up with wax in other parts to lend firmness and strength. “I painted nonstop at first, and I think in the first year [after her partner’s death], perhaps 90 paintings came forth,” she remembers. “I would trade painting [for him] any day, but in terms of reality, I realize his death gave me life in a new way, which is such a gift.”
Although her most recent work has turned brighter and more varied, it hasn’t lost its self-exploratory value. “I use the layering to create history in the work. Some of it may remain revealed, or not, in the end.
“My paintings hold my authentic self through emotional experience and expression. Stories upon stories, which have no end.”
Libby Skamfer, Columbus. Skamfer’s work will be shown as part of the Tryon Painters & Sculptors’ All Members’ Show, “The Style of No Style,” running through Saturday, July 20. 78 North Trade St., 828-859-0141, tryonpaintersandsculptors.com. For more information about the artist, see libbyskamfer.com.