Sandra Smolski Lands Residency at Prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture

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Artist Sandra Smolki in her East Vancouver studio with one of the paintings she produced while in residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. (Photo by Perrin Grauer)

By Perrin Grauer

Posted on November 30, 2023

The residency represents an extraordinary achievement for an undergraduate artist, says ECU faculty member and Skowhegan alum Gonzalo Reyes Rodriguez.

Artist and ECU student Sandra Smolski was recently awarded a residency at the renowned Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture.

Sandra completed the nine-week residency during the summer between her third and fourth years in the BFA program — a rare accomplishment for an undergraduate artist, according to ECU faculty member Gonzalo Reyes Rodriguez.

“I was really happy when she got the residency because Sandra is definitely someone I thought would flourish there,” says Gonzalo, who taught Sandra and encouraged her to apply to Skowhegan. “She’s committed to her work as a student and is very dedicated to a kind of practice-based, purely abstract painting that lets mark-making come from the body without premeditation. You’re around so many talented artists at Skowhegan and you learn a lot really fast. Sandra is the kind of artist who would benefit hugely from that.”

Skowhegan is located on a 350-acre forested campus in rural Maine, where students live for the duration of their stay. Studios are open 24 hours a day, and the 65 residency participants and 11 faculty artists engage in rigorous peer-to-peer exchange. More than 2000 artists apply each year for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Gonzalo himself is a Skowhegan alum, and says the artistic communities forged there can last a lifetime. The residency’s prestigious reputation can lead to commercial interest as well, he notes.

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A painting by Sandra Smolski, completed during her time at Skowhegan. (Photo by / courtesy Sandra Smolski)

A look at past participants reveals a who’s-who of the contemporary art world. Anish Kapoor, Barbara Kruger, Theaster Gates, Richard Tuttle and Sam Gilliam are among past faculty members. Jessica Vaughan, Sondra Perry, Ellsworth Kelly, Korakrit Arunanondchai and Laylah Ali are counted among the many famous alums.

Sandra reports having encountered a number of such figures.

“I met a lot of prestigious artists,” she says. “It was pretty amazing. I was a bit blindsided at first.”

But the community Sandra built at Skowhegan extends beyond the residency’s celebrity members. She formed friendships with artists from across the globe and at all stages of their careers — from emerging artists to established practitioners and teachers with gallery representation.

“Being surrounded by a group of people who were already on the move toward a career in the arts was really inspiring for someone like me who’s still in my undergrad,” she tells me. “It validated me as an artist rather than as a student trying to be an artist. I suddenly felt like I’d arrived. Like, here I am, I’m an artist.”

Skowhegan provides students with a rigorous schedule of lectures, workshops, studio visits, artist visits and work opportunities. Sandra worked in the famed Diego Rivera Fresco Barn — one of the only facilities in North America where fresco painting is taught. She also had a beautiful studio where she focused on her paint practice.

“My takeaway was to not think about image-making so much as mark-making and abstraction. And the faculty there encouraged me to do that — to take the painting off the wall, put it on the floor, work with non-traditional mark-making tools,” she says. “They sent me off to Home Depot and Walmart to get tools like mops and squeegees, kitchen brushes and scrapers — things you could experiment and play with. That was really liberating.”

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“It makes you feel more rooted and connected to your own identity as an artist,” Sandra says of the Skowhegan residency, where she completed numerous works including this painting. (Photo by / courtesy Sandra Smolski)

This revelation has led to lasting change for Sandra, who has since rearranged her studio in Vancouver to accommodate new ways of working.

Now back at ECU, Sandra has been encouraging fellow ECU students to apply to Skowhegan. It’s worth applying simply as an exercise in professional practic, even if you don’t get in on your first try, she says.

But she also recommends not giving up. Sandra met many participants who only gained admission on their fifth, eighth or eleventh application. And when you finally do win admission, the benefits are enormous.

“It makes you feel more rooted and connected to your own identity as an artist. I think that’s really valuable,” she says. “Those experiences stay with you. They shape your experience as an artist.”

Applications for the 2024 session at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture are open through Jan. 5, 2024. Learn more via the Skowhegan website.

Follow Sandra on Instagram to see more of her work.

Visit ECU online to learn more about studying Visual Arts at Emily Carr.

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