"A Life Fully Lived: Alfred Skondovitch"
Fairbanks Alaska.com; October 4, 2012
by Lauren Hatty
Remarkable men seldom gain notoriety during their lives, remarkable artists even less so, which may explain how Alfred Skondovitch is a name many don't know. On the winding path of his life he played many roles – a dedicated but unsuccessful boxer, reluctant revolutionary, loving husband, highly strategic cat food salesman, Alaskan firefighter, father of two, tireless storyteller, pretend Eagle Scout, local business owner, and a one-time helper to Pablo Picasso. Always, though, he was an artist.
The Early Days
While his story ends in Fairbanks, it began in London in 1927 where Alfred was born in the relatively quiet years between the First and Second World Wars. Years too young to fight, at age twelve he was evacuated to the countryside village of Banbury for two years to avoid the bombings by German forces that rocked the city during the London Blitz. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, at the behest of his older brother, Alfred joined a naive group of young Zionists on a trip to the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwest Germany. A testament to the permeation of propaganda across Europe at the time, these ambitious British teenagers set out to lead the former prisoners to Israel, having no idea that they would actually find 50,000 starving souls and thousands of the unburied victims of the then unnamed genocide.
According to Patti Skondovitch, who enters this tale shortly in historical order, but who provided us an intimate account of her husband's life, the goal of this trek was "to start the movement of people to their homeland." Being confronted with the worst of humanity was something that never left Alfred, he was haunted by it for years to come and began a rather secretive series of paintings in what one assumes was an effort to cope with the persistence of the terrifying images in his mind. He painted 72 works over his lifetime based on the time he spent at the camp, all of them unseen until a few years ago.
Alfred returned to London for a time, studying the masters and painting his way through school as well as designing sets for plays alongside some of the masters themselves, including Oskar Kokoschka. In 1947, though, the dream of becoming a boxer like his older brothers prompted him to board a Danish ship headed for New York City. With a letter of introduction from a professor who happened to be the sister-in-law of emerging abstract expressionist Franz Kline, Alfred jumped ship in New York at just the right time and with just the right connection to walk directly into a chapter of both art and American history.
The New York School
In the late 1940's and early 50's, the postwar culture was rapidly evolving and the writers, musicians, and artists of what became known as the New York School were driving the movement. Beat poetry, jazz, and abstract art from now-household names like Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis, and Jackson Pollock were at the center of this cultural shift. A diverse group of misfits who saw the world differently than those who had previously dominated the scene, the "members" of the New York School were unapologetic, activist, broke, and hell-bent on leaving a mark on the world on their own terms. In Patti's recollection, "It was a different thing going on in the art world and these guys wouldn't give up, they just kept at it until all the sudden it was an accepted thing in the world of art and it took off." By the late 50's it was widely acknowledged that the global epicenter of the art scene was no longer Paris and that this group had spurred that revolution.
Patti tells of Alfred and his friends going to a sandwich shop to lift ketchup packets which, when added with water, became tomato soup. After a show at the Poindexter Gallery where Alfred sold a piece for $30 and Willem de Kooning sold one for $100, they hit the Cedar Room (which Patti helpfully compares to the former Elbow Room in downtown Fairbanks), and celebrated as if they'd won the lottery.
To avoid the possibility of homelessness Alfred held a range of odd jobs, from working as a tailor at Oleg Cassini in the tradition of his Russian Jewish immigrant father to selling cat food door to door. The ingenuity that got him through more than one rough spot was perhaps born during this time. Patti recounts his sales technique, "He'd get cans of tuna fish and put the cat food labels on them, then he'd open the can in front of a customer and say 'can you do this with your cat food?' and take a bite of it. They'd be amazed and buy it all up."
By 1956, Alfred had showed in more than a dozen galleries across New York and Europe, spending time studying under Hans Hofmann domestically and at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière during his winters in Paris. Most notably, he was included in an exhibition called Ten Americans held at the Poindexter Gallery, a prominent New York City art hotspot, and one at the Paganos Gallery. Paganos was a relatively underground showcase where his paintings hung alongside those of de Kooning, Marc Chagall, and a more commonly known gentleman by the name of Pablo Picasso, to whose work Alfred would later personally contribute.
Patti has a vivid recollection of the 1955 New York Times review of the Poindexter Gallery show, down to the name of the reviewer, Dore Ashton, who she noted was "a top of the line critic then." The review said that Alfred "paints small, moving landscapes," a mention that seems more memorable when you include the next line: "Others represented with equally good work are Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline…" As context, in 2006 de Kooning's 1953 work Woman III went for $137.5 million, making it the third most expensive painting ever sold.
A Time of Transition
In 1956 Alfred left the East Coast on a bus headed for southern California where he fell in with a crew of artists who, in order to support themselves through winters spent painting, traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska to fight fires over the summers. Within two years, he'd joined the migrating crew of artistic firefighters and spent the next three summers with them, falling more in love with the state each time. Getting over the border presented a slight problem as Alfred was still in the country illegally. In another brash yet enlightened move, he donned an Eagle Scout uniform at the border crossings, gambling that no one would question him while he was wearing it. Somehow it worked, and he crossed back and forth freely.
It was around this time that he also fell in love with 21 year old Fairbanks native Patti Howard (12 years his junior), and in 1963 they were married and settled, briefly, into a life here in Alaska. As Patti will tell you, Alfred was a master storyteller, but there came a point when she would tire of hearing him spin the same yarn year after year (for nearly 50 years). This anecdote from early in their marriage, however, was retold replete with laughter, by Patti, while we sat in her husband's studio.
"We were in Vallauris on our honeymoon and he wanted to meet Picasso so badly, he kept going up to his villa which was a couple of miles from where we were staying, but Picasso's wife kept saying 'no, you cannot meet the master!' Finally, one morning he went up there and the gatekeeper came out and said 'Have you pissed today?' and Alfred said 'No.' The guy told Alfred to come with him and when he followed, there was Picasso working on a sculpture. He wanted Alfred to pee on it because it gives it a patina. And so he peed all over it and it helped."
After the birth of their son, Sidney, in 1965, Alfred became prone to bouts of depression brought on by media coverage of the successes of his former contemporaries in the art world. Patti put in for a transfer with her employer, PanAm, and off the young family went to New York City to reclaim the career Alfred left behind, pregnant English Bulldog in tow.
Taking up residence in the Hotel Van Rensselaer on Fifth Avenue while Alfred's artist friends looked for a loft for the family, the couple grew weary of the people and the pace of the city rather quickly. While watching TV In the days before Patti was set to start her new job, their old home was brought into their rented living quarters via a National Geographic program about Don Sheldon, a famous Alaskan bush pilot and husband of Patti's former college roommate.
As Patti tells it, she called PanAm to quit and that was it for their big city adventure. "We both got so homesick. We looked at each other with watery eyes and said, 'We have to get out of here, we've gotta go home.'" In a rented car, with an 18 month old and a new litter of puppies, Patti drove them cross country (Alfred, having lived places where public transportation was king, did not know how to drive). In Oregon they lucked into stopping in a town whose mascot was the Bulldog, and after selling the puppies for $25 each, they had enough money to get home.
"So that's how we got here, and we were sure glad to be home," a fitting sentiment for a rather unbelievable story of two lives destined to be lived in Fairbanks.
The years following their return to Alaska weren't filled with either artistic successes or failures. The exhibition of Alfred's art took a backseat to raising a family (in 1969 Lara would come along to round out the clan) and working at an assortment of odd jobs, but he never stopped creating. He returned to the local art scene in 1978 with a solo show at The Artworks on College Rd. The write-up in the News-Miner indicates that the show "includes 33 landscapes and figures in watercolors, pen and ink and colored pens," a display that whittled down a decade of work to a handful of pieces representing his reemergence. He continued doing what he loved – painting, boxing, dancing, eating – through the next decade as he ran a successful reprographics and engineering business in town during the 1980's. On their life together here, Patti says "We never got rich or anything, we were always just middle class people. He started to sell paintings for a bit of money, but never got wealthy. He wanted to be in Alaska, he fell in love with Alaska."
After his retirement, he spent time teaching classes and participating in several sketch groups, a task he took rather seriously. He was a believer in the power of networking through these groups and belonged to one or another throughout his life. Alfred considered getting more involved in the University after being asked, but the politics kept him away. After all, the lack of structure is part of what drew him to and kept him in Alaska for the entirety of his adult life. Of living here, he was fond of saying "You can just do what you want to do and never answer to anybody." Which is precisely what he did, for nearly half a century, in the same house in which Patti was raised.
There were ups and downs over the years, and at times he felt that his aesthetic didn't fit into the traditional mold of Alaskan art. He applied to the Rasmuson Foundation for a grant twice to no avail, and he had difficulty being received in galleries he approached in Anchorage, despite holding a dozen solo shows in Fairbanks. By Patti's own admission, "there are people that are into this type of art here, but they're few and far between." At the end of the century, abstract expressionism had more than proven its own merits and it was no longer considered to be controversial, but local tastes remained skewed towards realism. None of that is to say that Alfred enjoyed his time here any less due to a lack of financial success resulting from his art. When asked about his decision to move here from New York the final time, Patti says he responded "I could have stayed back there, but it's just a real dog eat dog world."
"Right towards the end I remember thinking as we lay in bed together, chin-wagging or giggling or something, I knew I was gonna miss his sense of humor. He was so funny." Watching Patti talk about Alfred, who passed away last year at the age of 84, there's less sadness on her face than you might expect. It could be because it's a sunny day and we're sitting in the studio that their friends built for him in the 70's, the light pouring in from the many windows, or it could be because she finds joy in talking about the man she loves. With a laugh, "He loved to eat. He'd make noises when he ate, "mmmm" and "ahhh," maybe I miss that the most."
When Tammy Phillips approached her about doing a posthumous show of Alfred's work, she thought "well Alfred's not here and he usually does this – I wonder what it involves?" What it involved was an enormous amount of work, not least of which was choosing 25 of the 1300 works housed in his small studio outside their home. Paintings, drawings, monoprints, and other assorted works are stacked 35 high one on top of another in several sets of drawers that you'd confuse for tool chests at first glance; not matted or framed, just sheets of paper and canvas in piles. Friends have descended to help get the chosen pieces gallery-ready for the First Friday show, a measure for which Patti seems genuinely grateful.
"The Holocaust paintings, they're really something. He'd come out here and work on these and I didn't even know until about 3 or 4 years ago, and they're just…they've gotta be seen. I want the world to see his work; the old ones, they're actual history. Of course, I love every one of them. I was just awful proud to know him and to be with him." - Patti, on her husband’s legacy