"Experience the legacy of Skondovitch at Greenly Art Space in Signal Hill"
Signal Tribune, 2023
by Samantha Diaz
The collection of abstract expressionist paintings at Greenly Art Space in Signal Hill are as colorful and moving as the life of the man who made them.
Alfred Skondovitch lived on two different continents, survived World War II, fought fires in Alaska, unknowingly helped Picasso with a sculpture, once led a parade, gave parenting advice to Robert De Niro Sr., raised two children and was an avid storyteller.
But most of all, he painted.
Though art critics have equated his work to some of the most revered painters in the abstract expressionist movement, Skondovitch traded the world’s recognition for family connections, beautiful landscapes and a supportive community in Fairbanks, Alaska where he lived out the last decades of his life.
Twelve years after Skondovitch passed away, his daughter Lara Duke has brought a small portion of his 1,400-piece portfolio to Southern California for the first time, hoping to continue his legacy and share his talent. The result is a moving exhibit, “Skondovitch: A Legacy” currently in Signal Hill’s nonprofit gallery.
“It really has been a lifelong goal to get it in more of a public eye … It was really overwhelming to walk in, it kind of felt like he was there with you and it’s cheesy, but it did feel a little bit like he was looking down and he was sort of proud of us for what we’ve done,” Duke said. “It made me happy to think that we’ve done something nice to help with keeping his memory alive and just to keep his legacy moving on.”
Skondovitch was born in 1927 in London shortly before the start of World War II, with two Russian Jewish immigrant parents. At 12 years old, he was one of the thousands of children who were evacuated from London and sent to live with families in the countryside for safety.
Skondovitch celebrated his bar mitzvah, a traditional Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, in a rundown synagogue while tiles from the ceiling fell from nearby bombs.
At the end of the war, he felt the need to help those most affected, and at 18 years old he joined a youth group to bring aid to thousands of people newly liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
“He just saw horrors that seared in his mind forever,” Duke said. The youth group was expecting to board survivors onto a plane and help them transition to a better life in Israel, unprepared for the extent of terror happening at the camp. The group was met with piles of unburied dead bodies and thousands of survivors barely able to walk or talk.
“When I met him he would wake up in the night just screaming, having nightmares about it and it took him years and years of practice to not have to do that,” said Patti Skondovitch, Alfred’s wife.
Though her father rarely spoke about his experience, it was one that would shape his mind and art decades later.
Skondovitch continued to study art and eventually moved to New York to work with Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann and other leaders of the abstract expressionist movement.
For nine years, Skondovitch flourished in the New York City art scene and made a name for himself among artists and critics alike. In 1956 he said farewell to the environment of mostly alcoholic, depressed artists in New York and boarded a bus to Southern California.
Students at Claremont College invited Skondovitch to fight fires in Alaska one summer to make some extra cash. This is where he met his wife Patti, and eventually spent the rest of his life.
“I don’t think he had any illusions that he was going to explode on the art scene in Alaska, given that there wasn’t a big draw for abstract expressionist type of art,” Duke said. “But he just stayed true to himself.”
Duke said that even though her father didn’t get the widespread recognition he deserved when he was alive, he often expressed appreciation for getting out of the lifestyle he was leading amongst other artists in New York.
The Fairbanks community embraced Skondovitch, and he had many galleries show his work both during his life and following his death. Patti says that Skondovitch is a household name in Fairbanks, and she hopes this will one day be the case throughout America.
“I just want his name out there,” Patti said. “In the art world I want people to say, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got a Skondovitch’ like they say up here.”
Friends and coworkers eventually raised money and built Skondovitch a studio for him to paint in, a testament to the tight-knit community he had in Alaska. It was in this studio that Skondovitch was able to process his memories of the Bergen-Belsen camp and made over 60 Holocaust-inspired paintings.
Inside Greenly Art Space, there are over 20 of Skondovitch’s most poignant, moving paintings depicting his life-changing experience of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. While most of his pieces feature bright colors and figures hidden in abstract shapes and lines, his Holocaust-inspired work is much more straightforward.
The striking paintings depict ghostly figures with solemn faces of children, nurses, guards and prisoners at the concentration camp. It would be hard to miss the haunting quality of the paintings, with the figures in them clearly in pain or some faceless and lost in the gravity of horrors they experienced.
“I would say the images are horribly beautiful and they express an extremely deep sentiment of the grief and the horror of what had happened,” said Kimberly Hocking, owner and curator of Greenly Art Space. “When I hung the artwork it was quite a heavy experience for me.”
Hocking and her husband traveled to Alaska in August to visit the Skondovitch studio and decide which paintings to include in the exhibit. Of the pieces selected, she said there have been multiple people moved to tears after walking through the space set aside for the Holocaust paintings.
Duke and her mother have decided that rather than sell the Holocaust-inspired paintings, they want to send the art to Jewish cultural centers, museums and galleries to be used as a tool “to not forget what can happen when intolerance is allowed to run rampant.”
“Skondovitch: A Legacy” will be on display at Greenly Art Space at 2698 Junipero Ave. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment.
There will be a closing reception for the gallery on May 12 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. There are prints of some of the paintings available for purchase. View more of Skondovitch’s art on his website.