In Audra Skuodas’ 2000 painting grab infinity, a single hand, slender and bony, floats in a white oval in front of a crimson plane. The focal point is a small dark point floating between the thumb and forefinger – infinity treated as an atomic-like entity or black hole.
A prolific artist who spent most of her life in Oberlin, Ohio, Skuodas was drawn to the mysteries of the universe beyond the visible. In drawings and paintings that use sensual colors, ranging from deep reds and yellows to dusty pastels, she imagined micro- and macrocosms of invisible phenomena that intertwined spirituality and science. While sometimes figurative – hands are a recurring motif – her work often turns to abstraction, arranging dots, ovals, spirals and linear patterns into gently hypnotic compositions. They share a desire to understand the unity of the cosmos and how energies within and without one’s self are intertwined.
“Her work was a constant search for a deeper truth,” says Cadence Pearson Lane, Skuodas’ daughter. “What is this thing among all else, what is the orchestration of the spheres, the harmony in the universe? Her work was an evolution, and each subsequent period brought her ever closer to that truth.”
Skuodas, who died in 2019 at the age of 78, was firmly established in the Cleveland art scene during her lifetime, but now she seems poised for a bigger breakthrough. This year several of her large format paintings will be presented in the second Front International at venues in Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin where her studio remains and is managed by her children. These works that contain grab infinity, stand out at the Triennale. They provide insight into the breadth of her subjects and fascination, and make it clear that this is an artist that has been overlooked by many in the art world.
“Our response was, ‘Why don’t more people know about this work?’ It is so unique and extraordinary and deserves more attention and study,” curator Murtaza Vali, who selected several Skuodas paintings for an exhibition at the Akron Art Museum, says. “There was this feminist quality, but also this kind of New Age spirituality that came through with these vibrant grids or fields. There is almost a buzz of life.”
Skuodas was born in Lithuania in 1940 during the Second World War and spent six years as a child in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany. In 1949 she immigrated to the United States with her family and settled in DeKalb, Illinois. Pearson Lane recalls her mother describing herself as a “displaced, amnesiac alien” who never felt like she belonged; She also suffered from ongoing emotional pain from a car accident in her teenage years that resulted in memory loss. “She felt like she had suffered a lot of trauma, but she doesn’t remember her trauma,” says Pearson Lane. “Her art was her healing. It was her lifeline, her everything.”
Skuodas herself has described her art as a form of hard soul searching. “Basically, I really don’t know what I’m dealing with,” she said in a 1984 interview with the diary Lithuanians. “I feel it deep inside, but I don’t do it knows. That’s why I work. It’s as if each painting tries to achieve some kind of evocation, communication or explanation. It’s like an opening and there are probably a lot of things that worry me.”
In 1958, Skuodas began studying art at Northern Illinois University, where she also received her MA in 1964. The following year she married John Pearson, a Yorkshire-born painter who soon obtained a teaching position at the University of New Mexico. There, the couple made a home in an unsightly apartment, decorating it with flea market finds that Skuodas painted with wild colors and otherworldly figures. “Everything she touched, she had to transform, and always with extravagance,” says Pearson Lane. “She saw magic in everything. She would draw inspiration from the most random of things.”
Always experimenting with different materials like beads, sequins and showy fabrics, Skuodas made hard and soft sculptures, quilts, jewelry and more. However, she was best known for her paintings and drawings, which leaned towards surrealism in her early years. They were strange landscapes with metaphysical dimensions – “spaces opening onto sea and sky,” as painter Douglas Max Utter describes in an essay in the 2013 Skuodas catalogue, or “the interior of a tent in a desert landscape, or proscenium-like spaces, where bold shadows play around the edges of unfathomable scenarios”.
After stints at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and the Cleveland Institute of Art, Pearson accepted an apprenticeship at Oberlin in 1972. Skuodas, who is busy raising two children in the small university town, has not worried about getting her art funded, although her work has attracted attention, mostly from galleries across Ohio but also in Illinois and New York. “There was a lot of hype about her and she decided against it,” says Pearson Lane. “She has decided to become a mother. But she never stopped creating.”
Pearson was always supportive of Skuodas, but it was his career that took off when his work appeared in solo exhibitions internationally. “She was considered his wife even though she was an artist herself,” says Pearson Lane.
Over time, the dreamy terrain of Skuodas became more and more geometric and flat, with a focus on naturalistic figures. In the 1990s she went in a more abstract and minimalist direction, painting free-floating forms in undefinable spaces. The characters still appeared, but they became more distorted and fanciful — they represented, Skuodas said“the violation of the universal soul or the brutalization of mother earth”.
Although prominent New York critics visited Skuodas’ studio, she remained a regional name. “They would say this work is the best work they’ve seen in decades, but their work couldn’t sell in New York because x, y, z was what sold at the time,” says Pearson Lane. Skuodas’ work may not have sold in part because of the obvious and reverential references to religion in some of the paintings, from crucifixes to cryptic portraits of Jesus. Although raised Catholic, she was not committed to organized religion. Rather, she was drawn to the messages of biblical stories and the symbolism behind religious imagery. “She was someone who absolutely believed in a higher power,” says Pearson Lane. “She believed in the teachings of Jesus, but she also believed in the teachings of the Buddha, Madame Blavatsky and all those spiritual seekers. What did these prophets tell us? What was the wisdom, what was under the words?”
One of Skuodas’ favorite shapes was the oval. In some works these are clear depictions of Christian stigmata; in others the mandorla-like shape alludes to the female anatomy. “She called them wounds,” says Vali. “She used it in different ways – as a unit within a grid, but also as a reference, presumably to feminist imagery.” Im The seed, the synthesis, the growth, the analysis (2010), an extraordinary 5 x 6 foot painting of the cross-section of an apple over cadmium yellow, the oval appears as the sensual, innermost cavity, the place containing the seeds. Wavy lines delineate the surrounding layers of flesh so that the core appears to open up, perhaps offering something forbidden in the fruit.
Skuodas made some of her best work in her later years. Inspired by physics, astronomy and spirituality, she increasingly focused on how patterns and colors can harmonize to evoke tension and energy, creating grid-like compositions and planes of dots arranged in intricate designs.
She has also been recognized as one of the most prominent artists in the Cleveland area. In 2005 and 2006, Moti Hasson Gallery held her first solo exhibitions in New York, one of which was reviewed by art in america. In 2010, Skuodas won the prestigious Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award for Visual Arts, and the following year the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired its first work by Skuodas. The Cleveland Artists Foundation at the Beck Center in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland, held a small retrospective in 2013.
Since the death of their mother in 2019, Pearson Lane and her brother Jason Pearson have begun archiving the holdings of their Oberlin studio. Working with frontline curators to bring their message to a wider audience was a crucial step in keeping their legacy alive, but only a first. “We would like to find a curator interested in doing a full retrospective of her,” says Pearson Lane. “As her children, we feel that her voice needs to be heard because she wanted to help people see a deeper truth in their lives. Now is her moment.”
- As part of the Triennale 2022 Front International (until October 2nd), the work of Audra Skuodas can be seen in the Tranformer Station in Cleveland and at the Akron Art Museumand her studio in OberlinOhio can be visited by appointment.