Andrzej Skorut | Layers of Meaning

Solitary Tree [1999], oil, 18 x 24. ,painting, southwest art.
Solitary Tree [1999], oil, 18 x 24.

By Barry Scholl

“People who like my work say it brings them serenity,” says Andrzej (pronounced “Ann-J”) Skorut, 30, a Polish-born landscape artist who has made Utah his home since 1987. “They feel like I’m painting places they’ve been. An Australian woman once came up to me at a show and insisted that one of my paintings was of her homeland. I didn’t tell her I’d never been there.”

Perhaps the woman’s mistake is understandable, as there is something oddly familiar about Skorut’s works. Although his paintings are inspired by the sweeping mountain ranges and panoramic vistas of Utah and the West, Skorut applies a liberal dose of artistic license to his work. Critics almost inevitably use terms like dreamy and fluid to describe his paintings, but the artist himself is less eager to define his style. “My paintings are quiet when you look at them,” he agrees, “but there’s more going on. I try to hide energy beneath the peacefulness. I want people to connect not just to the image but to the process and the emotions I experienced when I was painting. If they do, that makes it all worthwhile.”

Calm of Summer [1999], oil, 34 x 39.,painting, southwest art.
Calm of Summer [1999], oil, 34 x 39.

To illustrate his point, Skorut snaps on a projector and screens a few slides he has photographed of the western landscape. Pausing on a shot of yellow cottonwood trees lining a stream bank in autumn, he discusses how he might interpret the scene. “I like the balance between the openness on the bottom and the complexity on top,” he says. “I take a lot of slides and pick out things I like, but I don’t paint scenes exactly as they appear. I base my paintings on my experiences, which can include images from television, movies, books, and places I’ve been. I try to be open. Painting is not just about images, it’s about balance between the image and the quality of paint.”

Working in the basement studio of the comfortable home he shares with his wife Ewa and their two small children on the east bench of the Salt Lake Valley, Skorut exercises control over every stage of the creative process. He routes frames, stretches canvas, schedules upcoming exhibits, and works on as many as four paintings at a time, spending an average of three weeks on each. “I like to have everything ready so when I’m in the mood I can just start to paint. At other times, when I’m not in the mood to paint, it’s therapeutic to take slides or build stretcher bars. That’s when I plan future works.”

Winter Hills [1999], oil, 44 x 39.,painting, southwest art.
Winter Hills [1999], oil, 44 x 39.

With the encouragement of his parents, Skorut began painting at a young age in his native Krakow, Poland. By the time he was six years old he was already devoting several hours a day to a children’s painting club. Later, he was accepted into a prestigious high school devoted to developing artists. He left Poland upon graduating at the age of 17 and joined his father and an uncle who had earlier settled in Utah after fleeing political oppression in his homeland. A year after Skorut arrived, his mother and sisters followed. “Living in the United States gives you a great opportunity,” Skorut says. “I felt I could achieve more here than in Poland. There, it was hard even to get good brushes.”

Skorut attended Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah, graduating in 1995 with a bachelor of fine arts degree. Success found him almost immediately, a fact that he says surprised him as much as anyone. “When I was studying at the University of Utah, everyone said you don’t make money as an artist. But that’s never been an issue with me; I’ve always liked to paint and was intent on doing it whether I got paid or not.”

Evening Sky [1999], oil, 47 x 52.,painting, southwest art.
Evening Sky [1999], oil, 47 x 52.

Skorut cites luck, determination, and helpful instructors as being instrumental in his success. In particular, he credits an internship he participated in immediately after graduating from college. Led by arts educator David Dornan and held in the burgeoning eastern Utah arts community of Helper, the three-month program afforded Skorut the time to work in a nurturing, distraction-free environment and solidified his desire to paint full time. “I really changed at that point,” he recalls. “After only three months I knew I just wanted to paint and do what I love to do. When you put in 100 percent you can see the results.”

Beyond giving Skorut encouragement to focus on his art, Dornan inspired the direction of his work. “David taught me about the quality of the paint,” Skorut says with obvious affection for Dornan. “Mainly I learned from watching him paint. For example, once he was working on a canvas that looked just about finished to me, but he began almost wrecking the paint by adding an overcoat. And he was right. It turned out much better the shapes of the objects showed through another layer of paint. There was a mystery there.”

Andrzej Skorut. photo, southwest art.
Andrzej Skorut.

Formerly an abstractionist, Skorut soon began adding elements of representational art into his work, finding inspiration in the results. “This process is so exciting,” he says, standing before his easel and demonstrating on a tan and grayish-brown canvas that evokes late winter in the rolling foothills of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. “You push paint into the canvas with a rag, or you can let it run for a different feeling. You can’t mess it up; you just take a lot of risks and see what you come up with. It’s always a search for new images and different textures.

“My work is like looking through glass,” he says over his shoulder as he continues modifying the scene. “It’s almost like looking through sunglasses for a different tint.” He rubs layers of paint across the surface with a stiff rag, then wipes it off in swaths. The unusual approach results in paintings that exude lyricism and serenity.

Skorut credits an unlikely source with inspiring the subtle undertone of mystery many find in his work. “When I saw Rem-brandt’s works at the Metropoli-tan Museum of Art, it gave me a more personal connection to his work than I had gotten from looking at books. I realized for the first time that he was working with opaque paint and adding other layers and glazes that made the colors richer and gave the work more depth. I use the same process and scratch it into layers. So I see what I’m doing as taking a traditional technique and making it more contemporary.”
In a recent Salt Lake Tribune interview, Skorut explained that he is in search of a subconscious connection with viewers each time he presents a new work. “I believe that deeper, truer meanings should lie beneath the surface, giving the viewer an opportunity to embark upon a personal voyage of discovery,” he told the Tribune.

Distant Bay [1997], oil, 50 x 62.,painting, southwest art.
Distant Bay [1997], oil, 50 x 62.

Expanding on that thought, Skorut continues, “When I look at a painting, I’m drawn to the colors and composition, but for a work to really connect with me it has to have an emotional effect that goes beyond technique. One inch of the canvas should hold as much interest as the whole painting. I think that’s true for others as well; people connect not just with the image but also with the process and the emotions.”

To date, Skorut’s works have connected with collectors in the United States, Britain, and Asia, but his ascent hasn’t been without travails. “When I graduated I sold 11 paintings right away. I was so excited,” he says. Later, though, after going months without a sale, he and Ewa had to survive on income from her job as a department-store salesperson. But Skorut says, “You just have to have big hopes and be prepared for the worst. Things have always seemed to work out.”

Today, he claims to have no regrets. “My parents were initially critical of my decision to be an artist. But eventually the money started coming in, and now everybody thinks I’ve made the right decision. I’m living my dream. I’m just grateful that I can support myself and my wife and spend time with my kids. That I can paint full time and enjoy it—sometimes I just can’t believe it.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Coda Gallery, Park City, UT, and Palm Desert, CA; Kneeland
Gallery, Sun Valley, ID; Third Canyon Gallery, Denver, CO; Contemporary Southwest Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; and Martin-Harris Gallery, Jackson, WY.

Featured in December 1999