A brief history of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture

A brief history of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture

American artists engaged in a profound transformation of style and sensibility in the years after World War II, and experienced an increasingly open reception for their work. University art schools saw an influx of students—many recently returned from war—and were taught by faculty who embraced abstraction and an increasingly urbane vision of modernism.

In 1946, four artists from New England returned to Maine and founded the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, which celebrates its seventieth anniversary in 2016 (the PMA is marking the occasion with the exhibition Skowhegan at Seventy). The founders—artists Willard Cummings, Charles Cutler, Henry Varnum Poor, and Sidney Simon—wanted to create an American summer program that would combine an unhurried work environment with rigorous training and regular studio visits.

Although Cummings, Cutler, Poor, and Simon were traditionalists in their individual sensibilities, they believed that diversity in all forms was crucial to fostering a vibrant American art community, so they focused on recruiting top students from the premier art schools in the country and brought in visiting artists to help expand the dialogue about art-making—a decision that Cummings later described as key to keeping the school up-to-date and openly responsive to change and upheaval in contemporary art. Cummings and his fellow founders saw the opportunity to draw from the rich artistic ferment in Maine by inviting the most prominent artists in their respective fields—many of whom, including Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Jack Levine, already spent part of their summers in Maine—to lecture or teach.

Yet for the school’s first decade and a half, the founders—along with Poor’s daughter, Anne, also a practicing artist—struggled with the dual responsibilities of running a thriving art school and maintaining a studio practice. Shortly after a major fire in 1960 destroyed the campus's famed fresco barn, they reorganized the leadership of the school, hiring a professional director and adopting a two-tier approach in which an artist board of governors composed of student and faculty alumni set the educational and programmatic agenda for the school and the trustees support its operations.

That structure, allied with an extraordinarily broad and devoted alumni community, has helped ensure the vibrancy of Skowhegan’s program to the present. 

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June 9, 2016
Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator

Jessica May, PMA Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator, was the project director of the museum’s acclaimed reinstallation project, Your Museum, Reimagined. May served as co-curator and co-author of Richard Estes’ Realism (PMA and Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2014), and curated the 2013 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, Piece Work. Her research and curatorial interests include the history of documentary practice, contemporary photography, and postwar figurative painting in America. Prior to coming to Portland, May was Associate Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the co-author of American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White (University of California Press, 2010), and the Subhankar Banerjee: Where I Live I Hope to Know (ACMAA, 2011). She graduated from Barnard College and received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where she wrote a dissertation on Walker Evans. She lives in South Portland with her wife and son.