Artist Lucy Skaer considers human-animal relationships, agrarian culture during Chinati residency

The Chinati Foundation’s latest artist in residence, Lucy Skaer, will host an open studio event Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Locker Plant. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA — Scotland-based sculptor Lucy Skaer is wrapping up her Chinati Foundation artist residency this week, a time period the artist used to focus on the relationship between humans and animals, aesthetics of early industrial farming, collecting and more. 

Skaer and Chinati curator Ingrid Schaffner will host an open studio event at the Locker Plant, 130 East Oak Street, from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9. 

Skaer and her dog Gladys, who accompanied her on the transatlantic journey, will soon depart from the Big Bend after over a month spent exploring the region and the greater Southwest. Skaer said her Marfa residency, which was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, has given her the timely opportunity to take in everything from the Grand Canyon in Arizona to Navajo weavings in New Mexico. 

“That’s kind of been how the whole residency has been: just trying to take in as much influence [as possible],” said Skaer. “Partly because of the pandemic, [I’ve] just been quite hungry for things.”

Working from the Chinati Foundation’s Locker Plant — a meat processing plant and butcher circa 1920 acquired by DIA Art Foundation in 1979 in conjunction with Donald Judd — Skaer has drawn inspiration from the history of the site and imagined livestock perspectives to create a number of drawings, all considered one work, that represent enclosed animals’ views. 

“The idea is that you’re looking out through this series of barricades and fences as if you’re the animal,” said Skaer. “You don’t understand the architecture, you just see it as faces and voids and places that you might get through or places that you can’t get through.”  

Lucy Skaer in the Locker Plant studio. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

Skaer brought with her a guide to agriculture published in 1805 — which includes instructions and illustrations on how to make haystacks, dig ditches and other early industrial farming techniques — and spent time at the historic Marfa Stockyards. Together, these influences helped shape the artist’s current ideas about the emotional connection between humans and animals. 

Skaer also spectated at a local Alpine rodeo. “I’ve never seen people on horses like that, they look so natural and in command,” she said of the event. 

The result are Skaer’s site-specific animal pen drawings, which were created with a plotter — a device programmed by the artist to render squares and rectangles of varying shades. The machine runs a pencil across robust watercolor paper to precisely create the images, which Skaer can manipulate by weighing down the pencil and making other alterations. Some drawings have even picked up the texture of the old wooden work table Skaer is stationed at in the Locker Plant studio. 

“I’m interested in all of those subtle things that you can do with something that’s basically digital,” said Skaer. 

The 14 or so drawings were hung around the studio’s sun-lit front room in order to emulate the feeling of being enclosed for the viewer, said Skaer.

The artist intends to give away a series of freehand drawings made with black Japanese ink of her dog Gladys at the open studio event this week. “Within the whole idea of animals being confined that I’ve been working with, on this work I like the idea of these drawings of the dog just going off like strays,” said Skaer, laughing. 

Skaer, who is originally from Cambridge, England, is now living in a remote, small community on the Isle of Lewis, located off of the northwest coast of Scotland. Compared to her home, which is two hours from the nearest supermarket, Marfa is well-resourced, she said. Unlike your typical visitor, Skaer, who grows her own vegetables and makes her own cider, has been impressed by the produce selection at local stores and other town offerings. 

“[In Marfa] there’s nice places to get food, you can go for a nice cocktail. None of those things are on the island, you have to do all those things yourself,” said Skaer. 

Skaer’s pen plotter. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

While Skaer does not maintain her own farm animals, she is surrounded by them on the Isle of Lewis, and has made two films in the past couple of years, Lamb, and Bear, in collaboration with artist Rosalind Nashashibi that artfully document the spring lambing process on rural farms.

Bestiaries, medieval-era dictionaries that document the moral teachings of various animals, were a source of inspiration for the films. The annual spring lambing as well as the ocean tides on the Isle of Lewis have Skaer deeply in touch with natural rhythms which, in turn, influence her art. “I’m just very aware of the seasons and the time of year, and I feel that creeping into my artwork,” said Skaer. 

Skaer, who has created a number of site specific exhibitions around the world spanning the last 20 years, is currently working on a project closer to home. She’s recently been working to transform a ruin of an old stone house near the sea on the island where she lives into an experimental arts space. Using recycled slate from pool tables, she plans to use the material as flooring which she will carve work into. Skaer said she anticipates delving further into her relationship with architecture in regards to her art practice over the next few years. 

“I’m renovating [the stone house] so I can have it as a place I try out work and maybe a place that just becomes a permanent work in itself,” said Skaer. 

The art of collecting and curating spaces has also been on Skaer’s mind during her residency. Visits to the Judd Foundation to see furniture placement and Judd’s collections have reminded her how many items she’s amassed while traveling that she will bring back to Scotland. 

“I think that bringing things back to Lewis, where I’m quite isolated — I think they’ll just continue to give me the residency,” said Skaer. “Like the residency will continue through the objects and the books.”