Gordan Skalleberg (GS): I was born in Norway in 1960. My dad is Norwegian and my mom is German. At that time, Norway was not that welcoming for Germans, so we soon moved to the Stockholm area in Sweden. My dad is an entrepreneur and I soon started working for him during school breaks. After finishing school, I started working full time in the family business. I spent two years in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early ‘80s as a trainee and while there I met my future wife Andrea. We had three kids. I worked long days in the business, traveling a lot, trying to fulfill expectations and responsibilities. I gradually became more and more weary and almost subconsciously I was dreaming about doing something more artistic. A lot more can be said about this process, but in 2004 I resigned as president of the company and set out to become an artist.
KR: How did you get started in the arts?
GS: In my late teens my dad encouraged me to use his nice camera to develop my seeing and communication skills. I started taking more artistic photos and learned darkroom work. I really enjoyed it and found that I had a fairly good eye. While growing up we did not go to museums or galleries much, but my mom painted some and her grandfather had been a fairly well-known painter in Germany (who once painted a portrait of the Kaiser), so I guess there was some artistic influence anyway. When I decided to quit working in the family business, I wanted to do more art and I had to find my way.
KR: It looks like you spend time between the US and Sweden. Can you share if or how that travel has been impacted by current events?
GS: My wife, Andrea, came from the USA to Sweden and after the kids grew up and moved out, we needed a change and started looking for a place to spend some time here in the USA. We eventually found Santa Fe and immediately felt at home. I am a permanent resident, currently applying for naturalization, and we spend most of our time in the USA. We normally travel to Sweden in the early spring to be partof a large studio tour and then we always spend the summers in Sweden. In the current pandemic, we have had to change these plans. We are staying in Santa Fe and hopefully we will be able to go back to Sweden in the not-too-distant future to see our children and my parents. Everything is so uncertain now.
KR: Your paintings often feature very classically posed people that give them an almost historical feel. Do you typically work from old or new photographs, from life, memory or a hybrid?
GS: I normally work from photos, more or less. I like to alter the photo images to add something that will create questions, inspire people to make up their own stories. I like to say that I am a storyteller without telling the story. I always look for old photos of people I do not know and when I find a photo that inspires my imagination I can go to work. I also use my own photos. I do not like to use photos of ”famous” people or photos where the ownership rights can be an issue. When I paint landscapes I mostly make them up; maybe I will use a photo to just get a color or a cloud or some other detail right.
KR: How do you choose a subject for a piece?
GS: As I said above, the subject has to speak to me. It is hard to define what gets me inspired. Maybe I have had an idea for a long time and then I construct a piece with the help of one or several photos.
KR: It seems most of your work is on plywood. Can you tell us when/why you started working on wood and what has kept you coming back to it?
GS: When I began trying to find my way into the art world, I started almost from scratch and I had to teach myself a lot of things. I remember studying paintings - how the background was painted, colors chosen, materials used. Once I visited an exhibition and saw large works by Swedish painter Rolf Hansson, who had painted on some kind of board. I went home and found a large plywood sheet in my shed and that is how it started. I soon found that I could paint on untreated plywood and let the grain be a random part of my work and from then on I was hooked. I gave a really nice, large roll of canvas to an artist friend.
KR: Many of your pieces seem to juxtapose landscape and portrait. Do you typically start with one or the other?
GS: From a painterly process point of view, I start with the landscape, the background. But before I start painting I have sketched the piece and have a good plan. I will do a lot of the sketching with Photoshop and InDesign. Then I will print it and maybe paint on it or draw in ideas and work from there.
KR: Your laser cut steel sculptures and the shadows they cast are sort of two pieces of art in one. What sparked the idea to start creating these? I read that you have some background in photography. Did that experience with light and shadow play into your design?
GS: When I worked in the family business I learned to do graphic design, photographed our machines for marketing purposes and learned to work with Photoshop. These tools have been fantastic in my work. The steel pieces came about in a process where one thing leads to another. I like to describe it as hiking - you come around a bend and you see a hill and get curious about how it looks beyond that hill. So you move on. At that hill you see something else and you keep moving on - and you will never know what it will lead to. I worked on a photo in Photoshop and applied some cutout filters; then, I took that image into InDesign and played with it and soon came up with the idea of doing a large steel cutout. I made the first test with a full 8’x 4’ plywood sheet; I created a mock-up with a jigsaw. I placed it outside my studio and was blown away by how the landscape and the light interacted with the piece. Next I wanted
to make the real steel piece, starting with some smaller pieces. I came home from the laser cutting factory with my new pieces, had a cup of coffee and played with ideas about how to use them. I drilled two holes at the top of one piece, applied some steel wire, hung it from the ceiling, adjusted a spotlight…BOOM! The shadow on the wall was a surprise that I had not planned. But if I had not constantly been on the move to experiment, I would never have found it. So was it just luck or a result of my process?
KR: How do you push yourself forward to find new creativity?
GS: I think I have partly answered this above. Even if I am not actively painting in the studio, I am almost always thinking about ideas and looking for new projects. I do not normally take huge leaps; I try to move ahead in small steps that are based on my core artistic activity. So, when I am working, I like to surprise myself with the thought, ”I have never done it quite like this before.” As I am not trained and educated as an artist, I very often have to start from what seems to be scratch. How do I paint skin color? I do not have a patented method, so I experiment…over and over.
KR: Experimenting with as many different formats and techniques as you do, I am guessing maybe you
have encountered some failed attempts along the way. Can you tell us about an idea you had that did
not work out the way you expected?
GS: Fear of failure is always there, but I think it is especially important to take that risk. Often when I start on a painting I feel like ”this time it is going to suck.” One nice thing about painting in oil is you can add layers and work on mistakes. This normally creates depth and character and sometimes I have to remind myself to move on and add a layer and keep pushing beyond the ”mistakes.” I am currently working on a relatively large painting that I was looking forward to working on, but I lost the ”fun” and had to take a break. I will soon start on another layer and deep down I am sure it will eventually work out. I have tried to sketch landscapes to be used for steel laser cut pieces, but until now it has not worked out. Is that a failure or am I just not done yet?
KR: What would you consider to be one of your best successes as an artist and why?
GS: I think my first large laser cut piece is one of the best I have done. But in terms of success I am maybe most excited when children are intrigued by my art. I even had a blind man visiting me in the studio once during a studio tour. The place was packed with people, but I had him grab my elbow and then I ”showed” him my art. I let him touch my work and he could ”see” with his sensitive fingers and it was an amazing experience for both of us.
KR: How many hours a week do you devote to your art? What are some of your work habits that you
think are an asset?
GS: A few years ago I started taking riding lessons from a very experienced and ambitious reining trainer. I soon wanted to have my own horse. I now own an awesome reining horse and I ride 4-6 times a week. Every time I learn something new. So I normally go to the barn to ride and then I come home to work. It is a perfect balance and I am convinced it helps me in my artistic work. I will paint maybe 4-5 hours and then do other studio work. I like to keep my studio in order; I need order around me to be able to create. I do not work all the time, night and day. I need to be fairly rested to paint as it takes so much concentration. When it comes to assets in my work, I think my over 20 years in the business world taught me a lot about work discipline, presenting your ”product,” meeting with customers/clients and very much more. My years in the cable industry is my ”diploma,” so to speak.
KR: What motivates you to keep creating? What do you hope viewers experience when they engage
with your work?
GS: If I would have to choose between riding and painting, I would sacrifice my beloved horse without hesitation. Even if I get weary at times, creating art is my passion. When I get tired or weary, I try to inspire myself, maybe by leafing through a book about one of the masters, or I go to a museum or gallery and that will most likely restore my desire to create. Sometimes I ask myself about the meaning of it all, why make art when there are so many dire needs in the world? Then I again think of children and young people, how important it is to connect the two brain halves, inspire imagination and creativity. Older people need that stimulation as well. You do not have to be an artist to have imagination and creativity – it is equally important for a designer, a technician, an architect, a doctor, a scientist, etc. I want people to be inspired by my work, even to the point where they might start painting or creating on their own.
KR: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being a painter?
GS: I guess the greatest challenge for any artist is to be able to make a living while doing what you are passionate about, having the freedom to work on your own ideas. In that process I think it is important to find out what success is to YOU. I believe I have to start with ME, to do what I love and make sure I am pleased and happy with my work. Only then I can give something of value to others. If you lose that focus, maybe because you are hungry, it is probably easy to lose your ”core business.” When I started out trying to become an artist, people would say ”well, you can afford it.” But it was an immense struggle, not least to break free from what I thought (imagined) other people thought about what I was doing – my family, my parents, my former colleagues and customers. It took years before I actually felt I was WORKING when I was painting. But over the years I have had countless people tell me I made the right choice and that is a great reward…and probably success.
KR: Who are some of your art influences and mentors?
GS: I do not think I have ever had a mentor. In the early stages of finding a way to paint, I was inspired by Andy Warhol’s handling of colors and I was inspired by how Edvard Munch painted. I have gotten so much inspiration from seeing work by known and unknown artists, and also to read about their lives and their work. I take bits and pieces from here and there and let that influence and inspire me.
KR: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
GS: That is maybe the hardest question of all. It is not a good idea to try to become an artist because you do not want to have a ”normal” 9 to 5 job or because you want to call yourself an ARTIST and hang out with artists. To be an artist you have to have patience and perseverance and you have to be able to spend a lot of time alone. I read a lot about artists; I like to visit their studios. I do question whether I am in a position to hand out advice. For me, maybe I was trying not to burn out, I was desperate in a way…I had to do it.