Waco artist Richard Skurla doesn’t buy the starving artist stereotype, in which a painter pursues his or her vision and scrapes by because the greater public isn’t interested in buying.
No, Skurla, the former owner of the Silver Maple Gallery in Waco, wants to make money at what he does, and if his large, bold abstracts thick with layered brush strokes limit their buyers to those with deep pockets or large rooms, he’s more than willing to come up with smaller, equally vivid quick oil studies that meet more customers’ price points in the hundreds, rather than thousands, of dollars.
At the same time, his mind churns with new ideas, such as painting on canvases molded into three-dimensional forms, which he developed during his graduate studies in art at Stephen F. Austin University.
Waco art fans can see the range of Skurla’s work in more than 30 pieces that go on display Thursday in his solo exhibition at the Art Center of Waco. His show runs through Feb. 15.
A passion for painting has driven Skurla, 57, into a second career as an artist after about 30 years in computers and information technology. He and his wife, Carolyn, moved from Colorado to Waco in 2002 after she accepted a position teaching mechnical engineering at Baylor University. He set up shop on the edge of downtown Waco with his Silver Maple Gallery near the corner of Austin Avenue and 17th Street, but found too few customers to sustain the business and closed it about four years later.
Skurla then progressed from teaching painting through his gallery — Clifton painter Lloyd Voges was one of his students — and returned to the classroom himself, first at the University of Texas at Arlington, then a master of fine arts degree at Stephen F. Austin University.
While a love for art drives his work, he’s also clear-eyed about the business end of things.
“I want to make money and keep doing what I’m doing,” he said in a recent interview at Waco’s Studio Gallery, which recently signed him on as one of the artists it will represent.
The gallery representation continues Skurla’s long friendship with the Magid family that runs the Studio Gallery, including its current director, Lance Magid. Skurla said the Waco art market has changed a little since his
days as a gallery owner. Growth in well-paid professionals willing to spend money on serious art has translated into sales and while there’s considerable room to expand, it seems to be heading in a positive direction. Skurla also is pursuing corporate buyers for his work, in part because their retail and office spaces provide adequate room for his large color-rich, abstract canvases.
The Art Center show features several of those canvases, four- and five-feet long and thick with brush- and knife-strokes of oranges, blues, reds, yellows, greens, grays and more.
“I play in paint,” he said, adding that he often dabs pigments in with fingers and hands when an implement isn’t nearby. He describes himself as a neo-abstract expressionist — he can say that with authority now that he holds a master’s in art, he jokes — but it’s a love of color that impels his painting.
Standing in front of a blank canvas, he has a general sense of what he wants to paint, but Skurla obeys the muse who speaks to him.
“It’s almost like stream of consciousness,” he explained. “These things talk to me: ‘I need more blue right here.’ ”
And color talks to color. A dollop of green on orange has a different effect than orange on green.
Several of Skurla’s larger paintings, in fact, are created as diptychs, two adjoining panels or canvases that play off each other’s color palette and design.
Painting titles like “Eclipse of Our Beginning” and “There Was More Than a Thousand Words and He Lost His Place on the Page” show the artist’s sense of humor while opening angles for viewer contemplation and interpretation.
Skurla’s newer, smaller works, with painting confined to areas roughly 4 inches by 6 inches, feature the same intense colors, but with more references to real-world landscapes and titles that make that connection.
Skurla doesn’t expect viewers to draw the same meaning from his canvases as he does. He notes, however, there’s a different energy that his work captures than the anger seen in an earlier generation of American expressionists such as Jackson Pollock. “They’re all about pure joy — human joy and joy of color,” he said.
Lance Magid, who also sits on the Art Center of Waco’s board of directors, agrees and says Skurla’s canvases demand attention. “They’re so bright, vibrant and refreshing,” he said. “He’s brought a style of art to Waco that goes way beyond cows and bluebonnets.”