Surrounded on all sides by paintings of his own making, Avery Skaggs sat quietly in the gallery of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum Saturday morning smiling, occasionally rocking gently back and forth in his wheelchair. About a dozen people sat with Skaggs, listening to how he produced the 24 paintings on exhibit at the museum. Only Skaggs didn’t say a word. He let his art and a friend do the talking.
“I’m not Avery’s mouth piece; his art is,” said Kelly Manning, director of The Canvas Community Art Studio and Gallery. “A lot of artists come here to speak about their inspiration, and I think Avery does that with his art.”
And for Skaggs, art is an important form of communication because he is unable to communicate verbally. This is why Manning spoke on his behalf at this month’s Coffee and Collections event. The 28-year-old artist experiences “a range of disabilities that limit his mobility and verbal communication,” Manning explained. Skaggs is quadriplegic and experiences cerebral palsy.
He is also a self-employed artist making a name for himself in the Juneau art community. Since 2010, Skaggs’ art has been featured in seven exhibits here in town; three of which have been solo exhibits. His most recent exhibit “Kinetic” will be on display at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum until Saturday.
Manning met Skaggs in 2008 when he started going to The Canvas to work. He has been painting ever since childhood though, she said.
“His work is a process of exploring the feel of the medium on his hands and the canvas as well as on the table, his wheelchair and anyone walking past,” Manning said.
Skaggs prefers to paint with his hands rather than a brush, but that doesn’t mean this process is simple. And in order to paint, Avery requires some help from The Canvas staff members. They start by firmly fastening the panel board on which he paints to the table in front of him. This is an important step because Skaggs might otherwise knock his paintings to the floor.
“One of our goals is to make sure whatever marks are on the piece are Avery’s,” Manning said. “Our goal is to show his motion, his marks, but we do have to help to facilitate that.”
Staff members also mix Skaggs’ mediums in cups that he is able to reach and use. Most frequently, these cups are filled with acrylic paint, which Manning said is Skaggs’ favorite medium. This is evident by the paintings that currently adorn the walls of the museum.
This is not to say that Skaggs has no input over the preparatory process. Though he is unable to speak or use tools to communicate with The Canvas staff, Skaggs reacts differently to different colors, canvases and mediums, and those who help him observe his reactions carefully. He prefers colors that allow him to paint with sharp contrast, Manning said.
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, participants described his art as “mesmerizing”, “perfect” and “beautifully done.” One person even purchased one of his paintings after the event.
So far, Skaggs has sold 10 of the 24 paintings — which range in price from about $250 to $350 — on display at the museum. This has helped Skaggs’ business Avery Art, but money is far from the only measure of success when it comes to his work, Manning said.
“If you’re working with Avery, you’re definitely wearing a part of his project, as is he; it’s a very exuberant process,” she said, explaining the excitement with which Skaggs approaches his work. “If we see that he’s engaged and interacting with a piece, then we see that as a successful piece.”