• Michael Skalka

We All Scream for Ice Cream



Do you remember where and when you were the first time you saw and had an opportunity to use art materials? Were you immersed in the sense of awe and wonder about the materials you were able to touch and use? A new tube of paint, an unopened box of colored pencils, a set of virgin pastels all laid out in hue order, provide a thrill to the senses, a call to create something wonderful.


I always felt it would be ideal to buy 2 of everything. One to use and the other to keep in pristine condition. This reminded me of the quote by Claes Oldenburg who said,” For a thorough use of ice cream cones, buy two; eat one and drop the other. Oldenburg aptly described that the only way to truly understand the totality of experiencing an ice cream cone is to enjoy one and feel the pain of seeing the other one fall to the ground.


My art materials mentor appeared to share Oldenburg’s idea to some extent. When I was introduced in 1992 to Zora Pinney, the entrepreneur and driving force behind the art materials retail store called “Zora’s.” in Los Angeles, she had the insight and means to embrace the use as well as the long-term preservation of art materials. She put aside one box of each product she ordered for the store and saved them with the hope of donating them to a museum’s conservation department so that the art materials would serve as the basis for analytical study should the need arise. The overarching idea is that if a problem with a painting is discovered sometime in the future, analysis of the same paint used by the artist could help to diagnose the problem and serve as a road map for the treatment of the work of art.


Thus, the core of the idea for the Art Materials and Study Center was born from the initial gift provided by Zora in the summer of 1993. I still remember the joy of packing up her collection in California and then opening large boxes filled with art materials as the collection was unpacked, sorted and cataloged in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. A number of items were very familiar to me having seen them when I first started shopping when I was young at a local art materials store in a nearby town. Tubes of Liquitex acrylic, Grumbacher Finest Oils, Bocour Acrylics, Winsor and Newton


Designer’s Gouache, Blockx Oil Colors. The list could go on and on.


Yesterday, May 4th, I acknowledged with my family, the height of science fiction geekiness, (you either get it or you don’t) and I reminded myself of how I came to become an art materials geek as well. For me, art materials embrace creativity bound inside a physical container. Imagine an art historian discovering unused or half-used tubes of Vincent van Gogh’s paints and thinking what amazing works of art would have been born from those unused paints for the world to enjoy? I always had a mix of elation and sadness when working with the contents of an artist’s estate. Hundreds of items, fragments of drawings, tape, bottles of mixed paints, pens, erasers all silent and static. The energy of creativity that once surrounded these objects now gone.


I have had the privilege of being able to study and understand the history of art materials and as I write more Syntax essays, I hope to convey that sense of wonder about creating works of art from the viewpoint of the history of materials that artists use to express themselves.


Perhaps some day when I visit a Cold Stone Creamery, (preferably the one in Seal Beach, CA) I might dare to reproduce Oldenburg’s message that evokes a gamut of emotions and experience the full range of pleasure and sorrow that is part and parcel of eating an ice cream cone on a hot summer day.


Going further, perhaps the ice cream cone analogy is the essence of the tightrope we walk when we create a work of art. The possibility of triumph and tragedy must exist together. The potential of failure curbs any tendency to become complacent about making art. How sweet it is when everything falls into place and our efforts yield an amazing finished product.


The Syntax of Color




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