FAIRBANKS — In a land of art canvassed with arctic vistas, scenic sunrises, aurora, moose and bear, Alfred Skondovitch stood out for what he wasn’t.
He was mostly an abstract impressionist who made Fairbanks home, living and working among a cadre of painters who capture the realism of the North. For that, and his impressionist approach to sketching his subjects and his interpretation of the Holocaust, he is noted in the art world. Skondovitch was seemingly on the cusp of international art fame — his works have shown in New York galleries with elite abstract artists of our time including Stephen Pace, Willem De Kooning, Pablo Picasso and Jackon Pollock — when he left New York life in 1958 and returned to Fairbanks to raise a family with his wife, Patti, who still lives here today.
Skondovitch died in Anchorage in 2011, leaving behind more than 1,300 works in his studio here in Fairbanks. Of those, about 1,250 have never been displayed — until now. Patti recently made 25 of those works public when she loaned them to gallery owner Tammy Phillips to display at Phillips Studio & Gallery. Patti’s goal, she said, is to get her husband’s works back into the public eye.
“Alfred just painted. He never tried to promote,” Patti said. “I don’t want them to sit out there in the studio and die.”
Skondovitch’s paintings and sketches seem an embodiment of abstract art. Wavy lines of heavy brush strokes turn into brightly colored feminine figures, perfectly merged with the curvaceous shapes, hips and breasts of the subjects he captured. On many of the works, lightly stroked circles can be seen over the subjects’ mid regions. Patti said she once asked Alfred, “What the heck is that?” inquiring about the circular patterns over the wombs of the female paintings. “He said, ‘That’s where life begins,’” Patti said.
And while Fairbanks has a thriving art scene steeped in the realism of arctic life — landscapes, wildlife, Native culture — Skondovitch’s abstract view didn’t always capture the public’s initial attention.
“Abstract is a bit of a hard sell in Fairbanks,” gallery owner and personal friend Phillips said. “Until you understand it, you can’t love it.”
Phillips knew Skondovitch during his time in Fairbanks and even attended sketching sessions with him, where they and other artists would sit and sketch a subject for hours. She knew him for about 10 years before she became aware of his history and fame, she said.
“Ten years ago when I met him, I had no idea who he was,” she said. “I’m absolutely impressed and lucky that we could acquire this art now while it’s still available.” Phillips said. “If his daughter can get it on the national stage again, it will be untouchable.”
Skondovitch was born in England in 1927 to Russian Jewish immigrants. In 1939, at 12 years old, he was evacuated to Banbury, Oxfordshire, to escape bombings in London at the beginning of World War II. The war would have an impact on Skondovitch, and he used his art almost as therapy late in his career to deal with the Holocaust. As a teen, he visited the liberated Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany in 1945 with a Zionist youth group. Scenes from the trip had a profound experience on Skondovitch and remained with him through his life. “He would wake up screaming in terror,” Patti said.
Skondovitch painted 72 Holocaust scenes that are different in tone from his other works. The Holocaust paintings are dark, intense, often with shades of blacks, grays, dark blues, purples and some reds. Many depict children and mothers or scenes from concentration camps in Europe. Others show what appear to be fields of bodies or guards and prisoners.
Art led Skondovitch to New York City in 1947, where he studied under German expressionist Hans Hofmann at the Hofmann School, whose alumni include Lee Krasner and Richard Stankiewicz.
He received much acclaim for his work and was included as one of 10 abstract expressionists at New York’s Egan/Poindexter Gallery in 1956. That showing is often credited in art circles as shifting the art world’s attention from Paris to New York City.
In 1958, Skondovitch was persuaded by friends to visit Alaska. He landed in Fairbanks, fighting forest fires for three summers. He met Patti, and the two married in 1963.
The couple moved back to New York for Skondovitch to pursue his art career after the birth of their son, Sidney, but it was short lived, as they didn’t want to raise a family in the city. They returned to Fairbanks after three months. His daughter, Lara, was born in Fairbanks in 1969.
In Fairbanks, he was prolific, working in the studio he built and eventually expanded. In his studio, he cataloged his massive collection in a large, multi-shelved filing cabinet, Patti said. A top drawer still is labeled “works in progress.”
“That was his place,” Patti said of the studio. “I’d never go out there. That was his world.”
Toward the end of his life, Alfred expanded into landscapes, but those are too precious and memorable to sell, she said. “I’m going to be stingy with those,” she added.
With the help of their daughter, Patti is now making a push to get more of her husband’s works seen and displayed in galleries. She has no plans to sell his Holocaust paintings, but would rather see them displayed in Holocaust museums across the nation.
“I think they need to be seen,” she said. “All of them.”
If you go
What: “A Touch of Skondovitch: Unseen Works by the Late Alfred Skondovitch”
Where: On display at Phillips Studio & Gallery, 1222 Well St. 479-0956
When: Skondovitch’s works will be on display through October. They are available for viewing on weekends or by appointment during the week.
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter at @FDNMfeatures.