Metal Artist Jeff Skoloda Hits His Stride
Jeff Skoloda is a master at taking rigid lengths of steel and “cold-bending” them into organic curvilinear creations that seethe with creative energy.
His knack for borrowing from the grace and energy found in nature, and combining that with formal design, is readily apparent in the work he does for clients near and far, designing and building unique handcrafted pieces of furniture and architectural metalwork such as stairs, gates, railings and decks.
It’s even more apparent in Skoloda’s work as an artist. Take, for example, the 20-foot centerpiece of the sculpture garden he has recently built next to his home, studio and workshop in downtown Ouray.
It starts with a tight little suspended sphere of energy – like the universe before the big bang – out of which swirls and loops of metal dance upward and downward in looser, bigger forms that are at once separate yet completely connected to the sculpture’s pulsing core.
“I always wanted to do something on this scale,” Skoloda said, squinting up at the sculpture as it flashed in the midday sun. “It’s called ‘The Gravity of Us,’” and is, he said, about “the way we all affect each other’s lives and new additions make new turns and may change your path and your focus.”
The stunningly tall sculpture “has a conversation” with a much smaller, smooth white marble sculpture nestled on the ground nearby, that Skoloda created years ago before he and wife Nicole became parents to their two young daughters. It seems to express a similar theme, with a central core around which energy swirls on a more compact, intimate scale.
“It’s called ‘Tumble,’ from a time when we were young, and it was just the two of us,” Skoloda, 41, explained. “All there was, was two people who became one, and now it is four people becoming a family. The conversation is totally there.”
Sculptures by other artists make their own quiet points nearby – an upright abstract powder coated steel piece by Mark Leichliter, who is known for his “cool large-scale stuff and public installations,” stands at attention like a sentinel, while sheltering under a blossoming tree near the garden’s entrance, a compact bronze replica of a piece called “Chaco,” by sculptor Bruce Gueswell, evokes the intricate sunbaked architecture of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Larry Scanlon (of Telluride Landscape Co. and Scanlon Design) helped Skoloda design the circular garden, which sinks gently into the hillside beside the Skolodas’ three-story home and gallery.
A LEGACY OF STEEL AND FANCY
Beyond the “wildflower gates” that Skoloda crafted to enclose this private world, he has left a prolific mark on the landscape of Ouray over the past 15 years.
The Ouray Ice Park showcases the scope of his talent and artistic vision. Here, the lanky metal artist has built a soulful, wind-strewn memorial gazebo for fallen climbers, and a 3.5-ton, 25-foot-tall steel competition tower overhanging the Uncompahgre Gorge, where for the past two years the world’s best ice climbers have competed at the annual Ouray Ice Festival.
He also helped build the intricate network of viewing platforms overlooking the ice-climbing action in the gorge below.
In town, his work can be seen up and down Main Street, from ornamental gates guarding public access to the city’s flume systems to an army of flower planters that will soon be dispatched up and down Main Street to a bicycle rack at Fellin Park. Inside the Ouray Brewery, beer-drinkers sit in whimsical swings suspended by salvaged chair-lift cable (in lieu of bar stools) also of Skoloda’s creation, inspired by the beach bars of Mexico.
“I thought it would be cool to do a mountain version – the same idea, in a different environment,” he said.
In Telluride, Skoloda and his crew of three employees welded structural steel components for the new Baked in Telluride building that arose from the ashes of its predecessor, and have contributed architectural embellishments to many a designer home in Mountain Village, with clients including Overly Construction and Fortenberry Construction. In late May, his crew was feverishly fabricating exterior embellishments for one of the largest homes Mountain Village has ever seen.
Skoloda, who thrives on collaboration with other craftsmen and artists in the area, frequently teams up with Ridgway woodworker Dennis Conrad (DC Woodworks) to execute projects for the Telluride-based interior architectural design firm Studio Frank, as well.
“They design the interiors and come up with furniture ideas, and we collaborate on building those pieces and installing them,” Skoloda explained. One such recent project was a map case drawer – a “massive piece of furniture” comprised of oak, steel and leather.
“It’s really fun to do homes like this,” Skoloda said. “You spend so much time in them, and they are in such beautiful places, that you really get to like the interiors and the space.”
It can be bittersweet to have such a brief, intimate acquaintance with a space that he will probably never see again, but “at the same time, somebody gets to enjoy it, and I think that’s very rewarding,” he said. “It’s a huge sense of satisfaction when something is finished and installed, and functional.”
AN ARTIST AND A CRAFTSMAN
Lately, business on these kinds of projects has been booming, so much so that his original metal shop behind his home and gallery in Ouray – which seemed “huge” when he built it almost a dozen years ago – has spilled over into the basement of the building next door where he and his crew now fabricate most of their bigger jobs.
Entering the 4,000 sq. ft. shop with 14-ft. ceilings is a bit like going inside a well-tended mine. The place is spic and span, cavernous and shadowy, and smells of metal and earth. On this particular morning, with employees dispatched elsewhere, and no activity, it is uncharacteristically quiet. The City of Ouray’s new flower planters – fabricated last fall, but yet to be deployed – are massed like silent soldiers along one wall.
The new workshop is a physical manifestation of how Skoloda’s livelihood has grown in recent years. Things have gotten seriously bigger.
His original workshop space behind his house is still a busy place, too. Early in his career, this is where he built the metal frames of 30,000 chairs for Chipotle Grill – a years-long part-time project that put food on the table while he was first getting established as a metalworker in Ouray, after earning a BFA from the University of Wisconsin, and working in a full-service art foundry in Loveland, Colo.
The space is dominated by the cutting, bending, and welding tools of a metal fabricator. But it is also infused with the soul of an artist. In a back corner, there is an unfinished marble sculpture that may resemble a seashell when it is done.
Skoloda started carving stone about the same time he moved to Ouray. “I absolutely love that subtractive process,” he said. “It’s just about as opposite as you can get from metal fabrication. You start with your total block and you move into it. With fabricating you start with your pieces and you move out.”
Plus, he added, “It’s just plain fun, to make a huge pile of dust. It’s all about tools,” he said. “I love this job because I am just addicted to buying tools. Any opportunity to find a new cool tool is welcome.”
For stone carving, Skoloda uses an electric-powered circular saw with abrasive diamond blades, specially designed for stone. “They have electroplated edges with diamonds encrusted in them,” Skoloda explained. “This blade just slices right through a piece of marble, like butter.”
Next, Skoloda powers up the air compressor and demonstrates how to use a pneumatic chisel. As he leans into the power tool, the solid marble of the unfinished sculpture gives way before it like crumbling plaster.
“At full bore, this thing just tears through stone,” Skoloda said. “It’s a blast. It’s kind of addictive to start peeling into a chunk of stone and let the chips fly.”
As the desired form begins to emerge from the block of marble, he’ll switch to a bantam chisel.
“The awesome thing is, as you expand your skill set, then you get to expand your tool set, too,” he grinned.
In another corner of his workshop, Skoloda has a small forging setup complete with an anvil and a recently acquired air-operated power hammer that “hits like a 75-pound sledge.”
Right now, he is using the setup for fairly simple things, like texturing metal for paneling. A finished sample piece that he holds up looks somewhat like a neatly cut piece of pitted slate.
“That’s the attraction of worked metal; it looks like a completely different product than standard fabricated material,” he said.
One of Skoloda’s favorite metal artists is the late David Smith, a pioneer of abstract sculpture who revolutionized the possibilities of metal sculpture in the 1950s and 60s by introducing the industrial process and using metal to “draw in space.”
Skoloda keeps a couple photos of the famous sculptor in his workshop for inspiration – he is massive and rough-hewn, with a furrowed brow and aggressive, steely gaze – in contrast to Skoloda’s own distinctly chiseled features and serious, thoughtful manner.
What the two men obviously have in common is a passion for using tools of industry to make art out of metal.
“He had a big thing about displaying art in the landscape, and I always liked that idea, too,” Skoloda said. The new sculpture garden is a move toward doing that kind of thing on a small scale, but Skoloda has a bigger dream that may someday come to fruition – doing a Jeep tour art display, placing pieces of sculpture up on top of the surrounding mountain passes.
Following in Smith’s footsteps, Skoloda sees his twin pursuits of artist and craftsman as complimenting each other. “They meld nicely. I think that working in a craft hones skills for creating art work, and the skills you have as a craftsman make you a better artist, or at least broaden your abilities to create. You have more tools in your toolbox, literally.”
But, he said, “I don’t think I have become an established artist yet – I feel like I am still finding my voice. I am definitely a craftsperson, and I think I am getting really good at what I’m doing. As an artist, I am still working towards where I want to be.”
Skoloda grew up in Wisconsin, the son of a journalist/poet father and a mother who “likes to dabble in art.”
He has an uncle who is an artist, but he credits his grandfather – a woodworker – for turning him on to the wonder of making things with tools. “I spent a lot of time hanging out with Grandpa in the workshop, for sure,” he said.
Now, Skoloda’s older daughter Ella likes to come down to the studio and “hang out” with him while he does design work. “She’ll come sit right next to me in the office and draw,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll look over her shoulder and get inspired – ‘Hey, that looks pretty cool!’”
On a chalkboard in the office, a 6-year-old’s careful handwriting proclaims “Ella and Jeff’s Workshop.” She even has her own timecard, and has learned to use some of the smaller air tools in the workshop.
“She won’t weld yet, and that’s reasonable,” Skoloda allowed. “But she likes using the little sanders. She used the plasma cutter for a few seconds, but that was a little too exciting…. I can understand why. She is a pretty brave kid, but there are things that can wait. She loves it down here.”
Becoming a father has changed the way Skoloda thinks about his own creative process.
“You watch kids make art, and you realize that they don’t worry about anything. And I think that I had started worrying about everything,” he reflected. “You can take those lessons, when you are working on a very detail-oriented project, and try to let go a little bit from the design end – not worrying about rules when you are making things.”
He tries not to get too tangled up in the paradox of it all – embracing the messy, uninhibited creative process, while shouldering the responsibility of running a business and supporting a family, and still finding time to enjoy it all, and get outside and play.
Skoloda lives amongst the things he’s made.
Everywhere you look around the “Skoloda family compound” – which he largely built himself – there are amazing pieces of his work, both functional and artistic, and sometimes a blend of both. Fences, gates, an outdoor fireplace, metal steppingstones…. It’s all still a work in progress that gets better all the time. “Building this place was a great opportunity,” he said. “If you have an idea, you just mess with it and put it someplace.”
A dozen years ago, when the Skolodas’ loft home/street-level gallery was in the planning stages, the couple looked to the remodeled industrial spaces of his wife’s native New York for inspiration, but their ultimate influence was the scenery around them in Ouray.
Windows in the living room intentionally frame Mt. Hayden and Mt. Abram like works of art, while Skoloda’s intricate carbon steel metalwork scrolls its way throughout the house like graceful, articulate, yet untamed vinery.
Handmade balustrades of arched bracing delineate the open spaces of the home, pairing Skoloda’s metalwork with 100-year-old recycled timbers from a mill in British Columbia.
The space has evolved over the years from a spare loft apartment into a home for their family of four, with bedrooms added on to the third floor for their daughters when they came along.
Yet simplicity dominates, in both furnishings and décor. Light paints the entire area, thanks to generous windows and two domed plexiglass skylights. Pale bamboo flooring adds to a feeling of freshness. The living space extends outdoors, with fabricated metal balconies taking in gorgeous mountain views on three sides.
The ground floor of the building is devoted to Skol Studio, the high-end art gallery where Skoloda showcases his work alongside that of other outstanding local and regional artists whose energy and work he and Nicole admire.
The artwork of these kindred spirits inspires Skoloda to continue pursuing his own dream of eventually becoming a full-time artist.
Skoloda had a strange experience on a recent trip to the Front Range. Sitting down over beers at his friend’s house, a piece of furniture caught his eye. “I looked over and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s kind of a neat,” he recalled.
And then he realized, “Oh, I made that!”
It was a piece he had crafted with a woodworker friend back in the 1990s.
“It was like running into myself from 15 years ago, and saying, ‘I kind of like that guy,’” he said. “I had to totally inspect it, and I was like, ‘Well, that was a little shabby. I never would have made anything like this today. Not to say that it was bad. But it’s not me anymore.”
It made him realize just how far he’s come – as an artist, and as a human being – since staking his claim in Ouray all those years ago with his wife (and muse), Nicole. “She’s the one that has made it all possible,” said Skoloda. “She is the one who has brought the dream to full fruition. She is holding it all together” – like the sphere of energy that pulses at the nucleus of “The Gravity of Us.”
“It’s been a wild ride,” Skoloda marveled. “I look around every now and again and think, I couldn’t be happier with where things are at. I look back at what I wanted to have happen, and then, where we have come. There are obviously still goals to be attained, but at the same time, it is like, ‘We are on track.’ Time becomes precious, and you try not to waste it.”
For more information about Skol Studio and sculpture garden visit skolstudio.com.