I was introduced to the work of Elmer Schooley (1916-2007) through my friend Colleen Burke. Colleen has a legendary nose for great art, and she came to know Elmer (known to his friends as “Skinny”) after becoming a big fan of his work. We took a trip together to Santa Fe back in the 1990s, and going to see his work in the flesh at the Munson Gallery was one of the first things I did.
Schooley is best described as a landscape painter, but his surfaces are a feast of patterning, layering and meticulous micro imaging. His work spoke to me with a magical force similar to the way I experienced early examples of Aboriginal art (the work of Johnny Tjupurrula Warangkula for example)—it references the land and topology, but it also calls to the mind to keep burrowing, to dig deeper into an alternate reality. I took a close up of one of his paintings and have had that image on my studio wall for 20 years. It never stops speaking to me.
There isn’t much available on Schooley these days. (That puts him on my list of noncanonicals, right near the top. More about that ongoing list here.) But in looking for more information about him online I did find an exquisitely written tribute to him by Stephanie Grill. An art historian by training, Grill has assembled a number of her essays on her site, ArtScribe.
Schooley often works on several paintings at the same time, completing only a few each year. Schooley avoids what he calls the “dreadful flourish of the brush,” developing a system of rollers and sponges to apply the paint. “The brush is the least of my weapons.” He meticulously works with pure oil paint to build a surface. Richly textured with varying strokes of paint, his canvases have the quality of natural processes, like the dense undergrowth of a forest. Considering himself a craftsman, he pursues a goal of a “good solid unity” as he enters into the web of paint marks.
Living in chaotic times, Schooley reminds us that there is an order not of our making. Observe water spinning as it goes down the drain, and you see the spiraling form of galaxies. The capillary trees of In The Gloaming are consistent with the organization of our blood vessels. Although his paintings may arouse a feeling of spirituality, he claims to be a “carnal animal,” for truly he experiences the wonder of this planet through his keen senses. “Nature is my god,” he states plainly.
If you have any stories about him, please pass them along to me. I am always interested in knowing more about Skinny.