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Art of the Nude: Ilene Skeen

Posted Feb 08 2011 9:30pm
"It's a dangerous thing to believe that one part of you is at war with another.  It's not a good message to teach children; it leads to all kinds of trouble."

Growing up in the Deep South during the decade of free love and the one that followed, I was taught that my body was the worst thing about me.  What did it do? I wondered. Oh, it wasn't what it did, it was what it was going to do. Flesh was synonymous with sin, and we were all infected.  Apparently, only with God's help could I ever dream of overcoming my lustful nature.  I was taught to search for a way out of my own skin before I even had the chance to get comfortable.

I don't blame my parents; we were all part of a larger societal picture.  I stood at its center, gigantic plaid bows on either side of my tiny head, wondering how I could ever be a good person inside such a nasty shell.  The packaging I couldn't possibly escape was a large part of why I was so unfairly doomed from day one. Although that painful fight never quite made sense to me, I tried to fit in; to do the right thing.  I struggled to be as gosh darn good as everyone else appeared.

This led to all kinds of trouble. Self fulfilling prophecies ran rampant.  Needless to say, I failed.  The guilt and shame was unbearable. Remembering it now makes me sad, and a bit angry.  When I should have been celebrating my youth, I was waging a full scale, unnecessary war against myself.

Years rush by ...

Now I've gone and done it.   

When Bob Hogge ( Monkdogz Urban Art ) suggested that I step outside my comfort zone and paint a few nudes, I wasn't sure if I could pull it off.  It wasn't so much the actual painting that bothered me. The dark shadow of those old battles caused me to shake a bit in my boots although the war had long been over.  But because I've grown stronger than my past, I forged ahead.  Doing so enabled me to move to a new level in my painting. 

My guest today, Ilene Skeen , knows a thing or two about the great nude. She's become a champion of the art form. Unlike myself, Ilene was taught from an early age that questioning the world around her and formulating her own opinions is a great thing.  As an artist, the complexity of nude art has always fascinated Ilene. In 2003, after retiring from a technology-focused career in the publishing industry, she decided to create a web site devoted to the art of the nude.  After studying anthropology to gain a greater understanding of the cultural issues around art, she launched Barebrush.com in 2006.

On Thursday, February 10th, the first "brick and mortar" Barebrush art show will open at The Rogue Space Gallery in New York City.   

So this week in the Big Apple, the kid from the Deep South who was taught to wage war against her own body will cross paths with the kid from the Northeast who learned that thinking for yourself is a wonderful thing.  We'll find ourselves surrounded by flesh.  As Ilene puts it, we won't see "a shell of meat that has no spirit or a spirit that has no shape."  Instead, we'll immerse ourselves in an exquisite sea of full-bodied art to be appreciated and celebrated.  I plan to stand there, head held high, finally at peace with myself.

I can't wait.

Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am," spurring the cultural idea that the soul resides within the mind. Let's not forget the profound significance of that tender, vulnerable shell cradling it all.  For it's the two together who make us who we all are.


How has creativity shaped your life?

I’ve always been two-sided, being strong in both analytical thinking and creativity. I’ve never been purely one-sided. This is a key part of who I am. When I went to art school years ago, I didn’t receive any skills training. They just told me to be creative. Well, that didn’t work for me. At the end of my education, I wasn't confident that I could be an artist so I went into the business world. My creativity and analytical skills served me well there.  When I found myself unexpectedly retired in 2003, Barebrush emerged as my project.

How did Barebrush.com come about? Was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Around 2000, I was selling art through Yahoo auctions. Then Yahoo changed its rules and it became uneconomical.  However, I continued to paint.  When I retired, I decided that I was most interested in why people need to create art.  I tried to find the answer to this through an art history course, but they told me that’s not what art history is about. I ended up getting an MS in anthropology.  They invited me to study this question. After I earned my MS, I revamped my website, which had been on hold. In doing that, I realized that a group of artist on the same site would be much more interesting than just one artist. My watercolor series was called the Barebrush, hence the name. In 2006, I grabbed the domain name and drew my logo. Armed with a web site name and a logo, I bought a full year worth of advertising from Gallery Guide.  I knew I was going to do it.

I think the Gallery Guide guy thought I was crazy, but it worked out.

When I began painting nudes, my youngest daughter (age 10 at the time) asked me why I was painting naked people. She thought it was weird. I told her that many artists enjoy painting things from nature such as landscapes, animals, trees, water, etc., and that the human body is an important part of that. We represent a major aspect of nature and we shouldn't ignore that. She thought it made sense. Perhaps the answer is obvious, but from your perspective, why do some people have difficulty embracing nude art?

It’s a very good question! I’ve come to the conclusion that religion and the public school system teaches us that our minds are superior to our bodies. Many of us are taught that our bodies are either inferior, sinful, or something to be ashamed of. Artists who do nudes are concentrating on something that the rest of us are told we shouldn’t pay attention to.

Only athletes and dancers are encouraged to focus on their bodies. It’s an insidious and wrong approach. The mind doesn’t work without the body, and vice versa. You are one person with both aspects.  It's a dangerous thing to believe that one part of you is at war with another.  It's not a good message to teach children; it leads to all kinds of trouble. I’m really against it.

Have you always had an interest in art of the nude, and if so, why? Will that continue to be your focus moving forward? 

The first time I drew from the nude was first day of college. In my first art class on the first day, there was a male nude. Three or four people got up and walked out.  The teacher said, “Okay, that’s the way to eliminate people who are really not serious about art." (And in those days, male nudes models wore jock straps.) It so impressed me and it’s such a challenge.  I'm endlessly fascinated, so yes, I will continue. I’ve done other things – people, clothes, portraits, landscapes. But nothing fascinates me like the challenge of trying to represent both the physical and the spirit at the same time. That’s what I try to do, representing the body fairly, but more importantly, I try to bring out the essence of the person. I try to present the body as one the way I believe it is, not a shell of meat that has no spirit or a spirit that has no shape. I am dedicated and focused on that.

Nudes will continue to be the main focus for Barebrush, recognizing that there is a lot of other art. I was also interested in the controversy of nude art.  It is held apart, yet after a while I realized that nude art is just as much a part of life as our landscapes and pots. If I showed them all, then folks who shudder to think of looking at a nude may actually do so. My idea with Barebrush is to raise or increase the number of people who are aware of and can appreciate the art of the nude. I’ve had to walk a fine line with the other genres to make sure we don’t lose our main focus – nudes.

Kelly Borsheim
Have you had any major set backs regarding your creative endeavors that you can share with us? If so, how did you manage to keep moving forward?

Art school was a major set back because it confused me. I earned an art teaching degree, but decided that I couldn’t inflict my confusion on little kids.  I couldn’t bear the thought of not understanding what I was teaching, so I decided to keep my art to myself. For a long time I didn’t paint; I did other things. I found a lot of outlets in my regular work to use my creativity in positive ways, and I was well paid. I got into computers early on. Writing programs--making something out of nothing--fascinated me. You’re given a vague idea and then create what others envision. I would analyze, spec it out,  ask questions, research and put a design forward that would solve the business problem. There's a lot of creativity in solving business problems.

Eventually I got back to art. I began studying it. In the 90s, I took a course at the New York Botanical Gardens. For the first time, I was taught skills--perspective, shading, etc. So I have a certification in botanical illustration. The skills I learned brought me back to the nude. I decided to apply them to what I was most interested in. 

Aberration Nation focuses on creativity and life's aberrations. Some folks out there may believe that being so focused on nude art is an aberration in itself. Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?
I have to say that I was encouraged to think for myself when I was a kid, to look at facts and make my own decisions. I was not brought up to be one of the herd. I don’t think my parents did that purposefully to make me into a nonconformist. They just taught me to look at situations and assess facts.

I’m a pretty poor politician because I blurt out things that I probably shouldn’t say. I’ve learned over the years to keep my mouth shut and stop the tongue before it gets off the deep end.  In general, I’ve learned to stand up for the truth, for what’s right. I’ve had examples from my family that inspired me that way. If standing up for the truth and standing up for yourself is an aberration then at least whether you win or lose, you know you did the right thing. There’s no point in sitting something out, or having something you regret bothering you for the rest of your life.

Penelope Przekop
Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I think I’ve had trouble being understood since day one so I’m used to it by now. You just have to keep going.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

For me, neither of these words have any real meaning. I believe in focus and hard work. If you know your basics and you work hard at it, you can get there.  I suppose creativity is the ability to put things together that are not obvious, and talent is the ease at which you do it.  You have to put in the time and effort to become skilled. Yes, it’s easier for some people, but none of us are going to be Michelangelo in a week. He didn’t become Michelangelo in a week. I believe that if you focus, work hard, and then assess what you’ve done ... you make progress. As you make progress, things fall into place and people say, "You're so talented!  You're so creative!"

Michael Seif
You've stated that the upcoming "brick and mortar" Barebrush show will be the first of many. What is your vision for Barebrush?

I would love for the shows to continue! What I’m hoping for is the ability to connect art dealers with our artists. It’s happening in a small way in that some of the art in this show has representation. If there is interest, there will be a dealer involved who will make the sale for the artist. Rather than get the Internet to take the place of the dealer, I’m trying to attract artists who know how to get folks excited about their work.I would like Barebrush to provide a way to promote and manage art.  Then also provide artists with an  invitational show in New York City.

Sandro La Ferla
My plan is to start focusing on other genres as well.  I also envision 'click and buy' technology being part of the Barebrush site (with only a small, reasonable commission for Barebrush).  The other genres will be bigger. Nudes represent only 5% of the art market. The other genres could have their own shows ... so I think I’ll be pretty busy.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

It’s hard for me to say off the bat. I really have a hard time following an authority just because someone says to do so. I learned that from the type of family I had. I was taught that you could get things right without having to tear the house down to do it.
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