Artists on Coping: Zac Skinner

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Zac collecting trash along the shoreline of the Hudson River, 2020, courtesy of the artist

Zac Skinner’s work explores geo-engineering, global warming, and the Anthropocene Landscape. His solo exhibitions include Rockland Center For the Arts, West Nyack, NY, Garrison Art Center, Garrison, NY, and Matteawan Gallery, Beacon, NY. Recent group exhibitions include CICA Museum, Seoul, South Korea, Spring Break Art Show, New York, NY; SITE:Brooklyn, New York, NY; WAAM, Woodstock, NY. He was recently interviewed and featured in Lowdown Magazine, Berlin, Germany. He is currently a Lecturer at Ramapo College, NJ, and SUNY New Paltz College. Skinner will have a solo exhibition at Wave Hill’s Sunroom Project Space this October through December, 2020.

“Solar Generator with Water Collector and Aloe Vera”. 2016-20. Reclaimed trash, plants, 12V solar generator and watering/grow light system, and water collector. Courtesy of the artist

AS: How are you coping?

ZS: Thank you for asking, and for sharing artist’s stories. It helps to learn how other artists are surviving this massive change. Like most of the world, I feel a loss of control, a vulnerability, questioning what is valuable in life. Two things have been defining my life as of late. Along with being an artist, I am also an adjunct art instructor, and faculty were recently asked to re-invent the way forward within the span of a week to keep the education system running (shout out to all the amazing teachers in the same boat!).

But the heaviest perpetual challenge for me has been that my wife, an amazing artist named Jayoung Yoon, is in Korea with our unborn twin sons, while the Coronavirus circles the globe. They will be born soon, around April 20th, and I can’t be there for that moment. Jayoung is safe with her family. Probably safer than here, with Korea’s quick and diligent response to the virus. And I plan to go to Korea as soon as possible to meet my new family members, but all the logistics of getting there are up in the air at this moment. I will have to meet them virtually. In some ways, I feel fortunate to live in a time when we can be together virtually, if not in flesh. The uncertainties of having newborn babies at this moment are overwhelming, but so many aspects of life are uncertain now, so Jayoung and I don’t dwell on them.

Three things have kept me grounded through this chaos. One is the amazing inner-strength, fearlessness, and positivity in the face of adversity by my wife (we keep each other strong). Second is learning to let go of control and expectations, and in general being more present in everyday life. And third, delving into my art-process as a meditative practice.

“Flood Water with Water Towers and Hut-Raft”. 2019. Egg Tempera and oil on Panel. Courtesy of the artist.

AS: Has your routine changed?

ZS: Yes, it has changed a lot recently. But one part of my routine has persisted. I am cleaning up garbage along the shoreline of the Hudson River, which is a great social distancing activity. I bring garbage bags with me, and take a slow walk, and gather all the non-biodegradable detritus I can find. Because of the pandemic, Riverkeeper’s annual river-sweep has been put on hold, and the riverbanks need some love. Select materials also become a part of my sculpture. This process is an act of remediation, and a chance to reflect on our material consumption. Currently, I’m slowly building a dry-riverbed with embedded detritus for Wave Hill’s Sunroom Project Space, which is supposed to be shown in Autumn/Winter 2020

I am very thankful to still have a job at this moment but finding that longer hours are needed for distanced-learning. I am sleeping less to prepare the required materials for teaching. Before with teaching, body language was so important in getting ideas across to students, and without that, I find that I have to spell-things out to a higher degree for virtual lessons. It is hard to reach out to some students during this crazy time. We, teachers and students, are both learning to negotiate this new truth, and even question our notions and values of college education. Life comes first. Patience, tenderness, and flexibility are key virtues now.

Healing and mellow art-processes have been helpful for passing time, while simultaneously learning, and transcending the blues. My friend Faheem Haider and I challenged each other to do a Suminagashi drawing exchange, and I shared this process with my students as well, because it is such a refreshing, seductive, soul-soothing process to do. You compose ink floating on the surface of water, and then drop a piece of paper onto the surface, capturing the ink. Another process that just takes the edge off life is Egg-Tempera painting. You can crack an egg and use the yellow yolk-oil mixed with tubed watercolor pigments, or powdered pigments to mix colors as desired, but the painting technique is what is really healing. With a fine brush, you build the painting up with cross-hatching, and drawing. It’s meticulous, and slow, but soothing, and brings together the sensitive lines of drawing, with the layering and luminous colors of painting. So to speak to routine, I’ve maybe been doing less in terms of raw productivity, but am taking time to fall in love with process again.

Suminagashi experiments and ink work in progress. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

ZS: Times like this, when we are isolated, and thinking about survival tend to illuminate what we really value in this world. Heightened now, is the fact that life is fragile. My wife and I have had recent discussions, comparing the health systems, and social safety nets, and government responses between the USA and S. Korea. And I hope this will be a moment where we can wake up as a society and shift toward valuing life over capital. Jayoung pointed out Koreans would be in the streets fighting with all their spirit, against many of the inequities and corruption that we have been subjected to here. Especially when it comes to healthcare – the insane drug prices, hospital bills, and high copays. We have some insurance, but even with it, costs have brought us to our knees. I fear a lot of people will be in the same boat when trying to rebuild their livelihoods after the pandemic settles down. Our lives are on the line, and when it’s safe to gather again, we need to hit the streets and demand more from our Government.

On a positive note, I feel that we as artists have something to share during this difficult time. We know how to keep busy when isolated. We have often weathered instability in life, and sometimes manage to stay grounded. It’s so important to use those skills for good, and share that knowledge with family, neighbors, and friends in any way possible. Reach out, help them stay inspired, teach a niece, or friend to paint, or see if you can use your art for direct-actions. I have been so inspired by friends who, for example, have initiated making masks to donate to hospitals and nursing homes (shout out to Rena Leinberger!). They stepped up where they saw a need. We need to keep doing whatever we can on all wavelengths now: visual, performance, new media, direct-actions, and teaching. The way forward is leading with our inner-strength and creativity!

“Dry Riverbed with Rainwater Generator and Kale”. 2019. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

AS: What matters most right now?

ZS: Loved ones. My heart is with my wife and soon to be newborns. I am so thankful to my Parents In-Law, beyond words, for supporting Jayoung in this difficult time. And I’m so thankful she is in a place that feels safe, even though we can’t be together. I’m thankful for my brother, Justin, who came to stay with me, to endure isolation, and is helping me build a sculpture project. And my parents who have given me constant encouragement and been selfless listeners and advisers. I feel so grateful for the friends, family, colleagues and supporters in my life, they have kept my heart full of hope and love. I wish you all health, safety, and inner strength, and I love you!

Taking life one day at a time is so important now. Letting my mind and heart be open to expanding and learning from this situation keeps me going. And when life is unstable, I can look to my art-making rituals for some stability. I wish this for all of us.

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

ZS: Although this is a scary time, we can’t feel defeated. We can feel tenderness, vulnerability, and may feel loss. But we have to believe that we can get through this with even more determination and ingenuity than ever. I think a time period where our everyday habits are disrupted, can be a vehicle for growth and perspective on life. So if possible, make good use of this time to look inward, and around you, and see what needs to be cultivated, and what needs to be fortified. I have faith in the artist’s ability to adapt to hard times, and from there, bring forth a vision of beauty or truth. We need those virtues for the road ahead.

“Wisdom Tent” and works at Garrison Art Center. 2019. Installation view. Courtesy of the artist.

Epilogue: Zac Skinner and Jayoung Yoon are now parents to twin boys.
Liam and Theo were born 4/20/20 in Seoul, South Korea. 

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: