Kerry Skarbakka: Creating Characters and Continuing Conversations

Image courtesy of Kerry Skarbakka.

Life often seems like a slideshow. Memories are clipped from experience and cataloged in our minds, and over time we begin editing the narrative down to its most fundamental elements. Through our experiences and the memories we keep, our future self emerges. This process is one Kerry Skarbakka is both familiar with, and still exploring.

Skarbakka is an artist and assistant professor at OSU – a photographer, sculptor, and all around creative thinker who landed in Corvallis several years ago. Rather than bowls of fruit or beautiful sunsets, Skarbakka captures in his photography feelings, emotions, tensions, and anxieties. Inspiration has been drawn from his own life and experience, but recently his work has taken a new direction, a “what if” direction.

Skarbakka grew up in a conservative community in a religious family in Tennessee where he dreamed of one day becoming an actor. When he got older, he left Tennessee, conservative politics, and religion – things that had once provided comfort in his life.

After serving in the military, receiving an art degree with a focus on sculpture from the University of Washington, and after traveling the world making art and working dead-end jobs for nearly a decade, Skarbakka began applying to graduate programs. He explained that during this time he made almost every possible mistake one could make in terms of becoming a professional artist, including mailing school applications loaded with typos and errors.

After being turned down by a number of schools, Skarbakka realized what had happened, rectified the problems in his application process, and was accepted to a photography program at Columbia College in Chicago. Here he was turned on to the influences of the convoluted German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who described the experience of life as perpetually falling and our responsibility as human beings to master our own uncertainties.

Having struggled with the void left by rejecting the security of strong religious beliefs and a history of being confronted with and subsequently correcting mistakes, Heidegger’s perspective was a good analogy for the body of work Skarbakka was about to create.

To Right Oneself
Titled The Struggle to Right Oneself, Skarbakka acts as his own subject in a collection of images where a man is either falling or has lost balance with seconds left before calamity. Many of the images evoke a sense of vertigo, while others trigger an anxious desire to inspect the man for wires, harnesses, or maybe the edge of a trampoline just out of the frame.

This body of work became very successful, landing him interviews, lectures, and exhibitions at various galleries. Skarbakka became known as “The Falling Guy.” However, after a gross 9/11-themed misunderstanding by the news media of the meaning of his next set, titled Life Goes On, Skarbakka was left traumatized and unsure what to do next.

“I believe, in some respects, that as artists it is within our job description a kind of a responsibility to figure out what we can do in situations that mean something to us,” he said. “So the evolution of this thought process has been intriguing.”

His next move began around this time last year when he took a trip to Wyoming to set up for an artists’ residency there. Upon arrival he found that another artist had stage 4 breast cancer, while he had developed a horrible stomach infection and so was far too contagious to stay at the residency. Disappointed at the missed opportunity and angry at the raging illness in his bowels, Skarbakka decided to visit his dad in Arkansas where he now lives.

“I was driving through Wyoming and I decided to take all the backroads and I just ended up realizing how much Trump support was going on out there,” he said. “You didn’t feel it in the cities as much because they weren’t worried about it, but in the countryside, oh my God it was like they were frenzied.”

Arriving at his father’s home in Arkansas, Skarbakka began putting together his new exploration of character and photography – the angry white male.

“When looking for a way to expand from tension-anxiety to embattlement and divisiveness, it makes sense to connect threads in that direction,” he explained. “But I’ve never had the experience of being a young black man, and because I am experiential in the work that I make, I keep having to return to the things that I know.”

Borrowing some of his father’s guns, Skarbakka poses nude in front of a truck bed with a revolver in each hand. It is night and his pale white body and silver six-shooters jump through the vignette of darkness like a nightmare, his grizzled face grimacing at the camera. He calls it Castle Doctrine.

“It’s just flat-out aggression, it’s not meant to be stylized I guess you could say,” he said.

Another shot titled Neighborhood Watch became a feature at the OSU Fairbanks Gallery earlier this year. Using high-intensity prismatic film, Skarbakka created a number of street signs with his face blurred behind a gun pointed straight at the viewer, held up simply in buckets of concrete. The title alludes to a grouping of these signs, some on a pallet, some on the ground, all aiming down the sights.

As Skarbakka explains the connection between his pieces, the story begins to unfold. Looking through a collection of 20 images recently submitted to the Guggenheim Foundation for review, we see a 12-year-old boy in a cowboy hat. He smiles widely at the camera, his image now frozen in time.

On the same page is a strapping 18-year-old proudly posing in his military fatigues. The last image on the page is a 46-year-old man with a puffy beard and world-weary eyes. They are all Skarbakka at different points in his life.

“Although I’m the model of my work, I’m not me,” he said. “So I have got these multiple forms of me, it’s hugely narcissistic… It’s really bizarre because this is the first time I have actually brought in actual pictures of myself.”

Thumbing through more images, he reveals photos from a collection titled Red, White, Black, and Blue: The Revenge of Billy Jack. Based on the 1971 movie Billy Jack, the collection begins with Skarbakka in the midst of being pummeled by another man. A few more images in and we are looking at a massive pile of handgun holsters followed by an equally large pile of bullets. Further in is another falling picture – Skarbakka leans over the edge of a train track bridge with no possibility of recovering his balance.

“You make a connection between this open-ended potential for positivity, where this [child’s] life could possibly lead, to these masculine roles that men have to take, kind of proving one’s self, to this gap between this ‘open and closed emotion’,” he explained. “This whole thing is really about all the things that took place to drive a person to create acts of violence against humanity.”

Behind the amusing, jarring, and otherwise intense images is a desire to weigh in to the conversations being had across the nation right now. How can we support groups that are working for human benefit, how can we create nodes of understanding, and how might we be less armchair activists shouting at the TV and use whatever voice we have to speak out?

Skarbakka’s work is visceral. It strikes a nerve whether it is an analysis of angry white privilege or the tension of uncertainty – the images capture abstract human emotions that most of us can relate to. They compel the viewer to keep looking, to immerse themselves in the moment and to wonder how and why this is happening… what led to this moment.

What’s Next
Outside of photography, Skarbakka has been involved in sculpting projects around OSU. One recent project involved creating a collection of broken robots in the engineering building with OSU’s own walking robot modeled on top of the pile. At OSU Humanity’s Autzen House his Blackout exhibit, featuring various academic items like microscopes, books, and musical instruments covered in a truck bed liner, was displayed to remind us of what we stand to lose through financial cuts to the arts, sciences, and humanities.

In August he will be collaborating with several other artists on an exhibition at the Corvallis Arts Center titled Log Cabin Medley. Clay Lohmann will be making a cabin out of quilts, his wife Julie Green will create paintings representing the passing of time and memory, and Anna Fiddler will paint an impressionistic forest gathering (the latter two are also OSU art instructors). Skarbakka is responsible for the human element of the show, and will be using 12-foot transparencies of his 22-month-old son so the images can be seen through from all sides.

As for photography, Skarbakka has his work cut out for him. Between proposing underwater photoshoots with the OSU Marine Lab, life-sized fight scene cutouts, and more masculinity pieces, it’s hard to say what we will see next. One thing is certain, as long as Skarbakka is experiencing new ideas, emotions, and events, there will be more inspiration and more situations for his many personas to accommodate.

Check out his website for a more comprehensive view of his work:

By Anthony Vitale