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Playing the game of art

Simply said, art is what you make of it.

Gregg Skaggs makes a lot of it.

Skaggs, assistant professor of art and design at Troy University, has been awarded the Best in Show Award in the Tennessee Valley Museum of Art’s juried exhibition, “Art of the State.”

“Art of the State” is a juried competition open to all full-time and part-time art studio faculties at any Alabama college or university. Eighteen faculty members from 10 Alabama universities were selected for the 2010 exhibition. Thirty-two works of art will remain on display through the exhibition March 5 at the Tennessee Valley Museum of Art in Tuscumbia.

“Alabama’s art professors work in all media, from the traditional painting on canvas to digital composition,” said Lori Curtis, Museum Programs Assistant and Curator of “Art of the State. “The exhibition is a representation of high caliber contemporary art that depicts the direction art is taking in Alabama among those who teach art.

The direction that Skaggs is taking is a bit off the beaten path.

All of his work is based on toys and it’s whimsical at a glance but wrought with thought when given a closer look.

Take his award-winning piece, titled “Falling Up.” At a glance, it’s a fun, colorful piece that makes falling seem like not such a bad thing. But Skaggs explains.

“ This piece represents dreams that I have while sleeping on airplanes,” he said. “I never enter deep REM sleep so they tend to be strange and involve my present surroundings. Integrating windows, seating numbers/letters and actual airplane parts, ‘Falling Up’ is rich in color and texture.”

Most people can identify with that. “Aren’t most dream like that? Strange and involved.”

If Skaggs’ artwork can cause people to think, to react, to question, even if they don’t like it, he has been successful in conveying his message.

Skaggs admitted that many people don’t view “non-traditional” art as art. And, even he, started on the path to his chosen career in a traditional kind of way.

“As a young kid in western Oklahoma, I liked to draw but it wasn’t until I was in the seventh or eighth grade that I took any art classes,” he said. “I continued taking art classes in high school. I was drawing from life.”

After high school, Skaggs attended the Oklahoma Art Institute and was introduced to teachers and professional artists who sparked his imagination. Among those was pop artist Larry Rivers.

Rivers is considered by many scholars to be the “Grandfather” of Pop art because he was one of the first artists to really merge non-objective, non-narrative art with narrative and objective abstraction.

“Larry Rivers was an icon and he inspired me and sparked my imagination,” Skaggs said.

In fulfilling his educational goals, Skaggs was drawn to the teaching field where he could make art and also guide students in the world of art.

He taught elementary and middle school art for nine years and graphic design on the college level before coming to Troy University in 2005.

Troy University would provide him with an opportunity to teach and to work in the studio. A great combination for any artist who wishes to do both — teach and create his or her own art.

Hanging on the wall, leaning on the wall and pushed back in a corner in his studio at Troy University, are pieces that cause others to take a second look that often says, “What?” “Huh?”

And, that’s all right with Skaggs. He has gotten them to thinking.

“When a painting or drawing is almost a photographic image, everything has already been given to you,” he said. “The viewer doesn’t have to make a connection. It has already been made. I want my paintings to be a mystery. I want the viewers to make a connection for themselves.

“If an artist gives people everything, they have nothing left to take home. I don’t want to give everything away. I want people to have something to chew on whether they like my art or not. I love to get people guessing. I love to play the game.”

And, if the Best in Show Award from the prestigious Tennessee Valley Museum of Art’s juried exhibition is any indication, Skaggs plays the “game” extremely well.

“I was honored to receive the award because it means that my work is accepted by my peers,” he said. “It means that I’m on the right track and that I’m moving in a good, solid way. But, like most artists, I’m never completely happy with the last piece and always working toward the next piece.”

In his office, Skaggs’ next piece is somewhat of an about-face from his work on display in the studio. It’s not a photographic image but it’s the kind of work that would have novices saying, “Now that’s art!”

“Art’s what you make of it,” Skaggs said, with a smile. “It’s a game. I like playing the game.”