‘Wax Man of Blair County’ and more: Baker Mansion hosts first art exhibit

For 36 years, John Skrabalak taught art at Altoona Area High School, staying on top of trends, but too spent to pursue his own art in depth. That changed when he retired in 2008, and just five years ago, he changed his preferred media from acrylics and watercolors to encaustics.

His work, along with that of five other local artists, is now on display at an unexpected venue: the Baker Mansion Historical Museum.

“We wanted to do something we’d never done before with local artists,” said Joe DeFrancesco, executive director. “It gives them a chance to be viewed in a different light, and it draws in a new audience to the museum.”

Even though early history was recorded through art, some visitors are surprised to find contemporary art in a history museum, he said. “But it’s really been well received.”

“Art at Baker: A Special Exhibition at the Mansion” will be on display through Sept. 9, and DeFrancesco said he hopes to have a similar exhibition of local artwork every year, to keep “the mansion fresh and appealing to a lot of different interests.”

Other local artists represented in the display are Sharon Wall, who has five pieces of fiber art using quilting, paint and other mixed media; Scott Steberger, whose seven works range from a large graphite to a series of small watercolors; Helen Gorsuch, with four raku- glazed ceramic pieces; Ralph Bennett, with four watercolors; and Kevin Suckling, and his “The Endangered Species Series.”

Michael Allison, a local artist who has restored many of the rooms at the mansion, was curator.

“Having the art here is perfect,” said Skrabalak. “You’re creating history as you paint layer upon layer.”

Skrabalak said his mother encouraged him to pursue art at an early age at their kitchen table in Monessen, where he grew up, 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. His high school art teacher was less than encouraging.

“I never got along with her; she said I was unteachable,” he said. “But it was in me. My senior year, she just put me in the back of the classroom and let me do what I wanted. That was a great learning time for me.

“I knew this was where I wanted to go.”

For years, Skrabalak studied acrylics and watercolors, especially during his undergraduate and graduate work at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Penn State University. Then he taught watercolor painting for 35 years, while staying abreast of new trends and media in the art world.

He was attending another painting workshop five years ago when an artist handed him a postcard about a class she was teaching.

“I thought, ‘What is this encaustics?'” Skrabalak said.

Also known as hot-wax painting, it uses heated beeswax to which colored pigments are added. The liquid or paste is then applied to a surface, either wood, canvas or other material.

“It’s difficult at first,” Skrabalak said. “You’re working with hot wax and it can harden sooner than you want. It took a lot of practice.”

He started small, 6-by-6-inch canvasses, before going larger. The four pieces at the Baker Mansion exhibition are 24-by-24 inches and 2 inches deep.

Some artists who use the encaustic medium prefer a glass-like surface. That requires a lot of patience, Skrabalak said, but he doesn’t like smooth anyway.

“I love texture,” he said, adding that he often uses mixed media, including fabrics, plaster and photographs.

His favorite fabric is Australian aboriginal designs, as well as batiks. Nature is his inspiration because of imperfections found in it, such as dying trees and rusted objects. He discovered recently there is a name for that Eastern philosophy of imperfection.

“Wabi-Sabi is where you find beauty in ugliness,” he said.

He’ll manipulate it at times, as well, once burying fabric in the woods that he dug up months later to use as collage material.

Skrabalak works mostly in the summer so he can work outdoors. Not only does nature inspire him, it provides needed ventilation.

“It can give off a toxic smell; it’s not deadly, but it’s not pleasant,” he said. “It smells to me like a burning candle.”

His favorite studio is the outdoors at a Hudson River Valley retreat in New York he usually attends for a week most summers. His favorite tool is a natural-bristle brush; nylon versions will melt.

Skrabalak’s abstract work doesn’t usually start out with a specific idea. He’ll layer and layer and then swipe and layer some more.

“I try to work as spontaneously and fast as I can,” he said. But “the color scheme is important, especially in abstracts.”

“People are uncomfortable looking at abstract art because they don’t necessarily understand it. But this stuff is up here,” he added, pointing to his head.

His “Pieces of April” in the Baker Mansion exhibition is popular because the flowers in it are obvious, he said.

All of them will last longer than oils, watercolors or acrylics, he said.

“Unless I put it over a heating vent or in some 200-degree environment, it’s going to last forever.”

Always looking for a new trend, Skrabalak is pursuing a twist on encaustics, called cold wax painting that uses a blend with oil paints that are layered on and then removed with solvents “to bring things back to the surface.

“It’s very accidental and I love that.”

Skrabalak has exhibited across central Pennsylvania, winning recognitions and mentions, and 321 Gallery in Hollidaysburg is his home gallery. He said he is becoming known as the “Wax Man of Blair County.”

“Not many people do this,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

If you go

What: “Art at Baker: A Special Exhibition at the Mansion”

Where: Baker Mansion Historical Museum, 3419 Oak Lane, Altoona

When: Through Sept. 9, open 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays, noon to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday

Admission: $8 for adults, $5 for children 12 and younger

More information: (814) 942-3916, www.BlairHistory.org

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