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A Santa Fe studio with a Swedish accent

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gordon Skalleberg poses in front of his oil on birch painting, “Sposa Son Disprezzata,” in his Santa Fe studio. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“You’ve never heard of fika?” asks Swedish artist Gordon Skalleberg as he welcomes a visitor to his Santa Fe studio with freshly brewed coffee and rolls called bullar made by his wife Andrea.

Asked what the word means, Skalleberg replies, “Swedes don’t like to translate it. It’s a coffee break, but it’s also a conversation.”

Fika sounds like the Swedish cousin of the coffeeklatch, as social gatherings with coffee were known in 1960s’ suburban America. And, of course, that was the Yankee version of the German coffeeklatsch, which brought together java and gossip (klatsch).

Skalleberg, whose father is Norwegian and whose mother is German, seems far too focused for something as frivolous as gossip. But he is no stranger to the history of Germany.

Occupying a prominent spot in his studio is a painting called “The Happy German Family.” It is Skalleberg’s interpretation of a photograph of his great-grandparents holding his grandmother as an infant and her brother as a young boy.

An oil on birch painting titled “The Happy German Family” by Gordon Skalleberg depicts the artist’s grandmother, great uncle and great-grandparents. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The family portrait was taken in Potsdam, Germany, in 1910, but Skalleberg has inserted a painting of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on a wall in the background.

What’s to account for the unlikely presence of Comrade Stalin in the home of a happy German family? Skalleberg holds the Soviet leader directly responsible for the deaths of his great-grandparents, who were shot by Russian “liberators” at the end of World War II.

Such unlikely additions as Stalin show up in Skalleberg’s other pieces. On the easel in Skalleberg’s studio is a painting based on a photograph of a woman straight out of “A Doll’s House,” the Ibsen play about a 19th-century wife who leaves her family. But, unlike the photo, Skalleberg’s painting depicts a woman partially concealing a knife in one hand and clenching her fist with the other.

Skalleberg said the work expresses the pent-up rage of women who have been objectified and abused. “We have the #MeToo movement in Sweden, too,” he said.

Like all of Skalleberg’s work, these portraits are painted on wood, and feature the contrast of light and shadow known in the art world as chiaroscuro. Although Skalleberg’s English is flawless, he doesn’t immediately understand the word when it is haltingly pronounced.

But then the self-taught artist nods in recognition. “Yes, I love light and dark. Caravaggio and Rembrandt are two of my favorite painters,” he said.

The world of art is relatively new to Skalleberg. Not so long ago, he was working for the American subsidiary of Skaltek, a company founded by his father that makes packaging machines for electric cable. “I worked with Dad in the family business until I was 45,” he said. “I was president of a company. It was a hard thing to take a break.”

But, 14 years ago, he made the break entirely and became an artist after painfully negotiating a separation package with his father. His younger brother Ralph now runs Skaltek’s U.S. operation, while his father, who is 82, is still involved in the Sweden-based parent company.

Skalleberg embarked on his artistic career by taking a one-week painting course. “I had no idea I had it in me until I took that course,” he said.

Before he was an artist, Skalleberg was a woodworker and a photographer. He has a workshop in his garage where he makes the “canvases” for his paintings and other artwork that he describes as “sculptures.” He built the kitchen cabinets in his studio, which doubles as a guest house.

“I haven’t painted on real canvas in 10 years. When you paint on wood, the grain becomes part of the work. Look, here, the grain is the sky,” he said, pointing to a small minimalist painting of a landscape.

Gordon Skalleberg created the oil on pine paintings of Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn for the Netflix series “Chambers.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In addition to large paintings, Skalleberg’s studio is filled with dozens of his so-called sculptures. Made from wood, these pieces are often painted with a slice of a face. Many of the faces are images of Skalleberg’s daughter, but near the door to his studio sit two paintings of Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn. Those sculptures were created at the request of a neighbor for the Netflix series “Chambers.” When the production was completed, the art was returned to him.

With their European characters and style, many of Skalleberg’s paintings don’t seem suited to a Canyon Road gallery filled with Southwestern art. That’s not as true of his sculptures and small landscapes, though.

Nevertheless, he’s not in a hurry to break into the Santa Fe art scene. “To get into galleries is a huge struggle here,” he said.

In Sweden, Skalleberg is better known because he is a participant in an annual studio tour featuring 140 artists in the Helsingborg/Arild area. He also accepts commissions to paint portraits, though he doesn’t want to be labeled a portrait painter “because then you’re not a real painter.”

For many years, Skalleberg and his wife lived in the Atlanta area, where they met and where Skaltek USA is based. But for the past seven years, they have been dividing their time between Santa Fe and Arild, which, like the City Different, is home to many artists.

Skalleberg first discovered Santa Fe on a road trip from Atlanta to California in 2008. “I called my wife in LA and said, ‘I could live here.’ I felt so at home,” he recalled.

In 2013, the Skallebergs took the plunge, taking advantage of depressed real estate prices in the wake of the Great Recession, which arrived late in Santa Fe. They bought a property that had room to build a studio/guesthouse, which Skalleberg designed himself and had a contractor build.

Unlike some transplants, Skalleberg had no trouble with the city’s Historic Districts Review Board, which mandates earth-tone colors and stucco exteriors. Shortly after moving to Santa Fe, he bought a book about John Gaw Meem. He immediately became a follower of the late, Brazilian-born architect who popularized the Pueblo Revival Style in Santa Fe.

“I became fascinated by vigas,” Skalleberg confessed. Still, he’s not so much of a traditionalist to forgo solar panels on his roof to generate electricity.

Skalleberg credits his family’s arrival in Santa Fe with deepening his relationship with his wife. As he shows examples of his “pocket art” studies of eyes, the artist observes, “Look at the pupils. Think of all the information that is being taken in. You can never really understand someone else’s vision. I’ve known my wife 35 years and I’ve got no idea what she’s seeing.”

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