Tending to a culture

Residents gathered around a bonfire at Skowhegan


During one of the many orientations at Skowhegan, we went around and said our name, how we identified, and whatever else we wanted to say about ourselves. Unprompted, nearly every participant spoke about their issues with anxiety. Some gave accounts, some simply mentioned it, as if to also say, “me too.” Some endearingly articulated that they really wanted to talk to you, but they won’t, so please talk to them. It was the first of many moments that would readjust how we would look at each other and how we would care for one another. Everyone’s experience at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture is different—there is no way to sum it up. I can only speak to mine, and what it did for my understanding of a community.

Skowhegan residents socialize on a porch on a summer day

Sarah Workneh, the long-time co-director of Skowhegan (who stepped down this past December) called me near the beginning of 2022 to ask me to be faculty at Skowhegan for that coming summer. She laid out the nature of the commitment, the salary, the perks, the foreseeable problems, and the reasons why this might be of value to me right at this moment. She knew I was in the process of launching NewCrits and thought that Skowhegan could help me see what it could be. NewCrits is a global platform for virtual studio mentorship for all growing artists looking for community and ways to hone their practice through readings, interviews, and online mentorship. At the time of Sarah’s invitation though, I didn’t have this clarity. She was right—as I would find out, she usually is—this was the perfect time for me to go. I needed to understand what it meant for people to gather together, and to see what it was to build a community in real time. I had never been a participant in either program, so unlike the rest of the resident faculty who had, I was stepping in blind.

What Skowhegan demonstrates is that there is an enormous amount of care and preparation that goes into hosting a community of people that may or may not share commonalities. The first step of accepting 60ish participants already lays out many possibilities of overlap and connection, but they go many steps further in how they room people, how they choose instructors, how they think about the distances to facilities and differently abled people, how they imagine a community for anyone who truly wants to actually be there. It’s this level of care that immediately causes the participants to check their skepticism towards the “institution,” so to speak. Of course they’re already thrilled that they’ve been accepted, but I can imagine that once accepted, they’re still saving a bit of face by maintaining some kind of safe distance. The people of Skowhegan, Sarah in particular, do a monumental job of consistently showing everyone that it is their duty and calling to make space for everyone as best they can, and in doing so, the option of saving face feels less and less needed.

Nearly everyone I knew who had attended Skowhegan told me in one way or another how wonderful Sarah is. We knew each other through mutual friends, which is to say that we didn’t really know each other at the start of the summer. After 9 weeks, I completely understand their love for many reasons, but what affected me most is Sarah’s way of leading (and her speeches—always like calm and therapeutic war cries). There are leaders who believe that in order to wield power, you must understand the ways to control people, to seduce, to show power, to act powerful. There are others who think that a completely horizontal structure is better, which involves ceding leadership altogether. But there’s another route entirely, the route that Sarah follows. She leads with care.

To lead with care means that you create circumstances for people to flourish, and that you listen to them in order to understand the environments in which they can do so. It means that you know when to act as a silent rudder and when the best thing you can do is to let things unfold. It means that you create an example and create a ground on which for things to happen. You educate with kindness and compassion, and show that there is deep strength there. And the results are profound. People follow, but not blindly. They are respectful, but not foolishly. Everyone at Skowhegan—I’ve now seen it first hand—literally grew into a changed metaphysics of self, myself included.

This doesn’t happen through one person alone, and I know that the world in which we deify singular genius is a fraught and problematic one, but it is in no small part due to Sarah’s leadership that Skowhegan has become the legendary place it is. It is her ability, and those around her, to understand the necessity of iterative structures while staying nimble enough to respond to the daily shifts of everyday feelings, and know that each informs the other. Neither can be minimized or relegated to second place. They must be followed in tandem as contradictory instructions, as Gayatri Spivak would say.

Artists share a meal outdoors on a summer day on quilted picnic blankets

From Sarah, to the deans, to the office staff, dining staff, and grounds crew, everyone felt like they were tending to a culture rather than holding a job. It’s this tending, or caring-for that makes the whole place feel like a living thing. I remember the first few late night walks down the hill from upper to lower campus, where my house was, were a bit scary. There are no lights at all, so you are walking down a lonely road in the middle of the night where you know that you as a human are outnumbered. Initially I’d use my iPhone light as a flashlight and light up the trees and make shadow puppets as I walked, a giant beast of a dog-hand following me at my side. Then as time went on, I realized that despite this place feeling filled with ghosts, I didn’t feel any fear, because for over 75 years people have taken care of this place. They have tended to it to make sure that every generation to follow can enjoy the peace and soul rearrangement that Skowhegan brings. From that moment onwards, I’d just walk in the dark and let the moon guide me, looking up to see the ambient path rather than looking down. There’s no profound metaphor here, only that safety and care bring a level of focus and connection to place and people that we are normally not afforded.

We connect when we can breathe, and very often our institutions don’t care if we do or not. NewCrits is still in its nascency, but as we form the outer edges of what it will become and how it will serve a community, I never once forget that in order for it to be truly consequential and worthwhile, we need to build something that facilitates collective breath.


Ajay Kurian

(b.1984, Baltimore) is an artist, writer, and educator who lives and works in New York. He studied painting and sculpture at Columbia University and graduated in 2006. Following this, he became known for curatorial projects before beginning to exhibit his own artworks in 2011. He employs a fluid, multimedia vocabulary, which aims to articulate the social and environmental conditions that govern our desires, fears, and contradictions. He founded NewCrits in 2022.

New Crits*

NewCrits Homepage. Image courtesy of NewCrits.

New Crits provides one-on-one studio visits, portfolio reviews, and mentorship with some of the world’s most visionary artists. Their online platform is accessible to all artists at every level of their career, creating an inclusive critique experience outside the traditional arts education system. Their mission is to democratize access to arts education and grow a healthier arts education ecosystem worldwide.

Fiscal Sponsors

Fractured Atlas