Shura Skaya, Portrait of a Cock in Elaborate Frame, 2022. Acrylic on canvas, 7ft x 7ft. ( Courtesy: Shura Skaya).

Shura’s Skaya‘s studio is located in the heart of Red Hook, five minutes from Sunny’s, one of Brooklyn’s oldest bars, where the artist is currently having a solo show. Veronika Georgieva took a ferry ride from Wall Street to Red Hook to speak with the artist about her Surrealist works, her public art on Staten Island, Monet’s Haystacks, Ron Gorchov’s table, and how playing piano affects her painting.

Veronika Georgieva: These large paintings—have you started making them recently?

Shura Skaya: Well, I have made large paintings before. I started making small works when I moved to this studio, which is much more modest in size than my previous space. These small paintings usually take a long time to resolve. I work on many, all at once, sometimes covering all the available wall space. One day it just occurred to me to blow one of them to a larger size: seven by seven. And this was a revelation because the large ones didn’t anymore require the same problem-solving: I could just dive into them since everything was resolved prior, on a smaller scale.

WHAT: Shura Skaya,Heaven’s Cradle with Handles”  

WHEN: January 20 through February 26, 2023

WHERE: Sunny’s Bar, 253 Conover St., Brooklyn


Shura Skaya. “Missing. We love you. Please come home, 2022. Oil on canvas, 28in x 28in. (Courtesy: Shura Skaya).

VG: As I remember, you did show large-scale paintings in a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

SS: Yes, those were gigantic, but the game plan was different then…

VG: I noticed you have Claude Monet’s monograph on your desk, and it’s opened on a page with his “Haystacks” paintings.

SS: I get lost whenever I am asked who my favorite artist is. At various times I fall in love with different art. It is a curious thing with Monet—even though I have been looking at his paintings for many years now, I fell really in love with them just recently and fell hard. I discovered that Monet became Monet-the great painter when he started his Haystacks series. I believe he stopped thinking of spatial relationships as the primary motivator for the painting because the stacks are elementary shapes, and the background is pretty plain. He did not have to figure out relationships between complex forms anymore, he could relax and look for what was most important to him, and the color started singing, the color started shimmering, and that’s where his magic happened. I am not sure I consciously translated this revelation into my work, but this is the same freedom I look for while making my large paintings. 

VG: This reminds me of what Kandinsky said about Monet’s Haystacks when he encountered them for the first time:

“And once I saw the painting for the first time. It seemed to me that it was impossible to guess without a catalog that it was a haystack. This lack of clarity was unpleasant to me: I thought that the painter had no right to paint so unclearly. It was a vague feeling that there was no object in the painting. I noticed with surprise and confusion that the painting not only gripped me but printed ineradicably on my memory, and suddenly arose in my mind down to the last detail. <…> But deep at the back of mind the object was discredited as a necessary element of the painting.”

Maybe it really was the beginning of abstraction. I think you are also interested in “erasing the objects” in your paintings, and even though you have a lot of different objects and characters in your work, they appear as if in a dream. What are dreams for you?

SS: You wake up, and your dream still seems so real—on top of your tongue. The logic of a dream is so satisfying in the thick of it, with any otherworldly images vividly detailed. Yet, once you try to recount or describe it, it dissipates before your mind’s eye — the images fade, the spaces, the sequence of events, and the characters suddenly lose all coherence. In my paintings, I am looking for that place before the retelling of the dream that kills it, and the only words that remain and feel right are the ones that come as the names for the paintings. I don’t paint actual dreams—the subject matter comes from the state of reverie. Maybe that is why they seem so much dream-like to the viewers.

VG: I could call your paintings Surrealist. The names are also very Surreal. Your show is now at Sunny’s, a bar, music venue, and exhibition space. There I noticed that even the names of your works could create worlds on their one. Let’s take, for example, “Prayers for the big things to become small and for the little to grow large” or “Missing. We love you. Please come home.” As I understand it, the names are very important to you.

SS: That’s right. The names for the paintings appear when my painting becomes what it has to become. I am unsure how, but the name comes when the painting is done.

VG: What does this mean: The painting becoming “what it has to become?” Do they all do that?

SS: No, only some. Others vanish.

VG: So the moment of finishing is not about getting closer to the original idea?

SS: Paintings, at some point, stop requiring me to do something else to them, and that’s the moment of finishing.

Shura Skaya, Watching the Fingers Grow, 2021. Oil on canvas, 20in x 20in. (Courtesy: Shura Skaya).

VG:  I am looking at a painting called “Watching the fingers grow.” It almost feels like a rendition of some psychedelic state.

SS: To tell you the truth, the meaning of this painting is pretty clear to me, even though that’s not the case with most of my works. It became apparent only when the painting was already done. It is a plea for the fingers to be flexible and strong as if they could grow and become more powerful. It is, of course, a metaphor for playing the piano. 

VG: Yes, we didn’t speak about that yet—you’re also a musician. Tell me how you came to the States.

SS: I came when I was 15, and at 16, I started my music studies at Oberlin Conservatory.

VG: You have a piano here, but what I see here, on the music stand, is not a music score. It is a painting-by-numbers coloring book. I know you combine many media, does this book have a special meaning to you?

SS: I just like looking at these pages. They do, indirectly, remind me of a music score. In general, it is hard for me to think about visual art in the same language and vocabulary I use to think about literature or film. My thinking about art is more musical, I guess. I wouldn’t say that it is more emotional rather than intellectual. However, it is a combination of poetic experiences and thoughts that are very difficult for me to put into words. 

Shura Skaya, “Musical Drawing, Mozart Fantasia for Mechanical Clock,” 2016. Charcoal on paper, 20in x 30in. (Courtesy: Shura Skaya)

VG: One of your works, “Musical drawings”— is it a translation of one art form into another? How did this come about?

SS: I was walking on the street listening to Mozart’s “Fantasia for Mechanical Clock.” I noticed that my hands were moving uncontrollably to the music, and I felt very taken by the music and energized by it. So I knew that I had to make this hand dance on paper. And this was not about performing this piece of music—it was reliving it in a different way than playing it. 

VG: Tell me more about the show at Sunny’s.

SS: The show is called “Heaven’s Cradle with Handles.” Sunny’s is a special place, very peculiar. At first, I was worried, “Paintings in a bar?”

At the same time, I was very attracted to Sunny’s atmosphere. Different live music is performed every day, and most of the time, it’s just excellent. I am very glad the show happened and that it happened there because I believe that we have to be surrounded by art, not just when we stop by a show at a museum or a gallery. Here, it’s not a white-walled sterile place; it is very alive, and I sometimes see people start looking at the paintings and get lost in them while listening to music, which feels right to me. I like when art enters life, nature, and other art forms. 

VG: Speaking of combining different forms and media, I know you also make films. And you use your paintings in your films, and you act in them as well. 

SS: I think of all of them as one. I don’t really want to make something up; I just want to play with something, which could be anything. 

Shura Skaya, Still from Josephine and her Elements #1. (Photo by S. Solganik).

VG: You have made a film, “Josephine and her Elements.” One of the shots I find very memorable is where you, as Josephine, are jumping from a footbridge into the painting that lies on a pond. I love that image.

SS: Yes, but there is no acting! Most of my films are stop-motion, and there is never a script. Often, the images arise from the piece of music that I am thinking about or playing at that particular time. It is almost a reverse process to the usual role of music in film. Music is usually added to the footage; in my case, the images and the plot follow the music. So I relive music in film. Also, I use my own recordings because it is important for me to take a path with that piece of music, to really get to know it, and not just be a passive listener.

VG: Oh, I didn’t know that! So we can look at your films as metaphors for music?

SS: Not really. These are not exactly interpretations of music. It is more like reliving this music, thinking about it on another level. Sometimes I feel that I operate as a kind of medium. I have to know something very well but also stop controlling it. I have to be relaxed enough so that whatever art goes through me can come out in a different form on the other end.

VG: So this is not a translation from one art language to another?

SS: Absolutely not.

“Four Elements(Earth),” 2022. Architectural design by Simino Architects/ public art project with mural paintings by Shura Skaya. The new Hebrew Public School in SI, NY . (Courtesy: Shura Skaya).

VG: You talk a lot about these intricate, almost subconscious processes, although last year, you did something very concrete and planned. I am talking about a large-scale project you did at the new Hebrew public School in Staten Island. I liked it very much because there was, again, this dream-like quality to these murals. Children studying at this school can walk out on this large terrace, look at these images, get lost in them, and dream. This was a brave step for you, this large public-art piece.

SS: Yes, I was very flattered when I was offered to do this project by Simino Architects. They designed the building and the structures I got to paint on. But I was also terrified. I did not know how to go about it. I have never dealt with architecture or murals before, either. The school is a box-like structure, and it is made of steel and cement. There are four elements in front of the school, pyramid-like structures. To me, these shapes added an unexpected element to a pretty austere building; they were almost like toys scattered by a giant child in front of the school. When I realized that I had to play with this like a child, everything else came to place quite organically. 

VG: Your friend artist Ron Gorchov who influenced many things in your life, died in 2020. What did he pass on to you, and why was he so important?

SS: Ron was a real poet. He was also a knight, reckless and practical at the same time. Ron knew how to live big and believed in dreaming; he talked a lot about a state of reverie. He could speak to anyone and was very generous, but he also knew what he wanted; Ron could be logical and knowledgable, yet he believed in dreaming. Once, a friend of mine who is a curator came by and spent quite some time at my studio. She did not pay any attention to the large paintings on the wall, and I was upset. I thought they were good paintings. I was young then and sensitive to these things. I told Ron about it, and his answer was curious: “You know people often don’t notice grand things. Take a look at this table, it is a fabulous table, and it is very big, best in the world, but only a few sensitive people pay attention to it.”