Standing atop a metal ladder in late 2016, the artist hung 14,000 individual paint sticks from a net suspended over a trail at the Open Air Art Museum in Holmes County.
“I got frostbite,” she says nonchalantly. “For eight months, I had no feeling on the pads of my feet. What are you going to do? You’ve got a deadline.”
While Archer’s Roost at the Inn at Honey Run’s outdoor museum is impressive, you’d be wrong to label 27-year-old Skunta an environmental artist. In fact, she can’t even label herself.
“I get so jealous, because some artists have their style,” she says from the light-drenched studio in her Ohio City apartment, which is filled with resin sculptures, weavings, impressionist paintings and macrame. “I feel like I’m so flexible.”
Skunta grew up in Richfield and earned a bachelor’s in fine arts at Ohio State University (with business and graphic design minors to appease her parents). After landing her dream job as a display coordinator for Anthropologie, she moved to New York City. For two years, Skunta worked long hours for little money at the women’s clothing retailer. But she learned to “use very minimal materials and make something crazy out of it,” she says.
As she was putting the finishing touches on a window display in spring 2014, a woman asked if she could buy an element of the display for her upcoming wedding. “You can’t buy this one,” Skunta told her, “but I can make you one.”
With that, Elbowgrease Design was born. If I’m going to be this stressed out, I’m going to be this stressed out working for my own company, Skunta remembers thinking.
Her first project was to create four 10-foot-wide wedding backdrops to showcase what she could do for potential customers. The problem was that the 375-square-foot studio she shared with her fiance, Mike Anthony, was only 12 feet wide. It was also a fifth floor walk-up with no air conditioning, and Skunta was working in the dead of summer.
“It was miserable,” she says. “We had to move the displays to get to the bathroom.”
But it was a start. She has since designed elaborate paper headdresses worn for The Knot Fashion Week Gala at the New York Public Library. She’s created display windows for clients such as Lululemon and Bloomingdale’s. She’s also begun doing art installations for major corporations. And, of course, she creates custom displays for high-end weddings across the country.
Because she could work anywhere and Cleveland could offer the quality of life and big apartment she wanted, Skunta and Anthony moved to Ohio City in late 2016. Unlike New York, where artists “hide their sources, hide everything,” Skunta says the creatives she meets here are always trying to help each other.
When she was beginning, Skunta was so terrified of accidentally being inspired by someone else’s work that she’d force herself to sit down and sketch until she felt a spark.
“I put so much pressure on myself,” she says. “It’s so much easier for ideas to come to you if you just go to an art museum or flip through a magazine.”
Once she has her idea planned out, that’s when the fun starts. For Archer’s Roost, for example, Skunta hand-dyed 14,000 wooden paint mixers in her bathtub and then drilled a hole in each one. She always works the same way — either listening to old episodes of Frasier or the podcast My Favorite Murder.
“That’s what I love — Zenning out,” she says. “I do a lot of drawing, planning, designing and engineering before I get into this repetitive part of the process, so it’s a little reward for my brain to take a break from all of that. It’s just being in the moment and letting my mind wander. Sometimes, new ideas pop in, and I’ll tuck them away for another time.”
Skunta, who has just started to plan her own 2019 wedding, pauses and sets her tea down. She has perhaps come up with a way to label herself after all. “I feel like most of my artist friends are like organic, flowing,” she says waving her arm. “I’m very type A.”
But even with that business mindset, Skunta says, she always knew art — in one form or another — was it for her. “It never even crossed my mind to do something else.”
8:00 AM EST
May 22, 2018