On the surface Zachary Skinner ’03 is a budding local artist who has degrees from Onondaga Community College, SUNY New Paltz and the Art Institute of Chicago. He has already been selected to participate in two art-in-residency programs in Connecticut and Wyoming while owning his own photography and video production business in Beacon, NY. He just landed his first solo gallery exhibit at the Gallery at the Ann Felton Multicultural Center. However, these achievements, while impressive and simple to list, did not come easy and serve as the culmination of a coming of age story as a result of hard work, passion and mentorship.
Skinner was about 12 years old when he was first introduced to Nick Todisco in the tiny hamlet of Henderson Harbor. Little did he know at the time, but this connection would serve as a life altering event for him. Skinner grew up with an interest in art, but it wasn’t until he met Todisco that the appeal to this medium turned into a passion. “I was introduced to him through a family friend who knew I was struggling like many kids are at that age. “Once I started taking private lessons from him, and working for him in his elaborate Zen Garden in Henderson, it did not take long before he became a good friend and mentor, which helped me greatly at that time.”
While attending South Jefferson High School Skinner took additional lessons from Todisco who offered work space at his studios in Henderson Harbor and the Delavan Art Center in Syracuse. As Skinner worked on his craft he also received life lessons from Todisco. “He always had phrases he would repeat to his students but we were too young to comprehend their full meaning. It wasn’t until I graduated and moved on that I comprehended what he was trying to tell us. One phrase he always said was, ‘There’s always room at the top, Zac.’ We can’t always get to the top in every social situation we are in, but it always gives me hope to try to work at the top of my own personal game.”
After high school Skinner took a year off until Todisco encouraged him to enroll in OCC’s art program. Todisco knew the environment was exactly what Skinner needed. “It turned out to be a great fit for me and brought focus to my life. The professors were very supportive and passionate about their craft.” Skinner would become friends with several professors including Deborah Haylor-McDowell. “I took color theory with her and I still carry lessons from that class with me today, like how my choice of color must be purposeful because it will affect the psyche of the person looking at it. She taught me art as a science of perception which is a doorway to how art can effect social change.”
This perception of human thought is one of several themes that guides and inspires Skinner when a particular piece is nearing completion. “I ask myself, ‘Is it playful, does it make me think, is it interesting?’” The more he can answer ‘yes’ to those questions the closer the piece is to being finished. Skinner’s OCC education also provided a diverse offering of learning opportunities that laid the groundwork for a strong foundation. “It instilled a lifelong learner mentality in me. The professors encouraged us to take web design, photography, writing and marketing because those skills would help make us well-rounded and successful.”
After graduating from OCC in 2003 Skinner continued his education and remained friends with Todisco until his passing in 2012. “He will always be with me. Every project I work on I hear his voice and instruction.” Those phrases Todisco repeated to him as a student continue to have new meaning as Skinner grows and matures. “As a young student I couldn’t comprehend what he was trying to instill in us, but now I can see the big picture and appreciate the life meanings in addition to the instruction he was trying to convey.”
Skinner has advice for current art students. They are three simple phrases which can be applied to any situation. The first two are from Todisco, the third is from Ghandi.
- Don’t be afraid of the paint (or any medium).
- Art is the product of work.
- Be the change you wish to see in this world.
Skinner’s exhibit at OCC concludes November 3. He’s also pursuing a possible solo exhibit in New York City and will continue to look for other artist-residency opportunities in addition to running his business. His goal is to become a teacher and practicing artist. Skinner is scheduled to be an adjunct drawing instructor at SUNY New Paltz in the spring 2016 semester.