Jane Skafte

The language of trees

<em>Poplar in Shadow</em>, 2024,  gouache, 40 x 30 inches.
Poplar in Shadow, 2024, gouache, 40 x 30 inches.

Jane Skafte studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before beginning a decades-long career in fashion design. She created fabrics that were non-directional, meaning that the patterns could be woven regardless of orientation. She now applies the same stylistic concept to her watercolors of tree canopies, which were recently the subject of her solo exhibition “Leaves and Sky” at the Staunton Augusta Art Center in Virginia. The paintings are inspired by such novels as The Overstory by Richard Powers and Barkskins by Annie Proulx: “Everywhere I turned, I found authors talking about the trees communicating—the trees are sentient,” says Skafte. “The whole forest is really just an organism.”

  • Sky Seen Through Branches at CrabTree Falls, 2024, watercolor and gouache, 30 x 40 inches.

She uses a combination of watercolor paints, which bleed into “a whole gradation of colors,” and gouache, “which comes in like a velvet.” Although her earliest tree-canopy paintings tended to be photorealistic, she now adds bursts of color and exaggerated shadows to create swirling, dreamlike technicolor patterns. Skafte captures most of her reference photos on walks through the woods near her Virginia farm, focusing on the brilliant colors and geometric shapes of leaves silhouetted against the sky, but she also looks for inspiration during her travels. Palm fronds in Florida, for example, are often reduced to cliché designs on beach towels and swimsuits, but Skafte prefers to zoom in on the negative shapes between the leaves. Ultimately, she says, she wants her work to conjure an aesthetic that “calms people rather than alerts them to something. I want people to feel peaceful.”

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Noelani Kirschner is a former assistant editor for the Scholar.


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