STAFFORD: Local artist may have hit breakthrough after years of work

Keith Skogstrom knew it before a performance artist struck her elegant pose in front of the 12-by-52-foot work the Urbana artist had installed on the exterior wall of a trend-setting speakeasy in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

But when her fingers and toes came together behind her back in front of the Violet Hour, she seemed to form the dot at the bottom of an exclamation point proclaiming that the 33-year-old artist’s years of struggle to establish himself have been worth all the sleepless hours.

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Titled “J.A.C.K.,” the wood-and-steel installation colored with Sharpies has four sections, each of which features an abstracted design of his freshly minted nephew’s name.

Skogstrom calls this style of art “implied kinetic” because his pieces often resemble the inner gears of some imaginary mechanical devices that seems to be in constant motion.

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It’s a property they share with their creator.

A 2003 graduate of Urbana High School and 2008 graduate of the Ohio University College of Fine Arts, Skogstrom had been searching for ways to make at least a part-time living in art in the Columbus and Springfield areas when he decided on a new course.

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“One day,” his father, Springfield attorney James Skogstrom, said, “He came and said he was moving to Chicago.”

From childhood visits at Christmas time, “I was really in love with the city,” the younger Skogstrom said.

Although an expensive place to live, he saw positives in Chicago: It is large enough to support the arts; is not Los Angeles; and has “a mentality of hard work,” which it also demanded of him, particular after the near economic collapse of 2008.

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“I just recently found out he worked in the bar business for a long time, said his father, who like most parents of adult children is on a “need to know” basis with a child who doesn’t think he needs to know too much. “Apparently he would leave the bar at 4 in the morning and unload freight until about lunchtime …. He’s worked hard.”

He’s also been both smart and, by his account, lucky.

Although it had neither hot running water nor heat, the unfinished garden apartment Keith Skogstrom lived in one summer did provide him with the equivalent of studio space. Its novelty apparently also attracted visitors that included Major Leaguers Jake Peavey and Adam Dunn.

At 6-foot-7, her son “has a big presence,” said mother Jane Skogstrom. “He’s also got a great heart. That’s the best thing about him.”

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That quality both drew people to the apartment and made it easy for his parents to supply it with something it had lacked: A box spring and mattress.

Skogstrom used woodworking skills learned during his youth to refurbish, then work his way out of that apartment, and then landed some high-end construction jobs that did more than pay the bills.

Wanting to be able to repair any drywall he might damage in installing a piece – and to learn a host of other building skills — he took a job restoring one of the few homes in Lincoln Park that survived the great Chicago fire.

Wanting to punch up his woodworking game, he spent a year working with Chicago’s Creative Wood Concepts, which designed custom furniture for its customers.

Through a series of jobs, Skogstrom said, “I was kind of able to get my master’s degree in the real world … as an apprentice almost.”

During that apprenticeship, he continued to create as much art as he could while also trying to address the logistical problems in his path. To carve out a large enough studio space in a city whose parking spots have mortgages, he established Geodesic Designs, a shared studio space.

To find a way to get artists work in front of potential buyers aside from the city’s exclusive galleries, he developed State of the Art (SOTA), which finds and exhibits current artists’ works in restaurants and other locales. SOTA also provides curatorial services for tonier establishments, rotating artists’ work into businesses, including the Chicago offices of advertising giant McGarry-Bowen.

He also has leveraged his artistic sensibilities and building skills to turn into three dimensions the design graphics design companies envision for business spaces. Most recently, that has involved him in interior renovation of the Chicago office of Deloitte consultants.

Although Skogstrom confesses that “(fine) art is probably the thing I do third most,” there’s reason to think that may change after this, his second, Violet Hour installation.

The first, which was mounted almost six years to the day from the current one, went up after Skogstrom had fallen in love with the bar; been told by a bartender there he’d never be able to land the much-sought-after space; and ultimately achieved his goal by using a technique developed in the insect kingdom: “I bugged them, and I bugged them and I bugged them.”

But the installation that runs through Sept. 30 is different.

For one, the Violet Hour owners, about to celebrate 10 years in business, came to him after a neighborhood newsletter mentioned Skogstrom’s earliest piece as a favorite of a door man who had seen many while working across the street.

For another, the story came out just as the Violet Hour wanted to make itself part of Expo Chicago, one of the huge art events in the city, and it wanted to make a splash.

Then inspiration from his nephew Jack’s birth merged with an idea that strolled into the mind of an artist who knew, from experience, how to get things done.

He knew where to locate plywood without the knots that had interfered with past designs. He knew the right coating to put on the wood so it won’t deteriorate in the weather. He knew who could fabricate steel rings for the piece in just the right manner. And, of course, he knew where he could find a studio large enough to meet his needs.

There was one other logistical problem he’d solved. He’d cleared out a space in which he was free to use all that he’d learned along the way to bring to life his own idea.

“I’ve often been able to conceptualize an idea and work with a client,” Skogstrom said. “But in those situations, whether it’s a budgetary issue or the need to work with a pre-existing design, “there are usually sacrifices you have to make.”

The freedom has allowed Skogstrom to scratch his deep-seated artistic itch in a new, more satisfying way when everything seemed to come together for him at a moment when everything, he said, seemed to “come together.”

“Maybe he’ll get to the point where he can focus on art the whole time,” his mother said, “but I don’t think it matters now. He maybe has (cleared) a hurdle in his life, and I hope he has.”

Her son also has ambition on his side, an ambition to be unique.

Keith Skogstrom doesn’t want to make just any art.

“I like to make art that people look at and say ‘I can’t do that’” – the thought that may have crossed the minds of many who not along ago saw a performance artist strike a pose in front of Skogstrom’s work.

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