Local artist wins grant to teach seniors about textiles
by Benjamin Fang
Feb 23, 2016 | 13320 views | 0 0 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Valerie Skakun, an artist from Ridgewood, will teach a textile course at Maspeth Senior Center.
Valerie Skakun, an artist from Ridgewood, will teach a textile course at Maspeth Senior Center.
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Skakun displays some of her textile artwork at her home in Ridgewood.
Skakun displays some of her textile artwork at her home in Ridgewood.
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When Valerie Skakun was five years old, her grandmother taught her how to sew. She also learned about textiles, and would make clothes and other functional objects with her hands.

She came to New York City from Texas a decade ago to attend Cooper Union, the prestigious art, architecture and engineering college in the East Village. There, she studied sculpture, photography and drawing. For one semester, Skakun learned about weaving and dyeing fabric at a school in California.

Five years ago, she started her own dye business, April May June. She’s also working on a new series of artwork that has already been shown at a few places.

Now living in Ridgewood, Skakun is taking what her grandmother taught her about textiles to teach seniors in Maspeth.

Skakun won a grant from the Queens Council on the Arts to teach a two-month-long course at Selfhelp Maspeth Senior Center. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, Skakun will engage seniors in the community with activities involving watercolors and eventually dyeing.

“The idea with the class is that in the first few classes, we will learn how to mix colors,” she said. “We’ll learn to mix colors with watercolors and that will transition into working with cloth.”

At the end of the two months, the class will host a show displaying a final project that requires seniors to work collaboratively on a banner. The project will be shown alongside other artwork the students have made throughout the course.

Skakun said dyeing fabrics can be meditative, which works well with seniors. She said just having your hands immersed in water is contemplative.

“I planned the course that will be an easy exercises in dyeing fabric, a lot of just moving fabric around in water, starting with that,” she said. “And then we will learn how to stitch fabric and do a stitch resist, which is a method in dyeing called Shibori, a Japanese and Indian technique.”

She explained that the activities won’t require a lot of heavy lifting or moving around uncomfortably. In fact, dyeing fabric requires a lot of waiting, so she hopes to have good conversations with the students then.

“Hopefully we can tell stories, get to know each other a little bit, reflect on what we’re doing and our past and our future,” Skakun said.

Reflecting on her own past, Skakun said she was interested in textiles at a young age. She attended a fine arts high school that divided half of its students’ schedule for academics and the other half for art.

The school had sewing machines, so she would make sculptures and stuff them like pillows. Then she learned about staining fabrics.

“They didn’t teach dyeing in the high school, but I learned how to dye with coffee and tea,” Skakun said. “I made giant sculptures out of used teabags. It was very process-oriented, but I taught myself with the basics.”

She learned textiles in a non-traditional way, Skakun said. For example, she would mix oxidized copper with rust to make a different kind of dye.

While attending Cooper Union, Skakun taught dedicated high school students on the weekends about different types of art, including sculptures, drawing and architecture. She then taught at 3rd Ward, an artist-run space that was also used as a classroom. There, she taught adults about textiles and sewing.

Skakun stopped teaching for a while, while her business was starting to take off.

“That’s when my business was getting up and going and it was going very well,” she said.

One day, she was riding her bike to her studio when she was hit by a car. Her injuries required surgery. She wasn’t physically able to do the same dye work as before, which meant her business took a huge hit.

But Skakun found something else to keep her busy.

“I started getting back into focusing more on my art when my business went down,” she said. “I’ve been working a lot on a new series of artworks.”

She’s been showing her art at some venues, including an open space in the bottom floor below her apartment.

Last summer, Skakun went back to teaching. Through a program in the Bronx, she taught kids about different art methods, and said the students really enjoyed mixing colors.

On Thanksgiving, she heard about an interesting opportunity. The woman who wrote the grant for the project in the Bronx told Skakun about this grant, SU-CASA, which is supported by local funds from the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Aging. The problem was that she only had a week until it was due.

“When she told me about it, it was Thanksgiving, so I rushed to write the grant,” Skakun said. “I had been thinking about it for about half a year already, so it was all in my head. I just had to get it out on paper.”

She got the grant, which matched her with the Selfhelp Maspeth Senior Center. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from March 1 to May 5, Skakun will teach the same thing her grandmother taught her about textiles and dyeing.

“I just feel very honored and excited that I got this grant to use public funding to help the public,” she said. “I think it’s a really nice thing that the city does. I’m very excited.”

To sign up for the course, contact Maria Dixon at mdixon@selfhelp.net.
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