The Artful Lodger
A prominent Sacramento gallerist converted an old auto repair shop into an urban oasis brimming with vibrant paintings and bold sculptures. For Pamela Skinner, home is where the art is.
“The building was falling apart, but I always understood what it could be,” says Skinner, an art dealer and former co-owner of the now-shuttered Pamela Skinner/Gwenna Howard Contemporary Art gallery in Southside Park. Along with her late husband Doug Winchester, she had planned to create a one-of-a-kind private residence-slash-commercial art gallery that threw the banks and property appraisers for a loop. The zoning and building codes for this unique hybrid had also proved to be mayhem, and subsequently, the project spent years tangled in red tape. But despite a few momentary lapses of confidence, provoked by dreary weather or maddening bureaucracy, Skinner stayed the course, sights trained, as always, on art. “She’s a visionary and a maverick,” says local designer Bruce Benning, Skinner’s longtime friend and sounding board on the project.
Today, the same street view is hardly as dismal. The façade has turned from hulking and neglected to sleek and understated. A quiet counterpoint to the flaunting heritage Victorians in the neighborhood, the simple modern architecture—a modest box silhouette—is somewhat ironic. “I actually think a lot outside of the box,” says Skinner, 69. “I wanted a creative home, but honest, and certainly not designed to death.” In fact, it practically disappears behind a massive zinc gate, a rusty portal designed by local furniture maker and sculptor Marc Foster that nods to the property’s mechanical heritage and provides artful camouflage.
Inside, a new open floor plan honors the footprint of the original building—an inherently eco-wise design. Foundational elements of the auto shop—concrete floor, cinder block walls—were also preserved. The atrium’s anchoring wall is still marked with a decades-old black-paint border that Skinner vows to keep even after she commissions graffiti art for the space in the near future. On the back wall bordering the alley, the car shop’s old “SMOG” sign still hangs.
While indirect illumination keeps the paintings vibrant and the design from feeling too cold or spare, soft natural light infuses the space through a few interior glass garage doors, which also serve as an unwitting hat tip to the building’s former life. When they were newly installed, Skinner and Benning excitedly rolled them open, only to discover there were no ropes yet attached to pull them back down. “Let’s just say the American Ninja Warriors had nothing on us,” says Benning.
For all its stylish precision—from the crisp white gallery walls to the low-slung furniture to the shiny IKEA stainless-steel kitchen—Skinner balks at the idea of her home being too perfect. She hasn’t bothered to remove the old motor-oil spots on the floor or even finish the ceiling—its rafters, ductwork and insulation remain dutifully exposed. This beautifully aligns with her tendency to gravitate toward gritty urban areas, where, at least for the moment, potential outweighs location, location, location.
In the ’90s, Skinner was living in a loft at 1409 R Street—long before the gentrification known as the R Street Corridor became a haunt for local makers, vintage-clothing shoppers and Sunday brunchers. At another space in the same building, she also operated Excentrique, the gallery-boutique she opened in 1995, which had outgrown its previous midtown home in a former muffin shop due to the unforeseen popularity of a then-new city art hop called Second Saturday. Featuring works by such contemporary artists as Kendall LeCompte and Mark Oldland, whose dynamic steel sculptures resonated with Skinner’s edgy sensibility, Excentrique was not only the genesis of the auto-garage concept, but also the origin of the Skinner/Howard art gallery.
From 2006 to 2012, Skinner and her business partner Gwenna Howard curated their 5,000-square-foot Southside Park gallery—the space now houses Beatnik Studios—with works from their stunning stable of contemporary artists such as Linda Raynsford (found-metal sculptures), Rogelio Manzo (mysterious portraits), John Yoyogi Fortes (graffiti-inspired canvases) and Anne Gregory (politically inspired abstract paintings). While their rapture for art never waned, the mechanics of such a passion pursuit proved prohibitive. “Because of the economy, business was bad, especially in the last year,” says Skinner. By then, the garage conversion was near completion and, in keeping with life’s many dualities, the gallery’s end was nigh. “I just wanted to do art more casually and not be so tied down,” she says.
As such, her new home functions as a working gallery (albeit a private one). So while Skinner owns the majority of pieces she displays, works for sale include sculptures that command floor space (a ceramic vessel by Larry Love) or paintings hung on walls (Manzo’s self-portrait)—Skinner eschews the claustrophobic salon-style arrangement for a more austere setup that allows each piece plenty of breathing room. “I don’t like clutter and I’m pretty obsessive about where things should be placed,” says Skinner. “The older I get, the less clutter I want to have in my life.”
Fortes’ large-scale mixed-media canvas Nectar (2006) occupies an entire cinder block wall in the front room, while Untitled, a comparatively tiny paper collage by Judith Foosaner, owns a tall and narrow column of white space in the hall. A Coca-Cola-red metal ball perches curiously atop the refrigerator, chromatically echoing an abstract Laura Hohlwein canvas across the way. Both deliver a fearless wallop of color in an otherwise neutral setting of white and steel gray. A freestanding metal obelisk by Marc Foster, which seems to emerge from the concrete floor in the main corridor, requires the viewer to walk around it inquisitively, noting the sculptor’s masterful symbiosis between graceful curves and fierce edges. With the help of the subdued light coming through the semi-translucent garage door in the front, Raynsford’s metal disk sculptures cast interesting shapes in the space, yet another example of design elements in friendly opposition here: shadow and light, metal and canvas, order and chaos.
Besides steel, faces seem to be a prevailing theme in Skinner’s collection: Manzo’s distorted portraits of handsome men populate the guest bedroom and the den; Tilt 28, located at the entrance to the master bedroom and standing about 8 feet tall, is a grid of expressionless resin faces by Michael Bishop; and Gale Hart’s trio of zombie visages gives the TV room an ominous shade. Once, after a thoughtful survey of these haunting pieces, a friend’s young son turned to Skinner. “Are you scared when you wake up in the middle of the night?” he asked.
In lieu of traditional exhibitions, Skinner, who also works as a private art consultant, hosts invitation-only events in her home with up-and-coming or mid-career artists such as mixed-media artist Michael Shemchuk and painter Paule Dubois Dupuis. Sometimes, a long table is temporarily set for dinner in the generous central corridor. Company might mingle in the adjacent galley kitchen, sipping from their fluted glasses while sitting on the slick white Echo barstools by Sandler. Or they might spill into the communal spaces at each end of the hallway—a sitting room in the front and a TV room in the back, both appointed with modern lounge seating by BoConcept—as they view select pieces by the featured artists. Skinner leaves her bedroom’s doors open when she has guests, so the master suite isn’t isolated from the flow of the home, and visitors often innocently cross its threshold, only to be greeted by a daunting Gary Abkin canvas of a female nude that often elicits an about-face.
As a staunch advocate for rising talents, Skinner wants not for any pieces from established or blue-chip artists to add to her collection (although she admits that Shepard Fairey or Barry McGee, armed with spray cans, would do right by the wall in her atrium). Local painter Maren Conrad has been especially emboldened by Skinner’s support. “Pamela asks art patrons to push past colorful landscapes,” she says. “She has carved a path for edgy art in Sacramento. I don’t want to imagine what our art scene would be like without her guidance and bravery.”
While Skinner was in college, her parents purchased a second home, a traditional split-level in an agricultural town in southeastern Colorado. Sensing her daughter’s disappointment, Skinner’s mother confided in a family friend. “I don’t think it’s contemporary enough for Pamela,” she said. The friend, obtuse to Skinner’s sharp creative instincts and natural trendsetting acumen, laughably replied, “Maybe someday she’ll grow out of it.”
Skinner grins. “Not a chance,” she says.