John (Hanns) Skolle—artist, explorer, teacher, writer—was born in 1903 in Plauen, Germany. He was brought up in a circus in Czech Bohemia and the Sudeten region He studied at the KunstAkademie in Leipzig. When he was barely 20, an uncle unexpectedly appeared in his life and played his destiny by tossing a coin in the air. Heads: New York; tails: Brazil. In May 1923 they arrived in New York.
Skolle studied at the Art Students League, and soon made friends, among them: the poet Hart Crane, the screenwriter Ben Hecht, the photographer Walker Evans with whom he shared an apartment and who became one of his closest friends. He married a French bourgeoise, Elisabeth (Lil) and became the father of a daughter, Anita, in 1927. But the couple parted and John began traveling in Europe and North Africa. In Paris, Amsterdam and on the French Riviera he worked for fashion houses, publishers and magazines and met Picabia, Giacometti, Pascin, Noguchi, Van Dongen, Hilaire Hiler, Picasso and the film-score composer Georges Antheil. Back in the U.S. in 1939, he moved west and worked on ranches in charge of horses before becoming an art teacher. In the West, he had encounters with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the 1950s, he went back to the Sahara and crossed part of it with a caravan of Tuareg tribesmen. The account of his trek - Azalaï - was published in 1956, in the U.S., Great Britain and Japan. The book is still available half a century later. In Africa, John Skolle befriended the Hollywood actor Peter Lawford (who was Marilyn Monroe's friend, President Kennedy's brother-in-law and member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack). They remained good friends after sharing adventures together.
In the 60s and 70s, John Skolle mostly traveled to Africa and Central America, where he found inspiration both in art and ethnography. He eventually became Associate Director of the Department of Art at the University of New Mexico. He published a monography on the Seri Indians of Sonora, Mexico and wrote his autobiography in the 1980s -Biography of a Double.
John Skolle's paintings were exhibited and collected by many American museums, including: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, Denver Art Museum, Jonson Gallery at UNM in Albuquerque, Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art in New York, National Gallery in Washington, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Santa Barbara Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Princeton University Art Gallery, and at the Bonestell Gallery in New York; and many private collections throughout the world. He was awarded a number of prizes in New Mexico and California for his artistic achievements.
The Skolle family archives related to Walker Evans are kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at Yale University, and include paintings and photographs of-and-by John Skolle and Walker Evans, and correspondence between Evans and John or Lil Skolle. Many portraits of Skolle (and his wife and child) made by Walker Evans appear in recent publications along with the detailed account of the whole relationship between Skolle and Evans in New York and Connecticut between 1926 and 1934. Walker Evan's biographers note that Skolle exerted a strong encouraging influence on Evans during depressive periods in the photographer's life and inspired the photographer to develop his talent.
Among the many anecdotes that colored Skolle's life, he liked to recount once sleeping with a rattlesnake in his tent and being attacked by sea-eagles in the Sonora Desert of Mexico; and barely surviving a dinner during the Mau Mau uprising in South Africa that served him ground glass and poisonous insects.
He died of old age on Christmas Day 1988. He was 86.
Abstraction, #1, Oil on masonite, 1945, 20 x 32 inches
Baker Schorr Fine Art Ally Village 200 Spring Park Drive, Suite 105 Midland, Texas 79705