Juneau museum features pandemic artwork by local nonverbal painter

Museum-goers examine the artwork of Avery Skaggs at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum on Friday, Jan. 7 2022.
Museum-goers examine the artwork of Avery Skaggs at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)

The walls of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum were covered in canvases splattered with brightly colored paint on Friday night. It was a stark contrast from the dark, gray city outside. 

The vibrant pieces were created by 34-year-old local artist Avery Skaggs

“All of his art is done by hand,” Avery’s sister, Lea Skaggs said. “So it’s like a really abstract finger painting process.”

The exhibit is called “Home: Disability & Creativity in a Pandemic Lockdown.”

Avery, who did not attend his opening reception due to COVID-19 concerns, is in a wheelchair and he’s nonverbal. But he communicates in other ways, like through facial expressions, noises and his art. 

Avery Skaggs is a Juneau artist who is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair. His hand movement is limited, but he paints with his fingers.
Avery Skaggs is a Juneau artist who is nonverbal and uses a wheelchair. His hand movement is limited, but he paints with his fingers. (Photo courtesy of Josh Smith)

“He is very expressive when he paints,” Lea said. “It’s like you can tell that he’s enjoying the process and I think a lot of the paintings just kind of show that expression because you can see that there’s a lot of movement involved in creating these things.”

Josh Smith is Avery’s case manager at TIDES LLC, which provides home and community-based services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“His hand movements are limited in terms of fine motor capacity,” Smith said. “For example, he doesn’t have the ability to pick up an object and maintain a grasp of it. He can pick up an object briefly and move it away from him.”

Avery gets some help with setting up his workspace, but the pieces he creates are 100% his own work. 

“When it comes down to the strokes that you see on any given piece, that’s all Avery,” Smith said. “It’s a sensory experience for him. He enjoys the feeling of the paint on his fingers. He enjoys the sensations of manipulating the paint across a surface or a canvas.”

All of the paintings displayed in the exhibit were created during the pandemic when, much like the rest of the world, Avery’s routine was interrupted. 

“[Avery’s] way of producing his artwork drastically changed,” Smith said.

For at least a decade, Avery spent four days a week at a community art space downtown, but when businesses across the world closed their doors, so did the art studio. 

“Staff at TIDES had to problem solve how Avery was going to be able to engage in his passion,” Smith said.

A new exhibit at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum features paintings created by local artist Avery Skaggs. Skaggs is in a wheelchair and is non-verbal, but expresses himself through art. (Photo by Bridget Dowd / KTOO)
A new exhibit at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum features paintings created by local artist Avery Skaggs. Skaggs is in a wheelchair and is non-verbal, but expresses himself through art. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)

There were a few hiccups for Avery’s caretakers as they took on an aspect of his care that they weren’t used to, but eventually, they found their groove. 

“[Avery has] created an absolutely beautiful body of work during this time, which is, specifically in my mind, characteristic of his adaptability,” Smith said. “I think the pieces speak to the dramatic changes that have occurred.”

Avery’s paintings will be displayed at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum through Jan. 28 and all of them are for sale.

Bridget Dowd

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I keep tabs on what’s happening in Juneau’s classrooms for the families they serve and the people who work in them. My goal is to shine a light on both stories of success and the cracks that need to be filled, because I believe a good education is the basis of a strong community.

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