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A Million Little Pieces

Like His Surreal Collages, George Sakkal’S Life Has Been Shattered And Put Back Together Again

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 1/11/2006

“Contemporary art is not dead. It’s asleep,” George Sakkal says. “And it’s all because we’ve moved off into minimalism.”

Sakkal is no minimalist, not in life or art. An intense man, slight in build but formidable in presence, he has trouble sitting still long enough to talk about his 40-year journey toward fine art. Balanced on a low stool in his basement study-cum-studio, he radiates a dark, unblinking intensity that’d make you guess cult leader or mad bomber or even a macho, tension-steel sculptor type like Richard Serra before ever landing on his real profession: retired architect turned collagist. He may be gentle (the CD player in his small studio gurgles with New Age mountain-stream sounds) and sentimental (he’s unable to answer a question about where his father was born without retelling the story of how his parents—mom Italian, dad Syrian—first met), but when he decides who’s deceased and who’s not you listen.

“They say, ‘Minimalism is the essence,’” Sakkal says, his voice dipping into unrestrained sarcasm. “It’s not the essence. You go out to Kansas, on some starry night, and you lay down on the ground on some grassy strip, and you see the stars. You see this vastness in front of you.” His whisper turns reverent. “You tell me that any individual artist can be so presumptuous or audacious to think that he is going to capture the essence of art?” Sakkal’s voice flashes with the dismissive worldly scorn only a native New Yorker can pull off. “Forget it.”

Anyone who’s seen Sakkal’s work understands how devoted he is to cramming the picture plane with maximum everything. His collages are almost fractal in their encrustation of detail, equal parts lucid dream, bomb shrapnel, and the exploding patterns formed when one presses hard on closed eyelids. Works like “Schanggwann Shangri-La” and “Y2Kaos” explode in multitentacled compositions, like bizarrely evolved anemones or Rust Belt skylines warping under geostatic undulations. Seen against staid-in-comparison innovators like Hannah Höch, Romare Bearden, or Juan Gris, Sakkal’s works are hallucinogenic, scrimshaw intricate, supersaturated, and certainly not minimalist. In “Victory or Death,” George Washington (a rare recognizable entity in Sakkal’s work) crosses not the Delaware but a tsunami of corroded junk that makes George Grosz’s corrupt cityscapes look as clean as Celebration, Fla.

The level of detail is almost painful—perhaps a reflection of the torturous peripatetic route marked with discouragement, doubt, psychic damage, and bodily trauma that Sakkal took to become an artist.

 

Of course, becoming an artist is a subjective idea. It was apparent early on that Sakkal’s artistry was innate.

“I was taking a course in art in the New York public high school,” Sakkal says, recalling his earliest collage work, which was clunkier but just as abstract and colorful as his mature work. “The teacher I had said to me, ‘You know I think you’re pretty exceptional. You should really go to art school.’

“So I went to my father. He was a very practical sort of guy. He had lived through the Depression.” Sakkal sighs deeply. “And he said, ‘You’re not going to art school. All artists are failures. I’m not going to finance you for the rest of your life.’”

The 1957 launch of Sputnik convinced a generation of Depression-hardened parents that a career in the sciences was the sensible, lucrative path for their offspring. Sakkal’s father, a struggling textile worker, decreed a future in engineering for his son. Crushed, Sakkal returned to his teachers with the news of his life sentence as an unhappy member of the pocket-protector brigade. The teachers brainstormed a compromise. Their solution: “‘Tell him you want to be an architect,’” Sakkal recalls. “An architect, in many cases, is chief over engineers. And you can take elective courses in art. And my father accepted that, and so that’s what I did.”

After enrolling at Texas A&M in 1960, Sakkal made sure to enroll in as many fine-arts electives as possible. Once again, his natural talent shone, catching the eye of fine-arts professor Alan Stacell, who urged Sakkal to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin and major in fine arts. “I said, ‘Jesus, I can’t do that. My father won’t let me,’” Sakkal says, but with Stacell urging him on, he gave it another try. Sakkal’s father’s response was immediate: “‘Change your major and I’ll cut off all your finances.’”

Sakkal stayed the course toward a degree in architecture. Undeterred, his professors arranged for a solo show of his work in 1962, an unusual fine-arts exhibition in a chiefly architecture-devoted gallery on university grounds. The work was lauded by visitors at the opening, and Sakkal experienced for the first time a taste of what real appreciation for his work felt like. The joy of that triumph lasted a mere 24 hours, however; the gallery was burgled overnight, and Sakkal’s entire portfolio of work vanished. Salting the wound, Sakkal’s father’s response was to remind his son that he was a failure. “And that was it for me,” Sakkal says. “I gave up on art. I vowed I would never do a collage again.”

Chastened, Sakkal began his professional career as an architect: “I moved on to Austin at an architectural firm doing stair details.” When a reporter interrupts to ask what stair details are, Sakkal elaborates: “Runners, elevations of runners, crossing stairs, the metal supports that you have, sections cut through stairs, various materials that you use to prevent people from skidding on stairs, elevations of stairs, sections through stairs, details through stairs, stairs, stairs, STAIRS, STAIRS, STAIRS. What the hell am I doing here? I spent five years in architectural school and all I’m doing is stair details? So I joined the Peace Corps.”

Sakkal went to Iran as a volunteer architect. “I arrived three days after a flash flood destroyed the entire western portion of Semnan,” he recalls. “The governor told me Allah had sent me to rebuild his city.” While he was working on various projects, he observed the shah of Iran’s recipe-for-disaster approach to city building. The shah’s plans to rebuild Tehran as “this grand Babylon of the Middle East,” as Sakkal describes it, eliminated jobs in the provinces and created an influx into the city of unskilled, illiterate laborers from the surrounding countryside, creating an increasingly volatile slum population who got all their news from the mullahs who never liked the shah to begin with.

From Iran, Sakkal journeyed to Harvard University in pursuit of a master’s degree in city planning. Harvard, impressed with his theories, eventually offered him a position in the department. But rather than being ecstatic at the prospect of a lifetime in academia, the proposal filled Sakkal with dread: “I thought, Oh, Jesus. I’ve moved so far afield of where I want to go. If I accept this, I’ll never do art. I’ll be stuck in a library for the rest of my life.

Screwing up his courage, he turned down the offer (“The guy almost threw me out of his office.”) and spent the next six years floating from one unfulfilling architecture job after another. After being laid off from designing stockbrokers’ offices in New York, he landed in Maryland to take a position at the state Department of Planning. Meanwhile, the shah of Iran was deposed in 1979, his decline fomented by many of the reasons Sakkal had raised in his thesis. What should have been a career-making opportunity for a promising new department chair now was another reason for an underutilized architect and thwarted artist to feel miserable about the direction his life had headed.

“I probably made the biggest mistake of my life,” he says. “But the jury’s still out. I was right where it was at. I spoke Farsi, I was reading the Iranian newspapers. I’d done the research. I could have written my doctorate thesis in ’76.” His voice drops to a still-rueful mumble. “I screwed that one up big time.”

Forced out of his Department of Planning job after Gov. Harry Hughes’ arrival in office in 1979 (“He hated my secretary.”), Sakkal went on to pursue a doctorate on operating budgets and policy sciences at UMBC, only to have his beloved faculty adviser, Henry Bain (co-founder, with James Rouse, of the planned community Columbia), forced out of the university midprogram. Disgusted with petty politics, frustrated with his circuitous career path, and just plain unhappy with his life, Sakkal resigned in protest and slumped home to his Baltimore apartment.

“I was just sick,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Now’s the time.’ I did a collage. I poured my guts into it. And it turned out great.”

It was the first collage he’d done in 17 years. Accumulated out of less-than-a-fingernail-size snippets of magazine photos, the finished work formed a sky-blue-pink nimbus of tones, as soft and ethereal as a soap-bubble dandelion puff. Thrilled—both with the result and that he hadn’t lost his touch—Sakkal put the framed, finished piece on his bedroom wall. A few months later, a visitor to his Coldspring apartment loved the work and asked to buy the original as a gift for her husband. Sakkal wouldn’t sell, but said he could do another for her. “And I did. It was marvelous. I didn’t want to sell it,” he says. “But she bought it. That’s the first piece I ever sold.”

That sale, at the age of 38, was the first step away from someone else’s plan for his life.

 

National Geographic has the best contracted photographers in the world,” Sakkal proclaims, waving his arm at the bookshelves in his basement studio, which are lined with the narrow yellow spines familiar to any hoarder of periodicals. Sakkal’s fanatical about National Geographic—in his estimation, the magazines are the perfect source material for collagists. The pages have a very low acid content, guaranteeing the surest longevity possible for paper. A quick perusal of the few words printed on the spine of any issue—grand canyon, lynx, maya, arctic hunters—gives a reasonable idea of the colors and textures the photos within will contain. “They’re compact. They’re mobile. They have wonderful color,” he says, before iterating perhaps the most vital truth. “And people are always getting rid of National Geographics.”

Sakkal’s basement studio, located in his self-designed home in Ellicott City, is a small but efficient space, decorated with framed recent works and the aforementioned shelves of back issues. A disappointment to those expecting the tumultuous, drip-stained studio of a Jackson Pollock type, it’s a very neatly kept room, indistinguishable from any cozy home office. Then again, in contrast to the complexity of his finished works, his collage technique is simple.

“The work is done intuitively,” he says. “I am a believer in the principles of Juan Gris. He said, don’t preconceive anything. You cover a surface and work from all four sides and you let the work tell you what it wants to be.” Sakkal begins his collages by randomly laying down snipped shards from National Geographic, daubing them into place with clear acrylic, and rotating the board until a composition emerges—a process with no set time limit but usually lasting several weeks.

“No artist has looked from the standpoint of breaking down the photograph, seeking out those parts, and taking those characteristics from a multitude of photographs” Sakkal says. “I’ve done what the impressionists have done. They changed painting by altering the brushstroke. I’ve changed the way paper is regarded in terms of its use. I believe you can paint with paper. No one has done with collage what I’m doing,”

“It certainly seems to be the most elaborate and complicated use of collage that I’ve ever seen,” says Jay Fisher, deputy director of curatorial affairs and senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs for the Baltimore Museum of Art. Fisher agreed to view some of Sakkal’s work on display at his web site (www.georgejesakkal.com) and give his professional opinion. “This work looks pretty amazing,” he concludes in a phone interview. “Pretty obsessional. The artist I think compares most to this work would be Jess.”

Jess Collins (he dropped his last name professionally after a family rift) was a San Francisco artist whose tumultuous Madison Avenue-on-mescaline collages from the 1960s bear an a-ha similarity to Sakkal’s. Interestingly enough, both Sakkal and Jess came to art later in life, after jettisoning left-brain careers (Sakkal in architecture, Jess in chemistry), and both were preoccupied with apocalyptic concerns (Jess abandoned science after a vision of a future accelerated into devastation by his research). While both their works are characterized by a hyperreal accumulation of texture and imagery, Jess’ work retains some recognizable forms, whereas Sakkal divorces himself entirely from the original content of the photos he mines for line, hue, and texture. Keen eyes spot scavenged housewives, lawn mowers, bodybuilders, and chessboards in Jess’ work, but in Sakkal’s, the original imagery is obliterated into fragments.

“Jess is more California psychedelic, more working out of a surrealist tradition, a juxtaposition of things.” Fisher says. “I would call Sakkal’s work more visionary. It’s so obsessional and so elaborate, you get lost in the technique. When you find out it’s a collage, you’re stuck on that idea. I think Jess’ work transcends technique.” But, Fisher is quick to add, “I would never want to make a judgment not based on the real thing. Looking at it digitally you can’t see the texture, which is so essential to collage.”

Pressed for a judgment as to Sakkal’s technical uniqueness, Fisher replies, “Well, I think the first thing to keep in mind is, what does that mean anyway? Every time an artist makes an artistic choice, it’s different than anyone else’s. As a curator, I’m not concerned whether he’s the first artist to do this. I’m interested in what the work looks like. Without seeing the real thing it’s hard to judge, but what I’m seeing [on Sakkal’s web page] looks pretty amazing.”

 

In June 2002, a few months after Sakkal finally retired from architecture, he and his wife Denise (they married in 1989) took a biking vacation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. “June 25. I was feeling great, the sun was shining, the birds were whistling, my legs had adjusted, I was strong, tanned—wonderful!” Sakkal says, launching into the often-repeated preface to the traumatic event he’s about to recount. “I meet Denise at a rest stop, and she wants to put more lotion on her nose. She takes all of forever to put suntan lotion on her nose, so I said, ‘Denise, I’m going to go on ahead, I’ll meet you at the lunch stop.’ And I left.”

On the descent slope of the next hill, a tandem bike passed Sakkal and had a blowout—a rear-tire blowout, the kind that throws a moving bike most unpredictably. Sakkal was traveling 20 mph behind the tandem bike, seconds away from colliding with a tangle of metal tubing, wheels, and riders on a country road set on a narrow ledge. “There was no place to go. I could either go over a cliff or go into a pile of rocks, so I hit my brakes,” Sakkal says, recalling the snap decision that irrevocably altered the next four years of his life. “The wheel locked, and I went over the handlebars.”

Instinctively, Sakkal stretched out his hands to break his fall and came down on the three outer fingers of each hand. “It was all in slow motion,” he says, bending to the ground to re-enact his landing. His index fingers and thumbs point out, like a child forming toy guns. He folds up his other digits to approximate the grotesque flippers his ring, middle, and pinkie fingers formed when they hit the ground and snapped at the second knuckle: “They all went 90 degree angles. Horrible-looking things.”

The force of the impact didn’t stop at his fingers but drove past his knuckles and shattered all the thin bones in the back of his hands, then went on to smash those bones into the interlocking pebbles of the wrists. The wrists crunched into the base of his forearms. “Twenty miles an hour. The weight of my body,” Sakkal intones gravely. “Everything below my elbows was pulverized.”

Sakkal was quickly transported to the local hospital. “They did the X-rays, put them up on the wall, and the doctor said—I’ll never forget this—he was talking out loud and he said, ‘Oh my god, I don’t even know where to begin.’” The local orthopedic surgeon didn’t have the skill to attempt repairs, so he braced Sakkal’s hands, bundled him in a temporary cast, and sent him out to find a specialist. After a nightmare battle with his HMO, Sakkal finally found Baltimore surgeon Dr. Keith Segalman, one of the few who felt any use could be salvaged out of the wreckage of Sakkal’s injured hands.

“I told him about the detail work I do,” Sakkal recounts. “Dr. Segalman said to me, ‘I want to tell you the truth. The damage to your hands is really bad. Repairable, but bad. I don’t want to depress you, but that is the reality.’” Sakkal says Segalman gave him a good prognosis for being able to perform basic manual tasks—eating, tying his shoes, dressing himself—but ruled out anything requiring more than rudimentary use of his fingers, such as playing the guitar. Or doing collage.

Without other options, Sakkal opted for the best Dr. Segalman could offer. On July 5, 2002, a full 10 days after the initial accident, Sakkal underwent a six-hour operation. It was a success in medical terms, but it left Sakkal with his arms enclosed in agonizing traction devices, unable to feed, clothe, or do anything for himself for months. A photo from that time shows Sakkal holding his swollen hands aloft. Traction braces lock his hands in line with his wrists, grim devices that look as unforgiving as Victorian orthopedia. The look on his fatigue-puffy face is that of a very weary man on the brink of despair.

“I couldn’t do anything,” Sakkal says. “It was both hands. Even with painkillers, there was no place I could get comfortable at night. I’d get up and sit in a chair and lean against cushions and that wouldn’t work. My wife would set up a bowl and special spoon for me before she left for work so I could slop all over myself at lunch.”

With nothing to do for weeks on end except sit and suffer, Sakkal’s thoughts took a dangerous downturn. The example of his mother’s suicide in 1983—terrified of cancer, she took an overdose of prescription medication after finding blood in her urine—gnawed at him, its grim finality seeming like the answer to the frustration of his continually thwarted dreams. Now he would never do collage. It had all been for naught. “I’m sorry,” he says, tears suddenly bursting to the surface at the mere recall of this dark time. “I thought I was over it but I’m not.”

Sakkal says the turning point came the day he happened upon It’s Not About the Bike, Tour de France-winning cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s autobiography of illness and recovery. “It caught my eye, because I was in this mess because of a bike,” Sakkal says. “And I read it, and that’s when things got turned around. ‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”

Sakkal started on a regimen of physical therapy—some prescribed by doctors and some self-prescribed, such as holding his hands palm up and running his thumb down the soft underside of each finger. That simple motion proved possible only after several weeks of determined repetition, but its rewards can be seen when Sakkal picks up a guitar and plays in defiance of every doctor’s prediction.

“All the shattered bones pushed up into the wrist,” Sakkal repeats. He holds his hands in front of him with curious regard, as if, in their delicate state of repair, they could shatter once more if careless. “So the doctor set the fixators”—those medieval torture traction devices—“at a slightly new angle.” It’s true: His gnarled hands have a slight inward turn. “Because of that, I sense that I’m much more focused when cutting paper and putting it down,” Sakkal says. He fixes his gaze again. “The curvature of my fingers has improved. My collage has improved.” This year he completed a large work titled “The 7th Yellow Jersey,” an homage to Armstrong’s courage. It faces the table where Sakkal works every day, patiently gluing down one piece of paper after another.

 

Sakkal’s collages have taken a tremendous leap forward in the past five years, as if recovering from a self-imposed timidity. His collages from the early and mid-’80s are pretty, and still richly surfaced in an “overgrown field of wildflowers” way, but lack dynamism. It’s tempting to take Sakkal’s accident as the reason for his growth, but his portfolio shows the largest conceptual leap began in 1999, with a series of stygian, gothic assemblages that showed the first bridge between his previous techniques and his current ones. Post-accident, he created several works themed in cataclysm, personal (his accident), national (Sept. 11), and conceptual (the legend of Apocalypse): sharp, red, angry collages that look how a strep infection—or a pair of broken hands—feels. But in 2005, some self-imposed limit snapped. His themes are more optimistic—jazz, nature, courage, sublime peace—and his compositions are unfurling, sinuous, firecracker bright and surface-of-the-brain complex.

Finally, after a lifetime of a dream deferred, things are working out for George Sakkal. He holds faculty positions at the Columbia Arts Center and Howard Community College, where he mentors a new generation of collage artists. He exhibits regularly at Zenith Gallery in Washington and Light Street Gallery in Baltimore. He’s got work on exhibit in March at the Maryland Federation of Art’s annual Art on Paper show in Annapolis (in fact, his collage “Serpentine-War in the Middle East” graces the call-for-entries invitation). He’s found a like-minded “maximalist” working north of Paris, Judy Byron, and plans to make a trip for a joint exhibition soon. And he’s still working, still cutting up National Geographics and dabbing down clippings with acrylic, still turning the board and waiting for a new collage to reveal itself to him, every day. For Sakkal, a man whose entire life seems constructed as a karmic boot camp with the sole purpose of teaching patience, finally it’s his time to reap.

“Nothing is taken for granted.” he says, fixing a visitor again with that no-nonsense gaze. “Doing a collage is joy. It’s a gift that’s been amplified by tragedy.”

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