By Jonelle Flood ’10
John Skillen, professor of English at Gordon College, had a dream as a young boy. After years of hard work and keeping his dream alive, he has made it a reality and, in turn, has successfully made the dreams of others come true. His dream involved art, history, tradition and adventure—and has become one of Gordon’s most successful international study programs: the Gordon in Orvieto (Italy) semester. But Skillen’s dream has reached beyond the student-focused program in a new venture for a wider audience—also in Orvieto—called the Studio for Art, Faith and History.
Skillen, a 1976 Gordon graduate himself, grew up in rural Pennsylvania, though his family life was more intellectual than the culture of his youth might suggest. At the age of 12 his brother and sister-in-law invited him to travel with them to Europe, where he discovered a love for the historic, artistic and cultural traditions of Europe. Specifically, the young Skillen’s imagination was captured by Italy, where he found a resonance he had not known before. He was especially attracted to the Italian artistic and literary traditions, from which, he says, America derives many of its own cultural traditions.
After graduating from Gordon, Skillen completed his doctorate in Medieval and Renaissance studies at Duke University and taught for a short while at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. In 1983 he returned to Gordon College, this time as a professor, and began to dabble in the development of Gordon’s international education program. At the time a few faculty members were leading trips to England, and Skillen accompanied them. Then he began to lead trips himself. In Europe he discovered in increasing measure his love for the Renaissance culture as well as its literary and visual artistic traditions. So in the early 1990s he began to lead month-long seminar trips to Florence, Italy.
While living in Florence, he saw that the city, though beautiful, had lost its sense of history as a significant center for the arts. He wanted to give students the opportunity to rediscover Italy’s “historical roots” as a means of understanding traditions that shaped the Western world and conscientiously keep alive those traditions in our modern age. He wanted to find a way for students to live and study for a semester in Italy and discover, as he did when he was a boy, a similar resonance. Beyond learning in a classroom through slides and textbooks, he wanted to get them on site, where they could get their hands dirty—that is, covered in “historical” dirt. He felt Florence had become more of a tourist spot than a historical center and wouldn’t serve his purposes.
Skillen made a significant discovery while on a trip in 1993 with his good friend Bruce Herman, a talented and working artist as well as a professor of art at Gordon. Skillen, Herman and seven other established artists received a generous grant to work in Florence together and create prints on the theme of sacrifice. They lived in a convent, and Skillen—not an artist himself—served as a journalist of sorts and a discussion leader. He kept the artists’ focus on the direction of the pieces they were creating and became their “interpreter,” analyzing and examining their paintings through his writings. The result of their efforts is called the Florence Portfolio. Skillen’s observations were recorded as essays, later published in IMAGE, a journal of the arts and faith.
During his stay in Florence Skillen was still trying to make his dream of an Italy-based program come true. He also hoped to find a venue that had preserved its local cultural history and didn’t feel like a tourist center or a museum. He wanted an old-town environment that practiced its own customs and maintained a thriving local life. He and Bruce Herman made a trip to the ancient hill town of Orvieto, a town that Skillen had never heard of, in hopes of seeing the frescoes of the Renaissance artist Lucas Signorelli in the cathedral there but were denied entrance because the cathedral was undergoing scaffolding work. More importantly, Skillen and his contingent of artists had discovered Orvieto. The result has been Gordon’s successful international study program Gordon in Orvieto, part of the College’s global education offerings.
Skillen’s dream didn’t end there. His life and work in Orvieto has enabled him to expand the dream to a program called the Studio for Arts, Faith and History. The Studio, also located in Orvieto, brings together a group of four participants, who, in concert, comprise a creative community of interpreters, patrons, artists and audience. This fulfills his dream of providing a venue for the integration of arts, faith and history—a symbiotic approach to art and learning that recreates in modern times the great historical artistic tradition as it thrived in Italy during the Renaissance; a means through which others can reconnect to this historical tradition. The land and magic of Italy and its great artistic traditions lend participants a place to create something new while the intimacy of the small town of Orvieto enables the Studio participants to recreate art with a modern twist, but in partnership with a local community.
The program is still in its early stages, but Skillen has taken critical first steps to get it off the ground, integrating some of its programming with student work through Gordon in Orvieto. It is the beginning of what he hopes will become a cultural and artistic revolution where history, tradition and faith in these modern times can be born again.
Jonelle Flood ’10 is a communication arts major from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She wrote this piece as an assignment in COM211 Writing for Media, Spring 2009.
John Skillen is a professor of English at Gordon College and lives in Newburyport with his wife, Susan (Johnson) ’75. They are the parents of four daughters.
Photo of John by Wendy Murray.