Many residents of the Columbia area are familiar with local art pieces such as the giant chain mural connecting two buildings on Main Street or the “World’s Largest Fire Hydrant” on Taylor Street, but less is known about their creator.
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1938 as Warren Edward Johnson, Blue Sky changed his name in 1974 and became a well-known artist and major contributor to the art scene in Columbia. He attended the University of South Carolina, earning his master's and bachelor's degrees in art and education, in addition to schools in New York and Mexico.
While he said he does not consider any of these direct influences or inspirations, young Sky got his start in the art world with his mother, privately making art and developing his interest in sculpting. Sky would even go into the yard and dig his own clay for pottery. Though he had the adolescent ambition of being an engineer, his path changed when his high school adviser told him he should pursue art.
An appreciator of Ralph Waldo Emerson and admirer of the popular Latin American mural scene, Sky’s works feature his distinctive American post-war and Trompe-l’oeil style, and can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, Mississippi Museum, Columbia Museum, Florence Museum and State Museum, among other East Coast collections. After nearly 45 years and countless hours of work, his expressions populate the contemporary and historical art scene of the world.
His wife and agent, Lynn Sky, whom he met through her newly-opened gallery in June 1981, has sold thousands of his paintings and helped draw attention to his devotion to art and its products. The two have traveled around the world, going to Europe yearly since the '90s, which not only inspired many of Sky’s paintings of places such as Rome, England or Spain, but also produced museum exhibits and spread his work across the globe.
Despite being worldly adventurers, they have always returned to their home of Columbia in an Emerson-esque appreciation. Lynn Sky now keeps up with their son, a USC Honors college alumnus, and still manages her husband's works and publications. She has contributed to his work being published in several dozen art history books and museums around the world, more recently the Rice Museum, the Wright Museum, National Museum in Sweden and in a Presto book by Random House in Germany.
“I thought that was pretty incredible, that he's getting more attention around the world and being represented, you know, as a trompe l’oeil master, whereas here in Colombia he doesn't seem to get as much respect,” Sky said.
Besides the fire hydrant, "Busted Plug Plaza" and the "Never Bust Chain," his murals such as "Tunnelvision" or "Windows of the Soul," both of which are enormous wall frescoes spanning over 40 feet, are a testament to his gifted ability and devotion to the trade.
These huge pieces are all done without the typical methods of projection or tracing. Done completely by hand, while juggling a personnel lift, city ordinances and weather, these works can sometimes take up to three months to finish.
“[The city has] canceled so many great pieces that I had planned. It's just been one right after the other, canceled, canceled, canceled,” Sky said.
Sky's most recent mural, located behind Groucho’s Deli and The Bird Dog, is nearly 1,700 square feet, being around 24 feet tall and 81 feet long. It features many of the typical styles and artistic intricacies of Sky’s works.
“It's a hundred times harder, not just twice as hard," Sky said. "If you don’t believe it, that's why you don’t see paintings like this around. They’re hard. It really takes great talent to do something like this."
Besides these challenges requiring all his attention, each piece is funded essentially by himself. Although he accepts it as a part of the job, funding is a cyclical struggle, as he has nearly always funded his artwork, which for him is his life.
“I don’t think people realize how poor artists are, we have no money. I’ve never had a new car, not even anything close to a new car," Sky said. "We struggle. I never know how we are going to pay anything. I don’t have any money; no one wants to pay for anything. We're all poor, but that comes with the profession, I guess.”
For the "Never Bust Chain" installation in 2000, after weeks of effort to gain permission from the surrounding buildings' owners, Sky spent around $5,000 total to attach the massive metal links to the walls. The process involved around seven men in the dead of night using a crane and about 2,000 pounds from a hydraulic press. This was all done in secrecy and careful planning, and the piece had to be hung exactly 26 feet in the air to be the legal distance from the sidewalk, as he knew the city would want the piece removed. Despite conflict and contrary action, after a time and with the help of his friends, it was allowed to stay.
“He's a local artist; he's chosen to stay in Columbia. He could have lived in New York. He could have lived in LA, or anywhere else. He's been offered to live in Chicago, they tried to get him to move there — because they have a huge art support base there and foundations,” Lynn Sky said. "But he loves Columbia, he loves his home state, he loves living there and I just wish people would continue to support him."
Compared to most artists, Blue Sky strays from the typical art vendor in almost all aspects. From private funding to finding local areas where he can create, he has endured many adventurous and unique experiences for his pieces. He continues to leave an important expressive mark on the local area and subtle commentaries about art and freedom in our modern world.