Room for interpretation

The display fills a whole room at the Emily Davis Gallery at the University of Akron in Ohio.

Tractor-trailers, gold wings and a boldly painted sky are all part of artist DeAnna Skedel’s ode to the American trucker.

Skedel’s installation work, “On the Sky,” is a multi-faceted piece reveling in the mystery of truck driving. The work, meant to stimulate viewers by encompassing an entire room of the Emily Davis Gallery at the University of Akron in Ohio, uses different colors and pieces of art to convey Skedel’s theme.

Skedel, who is an assistant professor at the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, says her work is meant to represent the myth of the cowboy that pervades country music and history and is extended to the trucker. By using different works to convey the life of a truck driver, Skedel unites the ancient cowboy with today’s trucker. People have responded positively to the work, Skedel says.

“My stepfather is a truck driver, and he thinks it is hilarious,” Skedel says. “I have had a really wonderful response to the trucks.”

Installation art, which is a combination of objects within a room, including the walls and lighting, is a work meant to engage the viewer.

“It’s like a theater set, not just paintings,” Skedel says. “It is a room for people to stand in that makes you feel a little different, like a picture itself.”

The walls of the gallery are painted gold and blue like a horizon, and six cast cement tractor-trailer planters filled with sod are positioned around the room. Hanging on the wall are denim work shirts with gold angel wings. The trucks are modeled after International trucks, though her stepfather has driven a Peterbilt for years, Skedel says.

Skedel’s inspiration for “On the Sky” came from a combination of muses, she says. She teaches a fine arts program in Florence, Italy, each summer for a group of students, and she developed her sense of the loner figure, which is inherent in the cowboy image, by studying paintings of the saints in Italy. She connected this image to cowboys and truckers, which she represented in her work.

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The lower room of the gallery is also showing works of different artists that have influenced Skedel over the years. Each artist’s work attempts to interpret the theme of “On the Sky.”

The artist completed her bachelor of fine arts in metalsmithing at the University of Akron in 1995, and her master of fine arts in sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997.

Skedel’s interest in the life of the truck driver will influence future work, she says.

“I can guarantee you I will be continuing to work with the myth of the cowboy and my respect for truckers.”

A Tree Story
The idea came after trucker Edd Voss read a magazine article about a bureaucrat who teaches a truck driver the message of Christmas. Fed up with the negative media portrayal of truck drivers, Voss set out to create a story that would capture the hearts of truck drivers and regular citizens.

Voss had never written a book before, but he wanted to combine his love for small town holiday celebrations with his knowledge of the American highway into a holiday story for all ages.

A Tree for America is a holiday tale about bureaucrat Robert Anjer, assigned to oversee the delivery of the national Christmas tree to Washington, D.C. Anjer finds out that he must ride along with truck driver Ken Rainey to Leavenworth, Wash., to pick up the tree and deliver it to D.C. Along the way, Rainey and Anjer form a life-long friendship while discovering the true meaning of Christmas.

The author drew from his own experiences behind the wheel and used real locations and weather conditions to tell the story. Leavenworth, Wash., is one of the most beautiful places in the country during the holidays, Voss says.

“People come from all over Washington just to go to Leavenworth and see the lights,” Voss says.

Dangerous weather conditions play an important part in the book as well, and Voss recounts the winter of 1990 when the temperature was 40 degrees below zero from Des Moines to Salt Lake City. Voss used one of his own experiences during a blizzard to create the scene in the book in which Rainey and Anjer rescue a family from icy waters after the car spins off the road. Truck drivers are constantly doing good deeds like this in real life, Voss says.

“These are the stories that the regular public never hears,” Voss says. “There are still knights of the highway.”

While Voss is a first-time author, he is a seasoned photographer. He served in the Army from 1971 to 1980 as an Army photographer and still continues to snap pictures of Americana for sale on his website, A driver since 1990 for Combined Transportation in Central Point, Ore., Voss uses truck driving as his venue to illustrate the beauty of the United States through photos.

“It has given me an appreciation of America and her people that I didn’t have before,” Voss says. “I have experienced things I never got a chance to in the military.”

Voss wrote A Tree for America to inform non-truck drivers, he says, but he hopes truck drivers enjoy it during the holiday season as well.

“It’s a chance to share that love of America, Christmas and trucking,” Voss says. ” [Truck drivers] love Christmas as much as I do. You never fail to see someone wearing a Santa hat.”
A Tree for America is $12.95 and is available at major bookstores.

Hands of Steel on the Wheel
Trucker Chris Benavides’ favorite scar is on his right hand, at the base of his index finger.
“This guy pulled a knife on me in Laredo [Texas],” Benavides says. “I hit him so hard I ended up having to work his tooth out of my knuckle.”

Benavides, 36, lives in Urbana, Ohio, and drives for Perma-Fix of Dayton, Ohio. He hauls chemical-industrial supplies for the company.

He has seventh-degree black belts in the goju-ryu, a kind of karate that allows both hard and soft techniques, and fujitsu disciplines, and a sixth-level black belt in American kempo. Kempo is a mixture of karate and kickboxing.

Not bad for a guy who got beat up by a girl when he was 7. “I got the crap kicked out of me by a girl at school,” Benavides says. “I didn’t have a dad, so Mom sent me to karate school.”

He had a black belt by the time he was 10 and was winning Ohio state karate tournaments at 16. “In a year I had 70 trophies. That’s all I did,” Benavides says.

After high school Benavides signed up for a hitch with the U.S. Marines, and after being discharged in 1992, he worked with the Guardian Angels watchdog group in Chicago.

“These guys’ skills and patrols blew what I did in the Marine Corps away,” Benavides says.

The Angels, men who patrol the streets of crime-ridden neighborhoods wearing red berets, helped old women with their groceries, took down the occasional crack house, and got Benavides a gun shoved in his face when he tried to break up a fight between two men.

Benavides says when he gets in situations like that, with a gun in his face and nothing but his martial arts training to help him out, the fear is not that he will get shot. “If someone doesn’t shoot you in the first three seconds, they aren’t going to shoot you,” he says. It’s that he will respond with too much force. He can break eight 2-inch concrete slabs with a single punch.

Benavides now teaches the skills he’s learned to others though private instruction. His students have competed in various cage fighting tournaments and Ultimate Fighting Challenge competitions.

Benavides himself was a cage fighter and wrestler in the Mexican Triple A Wrestling organization. He wrestled as “The Sensei” – his costume was complete with mask and cape – and Benavides says that was one of his toughest gigs.

“That was a frickin’ tough crowd!” Benavides says. Between fights 16-year-old boys would get in the ring and give weapons demonstrations. “If the crowd didn’t like them, they would throw their beer bottles at these kids!”

Besides wrestling, Benavides competed in a number of professional fighting matches in Mexico.

“My record in pro fighting is 6-1, and that one is why I’ll never do it again,” Benavides says. That one loss left Benavides with a torn ACL.

Benavides thinks his trucking career perfectly complements his fighter training. He goes out for hauls and gets back in time to teach a class, or at least see his students compete on the weekends. He’s a day-hauler in the Ohio area, but he wants to expand his training business.

“I’m thinking about a video on truckstop self defense,” Benavides says. “You can do katas (a series of karate moves) in the sleeper, and there are a lot of exercises you can do in the bunk.” Katas are attack and defense move patterns.

“After 20 some years of studying, I’ve realized all the martial arts are is an expression of how I’m going to break your arm or hit you in the face,” Benavides says.