It is always uplifting to get to know someone who is spending her life pursuing work that gives her great pleasure, and so I was greatly inspired after meeting Pasadena native and artist Anne-Elizabeth Sobieski. I sat down with this cheerful painter, teacher, and student to talk about her nearly 20-year love of painting and the unusual degree of optimism behind some of the pieces in her upcoming thesis show in Claremont, as well as her thoughts on Pasadena as a town that values education and beauty.
What’s your Pasadena connection?
It goes way back. I attended Poly, Westridge and Art Center. I’m currently at Claremont Graduate University getting my MFA, and I also teach at Art Center and live in South Pasadena.
You’ve stayed close to home all these years—you must love Pasadena! What do you like most about it?
Pasadena is an excellent place to be a student and an artist and to raise a family because it is in love with education. For instance, when I went to Art Center, we had to fulfill core requirements in other subjects, and for a physics class, they brought in a Caltech professor. I loved that! Pasadenans have great pride in their institutions, and there’s a culture of lifelong learning across the disciplines. It is also an optimistic city that holds ideals of beauty and intellect, which you don’t find elsewhere in the Southland. It is entirely sophisticated and yet simultaneously innocent, which happens to also be an important balance to strike in art.
How do you go about teaching and what inspires you as an art educator?
The absolute most important thing to remember when teaching kids is that everyone wants and deserves to be taken seriously, no matter their age. That is what got me started in art—I was in middle school at Poly and the ceramics teacher would leave the door of the studio open so I could go in whenever I wanted to paint pots. I felt respected because of that, and I try to pass that on through my teaching. I teach middle-schoolers, but I treat them the same as college-age students, presenting them with oil paints and introducing them to art history. The kids respond well to being treated as responsible young adults.
So you first started creating art in middle school—what drew you to visual art and, specifically, oil painting?
I was drawn to art because of the wonderful teachers I had. I delved deeper into painting my senior year at Westridge and began taking classes at Art Center to put together a collection for my senior project. I found that visual art was cathartic for me, and I’ve stayed loyal to oils as a medium because they are challenging to work with and provide a vibrancy and richness that can be found in no other medium. Oil applies to such a variety of subjects and time periods that I can draw inspiration from many artists across the ages. The medium itself has a history and a sensuality that translates onto the canvas.
What inspires and informs your work?
All forms of art and literature, as well as everyday experiences and universal emotions. For instance, I’ve found that the sort of yearning described in many literary characters can be seen as a parallel to trying to achieve something in art and not quite being able to. I have come to art through a process of failing and succeeding, and that in itself inspires me.
Your thesis show opens shortly—can you tell me about some of the pieces for that show and the meanings behind them?
My paintings have layers of meanings. Some are more complex, some more straightforward, but the pieces in my thesis show have common themes of the inevitable loss and fear that exists in the world coupled with the constancy of hope and beauty that are able to overcome that fear. For example, my painting Happy Endings depicts the dark hedges of my backyard on the bottom of the canvas and, above it, the bright blue sky with pinkish clouds that I often see at dusk. That sky represents the moment when everything is all right, the moment of happiness and light amongst that which is dark or frightening. I would say that my work is not jaded, and I am very glad—there is a pervasive optimism throughout, but there is depth as well. Art does not have to be overly nostalgic and fluffy to be uplifting, and art does not have to be entirely dark to have meaning.
Color plays a pivotal role in translating the message of your work. Is it difficult to come up with just the right mix of color?
I love color, especially in oils, and it happens to be pretty intuitive for me—most of the time, I achieve the effect I want, and if I don’t, then I start over. Color is a very strong language, and every color you pick and mark you make tells a story, so if it’s not right once it’s on the canvas, there’s no choice but to start again. The colors and strokes I use are a direct result of where I am at that specific moment in my life, and thus the tone of the painting can be recognized immediately. I can’t hide anything.
What is your favorite part about being an artist?
I’m following a lifelong passion and though my art, I am able to clear my head and find a truer place. I try to make sense of life and all of its nuances through my painting and pass on a message about valuing life. We are all complex and that is why art is so important—it speaks to something in all of us. Creating art and putting it on display does put me in a vulnerable place, but when you invest in something beautiful, like art or even just being alive in this world or being in love, you inevitably open yourself up to feeling vulnerable—but you also open yourself up to something wonderful and so rewarding.
Anne-Elizabeth Sobieski Thesis Presentation: “Domestic”
February 27-March 2
Claremont Graduate University
Peggy Phelps Gallery, 251 E. 10th St., Claremont
Artist’s receptions February 27, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. & March 1, 6-9 p.m.
Check out aesobieski.com for more about the artist and her work