Our first exposure to Ulla Anobile’s art was at Cactus Gallery & Gifts in Eagle Rock. The piece was called Dirge Singer, and as that name sounds, it was rather formidable and a bit frightening for those of us weaned on simple Americana. The work springs from a piece resembling wood with claw-like roots, and is topped by a papier mâché head (mask) encircled with an embroidered felt headscarf. Anobile explains that in Finnish Karelia, the birthplace of her ancestors, dirge singers (crying women) were respected figures and, after a loved one’s death, their job was to help ease the shared sorrow of those left behind.
From what we’ve seen of your art, it seems you work in many mediums.
I started working in papier mâché, then added to that embroidery, which I learned in the old-fashioned Finnish girls’ school I attended. At one point, I started picking up interesting pieces of wood—branches and sticks, scraps from construction sites—and used those as a starting point for my birds and owls, and various skull and spirit creatures. Then a friend gave me a heap of felt, so I had to figure out what to do with that, and my humorous little “funny felt” figures were born.
It’s all a combination of accidents and invention. I like to reuse and recycle; it makes the whole process more fun and rewarding. My embroidery is completely improvised—I start from one corner with one color, and it builds from there. Since I don’t like to replicate what I’ve already done, things end up being one-of-a-kind and always somewhat asymmetrical. In many ways it’s like playing (though, of course, with a measure of skill and control).
Could you talk about what inspires you and how you are drawn to create what you do?
Someone once asked me where my ideas came from and I blurted without thinking, “From the cellar.” What I meant was that they come mostly from the deepest, unconscious part of my psyche. I’ve always had an easy time accessing that—it feels sort of like a partnership between my conscious self and some ancient, more primitive layer that has the capacity to inspire and surprise me.
Do you have a studio where you work?
I work at home, everywhere but my bedroom. I have a couple of desks and my “stitching chair,” and even the kitchen table tends to get covered with pieces of wood and unfinished work. Papier mâché work involves many steps, and some of them (mixing, drying, sanding) happen outside on the back steps.
Has being an artisan always been your career?
Being an artist was never even a Plan B for me—I was always a book lover and wanted to be a writer. I started writing stories (and getting some published) during my high school days in Finland. I got a job as a cub reporter, then worked as a staff writer and columnist for several Finnish magazines, and after I got married to an American in ’72 and moved here, I worked freelance for several Finnish publications. But after a while that just became too difficult—keeping up with my Finnish with English buzzing all around me, and trying to remember the Finnish readers’ point of view. So I “retired” in ’84.
Then I went through a pretty intense period looking inside myself and sorting things out, including some painful things about the past. It was during this time that I took a mask-making course at Otis-Parsons (as it was still called then), and my art career grew little by little from there. People wanted to buy my work, and I got it into galleries, and even some museum shows, and onto the White House Blue Room Christmas tree (1999), and so on. At the moment I’m in three galleries, locally at the Folk Tree and Cactus (as well as some items in the Pasadena Museum of History gift shop), and also in the Woman Made Gallery in Chicago.
What draws you to spend a day in Pasadena? How do you like to spend your time?
My favorite places are the Pasadena Museum of California Art—it’s small enough so I can absorb their exhibitions without getting totally dizzy from looking—and, of course, the Norton Simon with its lovely garden. I always try to see whatever they have at the Armory. Food-wise, I often end up going to Central Park, which is right next door to the Folk Tree.
To see more of Ulla Anobile’s work, visit the Folk Tree and Cactus Gallery & Gifts, or her Facebook page. You can also see her art at the upcoming “Tiny Treasures” – 5th Annual Miniatures Show at Cactus Gallery. The opening reception is Saturday, December 10, 7-10 p.m., during the area’s artwalk.
Cactus Gallery, 4534 Eagle Rock Blvd., 323.256.6117; “Tiny Treasures” runs through December 24.