Figures, Flowers And Fire

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Anne-Elizabeth Sobieski, standing in front of some of her fire-related creations at Judson Studios in South Pas. The works will be installed at the new Santa Clarita fire station.
Photos courtesy of Anne-Elizabeth Sobieski

After losing her mother when she was just 6 years old, Anne-Elizabeth Sobieski began to paint portraits of her mom as a form of catharsis — and though she didn’t realize it back then, the experience set Sobieski on her future path to becoming an artist.

While attending Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, Sobieski took several weeks off to do a senior project, and she chose to study with a teacher at ArtCenter College of Design, enjoying the experience but not completely understanding the depth of her connection with art just yet. But after she studied at University of Colorado-Boulder, Sobieski started taking evening art classes in the summer, and that’s when things began to click.

“I just felt like it was my calling,” the 48-year-old South Pas resident told the Review recently from her combination home and studio on Grand Avenue, where’s she been busy preparing for a May 17 exhibition of her work at Plan:d Gallery in the Frogtown area of L.A. It will be her first solo show in 10 years.

“I didn’t know that regular people could be artists,’’ she recalled, “but I began to realize that it actually might be a possibility.”

After leaving Boulder to attend The Art Institute of Chicago, Sobieski later transferred to ArtCenter in Pasadena, where she studied illustration. She received her BFA in illustration in 1995, got married and went to work at Disney Interactive. It was during this time that she discovered her passion for figure painting.

“While I was at Disney, I was doing art work on a computer, which I realized wasn’t for me,” Sobieski said. “Then I started to build a figure-painting portfolio and work with models in my garage. I have always loved working from the figure — it is incredibly challenging and deeply personal. My most favorite paintings growing up were figurative. I loved Toulouse-Lautrec, Egon Schiele, John Singer Sargent and Manet.”

Sobieski presented her work to the Sarah Bane Gallery in Fullerton, quit her job and showed for the next 10 years at the gallery, where she sold more than 100 of her paintings. She remained there until 2009, then returned to school to earn an MFA in painting from Claremont Graduate University.

“After that, my work shifted into being curated for group shows,” Sobieski said. “I worked with different curators and was in multiple shows, and that’s what I’ve been doing up to this point.”

Sobieski’s paintings depict a variety of subject matter, ranging from figures and animals to elements of nature. Her work uses lush oils on linen canvas to explore the formal elements of painting, with sincere imagery that speaks to the notions of beauty, abundance and loss.

“In 2005 I began a series of flower paintings to change up my practice,” Sobieski said. “Much of my concentration had been tied to trying to grasp the human physical form, and I wanted to freely explore more of the formal elements of paint. I played with composition, color and paint surface. I used flowers because they are a forgiving structure to render and are also loaded with content.”

“Debutante,” oil on paper, 2003.

Another subjects Sobieski enjoys portraying is fire, which has played a significant role in her life. When she was 17, her childhood home in Pasadena burned down due to an electrical blaze. Sobieski’s two sons, James, 22, and Ollie, 20, work as emergency medical technicians, and her latest project, commissioned by the L.A. County Department of Arts and Culture, involved designing windows for a new fire station in Santa Clarita.

“It was very serendipitous when they approached me for the project, because I’d had some fire paintings in my MFA show for graduate school,” Sobieski said. “I really enjoyed doing the collaboration, and I felt like I had a lot of kinship with the project. The thing I loved about this project was the purpose and the positive impact it has on the community. I feel like the project picked me.”

For the Santa Clarita fire-station project, Sobieski enlisted fellow ArtCenter graduate Tim Carey and Judson Studios in South Pasadena, who fabricated windows featuring Sobieski’s colorful images that capture the tradition and reflect the life of a firefighter. In the near future, there will be a dedication ceremony that honors the firefighters and unveils the windows to the community. Sobieski also is working on a related coloring book for kids that will be given out at the dedication.

Her May 17 solo show at Plan:d Gallery in Frogtown will combine her two main bodies of work — figurative paintings and florals — with the possibility of some glasswork as well.

“I like painting flowers because they’re so forgiving,” Sobieski pointed out. “It’s not like drawing people, where you can instantly tell if something is off. With petals, you can twist and manipulate the elements without it looking wrong. What’s more important is the vocabulary of the mark, the color and the distances between the objects — that’s what tells the story.”

When she isn’t painting or drawing, Sobieski teaches private classes and portfolio development to art students in her studio, which is located at the home in South Pasadena she shares with her husband of 24 years, James, who work in the renewable-energy business.

The innovative property is a work of art in itself, designed like a campus, with cube-shaped compounds and autonomous spaces.

“I love that art is endlessly challenging, and I like having the choice,” Sobieski said. “I’m fairly defiant, so I don’t like being told what to do. I love learning from all the artists who came before me, and I love teaching young artists craving to learn. Drawing and painting is such a cathartic process, and I just don’t think that I’m good at anything else.”

For more information, visit Sobieski’s website, www.aesobieski.com.

“Kyla,” oil on linen, 2019.