Editor’s Note: The Selective Echo will present 12 days of in-depth coverage of the 36th annual Utah Arts Festival, beginning today (including wall-to-wall daily previews and coverage June 16-24). Previews of various events and activities will be followed by frequent updates and spotlight features during the festival. There will be more than 40 feature articles and more than 200 images, videos, and audio clips
Unquestionably, the Utah Arts Festival is the state’s largest and most significant event of culture in virtually every realm of the visual, creative, and performing arts. Twitter and Facebook updates also will be provided.
‘In this third life, I am entirely on my own, what I do is only what I choose to do at the moment, and I am free to make mistakes, to work ten hours straight if I want to, and to be responsible only to [my dog], my only boss. This is a freedom I have never experienced before to my entire life, and I like it. I am independent and I can feel it in my blood and bones, and I am full of energy and the confidence that there are more accomplishments ahead for me and more things to discover, if I decide to do so.’ – Pilar Pobil, ‘My Kitchen Table: Sketches from My Life,’ 2007.
At 83, Pilar Pobil’s creative determination is as sharp as ever. Even in her most routine observations – for example, watching three Mexican cooks work in a stainless steel restaurant kitchen set against a colorful, warm backdrop – she sees the artistic promise of communicating a sensorial experience that is as realistic as it is, in more than a few instances, surprisingly instinctively mysterious.
Pobil’s work defies the neat exercise of trying to document her chronological development as an artist through her technique and her choice of subjects. A self-taught yet highly disciplined artist, she continues to work rather quickly, often completing a painting within a week and going right to canvas without bothering to sketch the work in advance. ‘When I started painting, Walter [her late husband] advised me that all artists do sketches,’ she recalls. ‘I told him that if I did that, the sketch would end up to be a much stronger work than the painting.’
Depending upon the subject of her work she’ll choose among acrylics, oils, and watercolor. Periodically, with her earlier background in small clay sculptures, she has done mixed-media work with clay and paint including three examples that are displayed in a spectacular garden at her home in the Avenues section of Salt Lake City. Her brushstrokes can be as impressionistically bold, textured, and vibrant in color as they are in hushed, smooth, and fine tones and textures.
And, of course, her paintings continue onto the frames, which represent one of the most intriguing and defining characteristics of her work. Plainly, Pobil’s frames spread the intensity of the sensorial experience of her work. Rather than smother the experience, the frame in her work encourages the viewer to embrace the whole spectrum of emotion in his or her own sensorial interactions.
Her work comprises the featured exhibition at the 36th annual Utah Arts Festival, which opens on the event’s first day (Thursday, June 21). The exhibition, ‘Expressions in Color by Pilar Pobil,’ will be open until Aug. 3 in the fourth floor Gallery at Library Square in the Salt Lake City Main Library.
She also will lead two hands-on workshops during the festival (Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23, 1- 3p.m.) in the library’s special collections rooms. Pobil, who will show how to embellish a frame for a painting or art, will have the frames prepped and painted as well as provide paints, brushes and stencils. The workshops are open to the public with a nominal cost and registration in advance.
In many ways, Pobil exemplifies the holistic life-building experience of the arts that is central to the state’s largest celebration of creativity and culture. A native of Mallorca, a Mediterranean island off the Spanish coast, she absorbed a deep love for books and art from her father, a navy admiral who was killed during the Spanish Civil War when she was still very young. When her father was on leave, the two would go to an old bookstore that still exists today where the young Pobil received editions of fairy tales, drawing books, and colored pencils as gifts, along with a pencil sharpener that, as she recalls, was cherished for many years.
In her 2007 autobiography, which was published by The University of Utah Press, she wrote: ‘I would sit on my little stool, often in my favorite place in the mirador (the lookout) … and sketch anything that drew my attention, especially people. When I went to Son Vida, my grandmother’s country house, my cousins and I built small caves and landscapes in the garden, and when the ponds were being cleaned and the silt and clay removed from the bottom, we made small cooking pots or shepherds’ figures and animals – lambs and roosters and turkeys – for the Christmas nativity scene.’
Unfortunately, after her father’s death, the young Pobil had to pursue her artistic enterprise in secret because her mother, who came from a strict conservative family that looked down upon women working independently, was rarely sentimental about such pursuits. The young aspiring artist recalls her mother’s admonition that ‘ignorance is very daring,’ a line that ironically became part of Pobil’s lifelong willingness to experiment, never fearing failure and realizing that from mistakes one could always improve continuously her technique and develop her style on her own terms. Even while her mother refused to let her take up the opportunity for a free college education to study art formally, she continued to work on small art projects – embroidering pillows, painting furniture, and creating objets d’art – for friends and family members. She also purchased many art books and biographies of artists.
It was only when she began her second life – after she met her husband Walter Smith in 1954 while he was visiting Spain – that she earnestly would move down the path toward becoming a full-time artist. Pobil was raised in a Catholic environment and had learned English via the Berlitz School while her husband, who had been raised in a Mormon family, could barely speak Spanish. The language difficulties turned out to be inconsequential, as Pobil wrote in her book: ‘He was knowledgeable in many diverse subjects and, when confronted with one he was not familiar with, he had the mental curiosity to investigate and read until he understood it. Over the years, our children and I benefited greatly from his extraordinary intellect.’
With their three children (Luis, Maggie, and Monica), the couple eventually settled into the Avenues home, which was built in 1893. When she was 43, Walter suggested that she sign up for a pottery class at the Art Barn where their oldest child, Luis (who was named after Pobil’s father) wanted to take a photography class. Quickly, though, she eventually found painting to be more ambitious.
Unquestionably, this is where Pobil’s power of expression has blossomed so extensively. The landscape and town scenes from her native Mallorca, Spain, Utah, Arizona, and many, many other destinations pop out to the viewer as the phenomena of memory and/or direct, immediate observation often juxtapose muted, almost ethereal evocations with elaborately clarified manifestations. Her undeniably realistic studies of human emotion in so many diverse cultural settings become even that much more cogent with perhaps an unexpected touch of abstraction in background color. The indomitable spirit of women is never absent, whether it’s in the sunny smiles of a group of women at beachside or a group of African women mourners, where any traces of lamentation and grief are superseded by the dignified acknowledgment of the deceased’s life being fulfilled and without regret.
There is nothing so insignificantly incidental that escapes her artistic capacity to recreate the sensory gesture. To wit: a Breton myth about an ancient cathedral from a bygone city that rises from the depths of the sea on sunny days only to sink again when the clouds come. Inspired by Claude Debussy’s exquisite short prelude piano piece ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’ (The Sunken Cathedral), Pobil, who immediately admits that she by no means is religious, created a large canvas that immediately brings to mind all of the sonorous intensities of this composition, from the rising clear sounds of parallel chords that mimic a church’s bells and organ to the blurred, near-ghostly dense chords one imagines as the cathedral sinks back into the sea. The cool marine hues are tempered beautifully by prisms of sun-warmed streaks of light and ethereal images of angelic figures, mermaids and aquatic life floating above and near the altar and windows. The painting’s frame is a magnificent ornate bronze piece fully intact and in its original state, a surprise find donated by a friend who found it while remodeling a house. ‘I knew immediately that I had to create the perfect painting for this frame,’ she explains. (NOTE: An image of this painting is available here.)
Pobil’s third life began after her husband died more than 12 years ago and, indeed, it has been the most active period of the forty years she has been a full-time artist. In addition to the forthcoming Utah Arts Festival exhibition, she has had scores of shows in the last decade. A recent recipient of the Utah Governor’s Award for Visual Arts, she continues to plan exhibitions for the future.
In 2014, she hopes to do another version of her massive 2007 installation, ‘My Burial Chamber: A Celebration of Life’ which was held at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. Although center administrators were initially taken aback by the suggestion of a potentially unappealing maudlin theme for a solo exhibition, Pobil resurrected the tradition of surrounding a deceased loved one’s coffin or sarcophagus with the most significant objects, tools, artifacts, and creations of their life so that they would be available in the case of one’s reincarnation. Her exhibition included photos, angels, sewing machine, painted objects, cooking utensils and pots, paintings, fashion creations embroidery and other items that she has considered central to her life. The musical inspiration for this installation came from Ravel’s famous ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’ (‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’).
Today, Pobil’s house is a dynamic museum for each of the human senses, as many guests know from the annual art in the garden event that Pobil has hosted each June for 18 years. The event, which also showcases work from between five and seven artists each year, is held as a benefit for Art Access, the Utah organization that ensures art experiences for those with disabilities or those who with limited connection to the arts.
Guests to Pobil’s home also immediately notice the Chickering grand piano, made before World War II, which Walter, who also had studied music in San Francisco in addition to his college studies at Berkeley, insisted on purchasing as their first major piece of furniture. In her autobiography, Pobil describes the difficulties of moving the piano to their third-floor apartment near downtown Salt Lake City.
While Pobil did not have the formal art training that she had so desired during her formative years, through her art, she acknowledged the value of her husband’s criticism, which always came with a reminder not to turn back on her instincts. Indeed, those instincts could never be repressed because Pobil still remembers as clearly as possible the earliest images of color, shadows, and light from her childhood home in the Calle de Santa Clara or her beloved grandmother’s Son Vida estate.
She has provided quite convincing evidence of what the great 20th century philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote in ‘Image and Text,’ a classic essay that has become a standard reading in many art philosophy courses:
‘What a gesture expresses is ‘there’ in the gesture itself. A gesture is something wholly corporeal and wholly spiritual at one and the same time. The gesture reveals no inner meaning behind itself. The whole being of the gesture lies in what it says. At the same time every gesture is also opaque in an enigmatic fashion. It is a mystery that holds back as much as it reveals. For what the gesture reveals is the being of meaning rather than the knowledge of meaning.’
One incident that stands out in Pobil’s autobiography concerns a visit she made to a juvenile correctional facility where most of the youth were incarcerated for various violent crimes, including rape and murder. She also brought along a copy of a 1997 short documentary, ‘Dreaming in Color,’ which featured her story and was directed by Fabiana Cesa. The music for the short film, incidentally, was scored by her daughter Monica, who also is a member of Blame Sally, a musical group that performed at last year’s Utah Arts Festival.
While she initially was quite apprehensive about the encounter, she was pleasantly surprised at how some of the youth were eager to hear suggestions for improving their work and how art served as a common ground for them to communicate. Never one to mince words, Pobil says the lesson from her experience is clear, writing that, ‘Many among us believe that art is a distraction, a luxury for the rich, or a way for the idle to spend their hours instead of dedicating themselves to useful work, but they are wrong. Art is one of the most important parts of the history of the civilizations, if not the most important. Art is what persists, what remains, when other things are gone.’
Indeed, Pobil’s gift truly epitomizes art’s enduring impact – and a perfect way to mark this year’s Utah Arts Festival.
For complete information about Pobil’s exhibition and for all events at this year’s festival, see here.
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