Artist Sonja Sweterlitsch has observed PBT dancer Julia Erickson in stage personas ranging from the ethereal Waltz Girl of George Balanchine’s Serenade to the commanding Queen of the Wilis in the classic Giselle.
But in her upcoming portrait series, Julia, Sweterlitsch painted to capture the essence of Erickson as an individual – whether on or off the stage.
The two first connected over coffee last year for Swederlitsch’s debut portrait exhibit, Beautiful Dreamers.
“I was doing portraits of 16 exceptional women who make Pittsburgh a wonderful city, and some of them were friends of mine, and others, like Julia, were people I wanted to meet,” Swederlitsch said. “I realized very quickly that I would love to do a serial portrait of her…many images of her that when seen together hopefully would communicate a greater understanding of the individual.”
A newcomer to ballet, Sonja quickly became intrigued by the way Erickson lit up when she discussed dance and brought characters to life during the photo shoot that inspired the paintings.
“In talking with her I was really impressed by her seriousness and dedication to her art and to her work – to her Barre project, her entrepreneurial project – and also just how dedicated she is to dance. I found that seriousness and dedication and energy incredibly inspiring and contagious to approach my art in the same kind of way.”
Over the course of the artistic process, Sweterlitsch and Erickson met numerous times over coffee, dinner and both in and outside the ballet studio. The series integrates ballet costumes and poses – like paintings of Erickson in costumes from Balanchine’s Emeralds – but also features Erickson in everyday dress. The show’s centerpiece – a six-foot diptych – portrays the dramatic contrast of Erickson as both the black and white swan from Swan Lake.
“The focus in most of the paintings remains the eyes…the greatest amount of detail is there…because the intelligence and spirit and sensitivity come out there…While there are still choreographed moments in the paintings, I didn’t approach it as very gestural, which would be a temptation maybe with the dance movements,” Sweterlitsch said. “I really want the character to come out that is Julia and it to be a portrait of an individual. And, a big aspect of who she is, is dance and ballet, and that’s definitely a huge part of the show but it isn’t so much about the movement she’s making as her…”
As part of her research work for the series, Sweterlitsch’s husband gave her a PBT season subscription for her birthday. Apart from The Nutcracker, the 2012-2013 ballet season was her first prolonged experience with the art form.
“This was my first sort of foray with ballet,” Sweterlitsch said. “It’s amazing how much individuality does come through when the movements are choreographed and synchronized. But, the style that the person brings to it really comes through too. It was interesting how the whole company became characters to me as an audience member, seeing them for repeat performances in different roles. Also just the artistry of these shows is incredible from the costuming to the set design to what the dancers bring to it. It’s an incredibly visual experience… and it’s solely being communicated through movement and the eye; I mean I can see why Degas chose to paint the ballet, and it’s a subject that other artists have been inspired by and been drawn to as well…”
Julia, featuring paintings by Sonja Sweterlitsch, runs Aug. 20, to Sept. 14, at Boxheart Gallery in Bloomfield. Visit the Boxheart Gallery website for gallery hours and directions.
For more information about Sonja Sweterlitsch,visit www.sonjasweterlitsch.com.