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Two new art exhibits pay tribute to Pittsburghers

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 8:50 p.m.
'Kathryn Heidemann' by Sonja Sweterlitsch
'Laura Miller' by Sonja Sweterlitsch
'Ayanah Moor' by Carolina Loyola-Garcia and Colter Harper
'Brian Brown' by Carolina Loyola-Garcia and Colter Harper
'Karla Boos' by Carolina Loyola-Garcia and Colter Harper
'Adrienne Wehr' by Carolina Loyola-Garcia and Colter Harper

Two art exhibits around town at the moment are proof that Pittsburghers are proud of their own.

“After Dark” at 707 Penn Gallery and “Beautiful Dreamers” at Fe Gallery in Lawrenceville both feature portraits of Pittsburghers who each have contributed greatly to the cultural landscape of our city.

Featuring more than half a dozen large-scale photographs by Carolina Loyola-Garcia and Colter Harper, “After Dark” was born out of the desire to explore the possibilities of painting with light in the creation of a series of portraits of Pittsburgh-based artists.

Harper, a photographer and guitarist with the band Rusted Root, had been experimenting with different and unorthodox lights and photography before he combined his talents with that of Loyola-Garcia for this project more than 18 months ago.

Both artists had the desire to portray their community of friends and colleagues in the arts, and pay tribute to them for the support and nurturing they provide to the Pittsburgh creative landscape. “So, we embarked in the process, creating a bit of an event out of each photo shoot,” Loyola-Garcia says. “It wasn't just about the images, but also about the process and the environment we created for each, almost like a happening.”

And, as visitors will see, each of the photographs has an aspect of performance to them, being lively images that are quite a bit more engaging than a standard portrait. “Our aim was to bring the magical and mysterious out of each of our models,” Loyola-Garcia says.

They started with sculptor James Simon, photographing him in his Uptown loft/studio, where so many wonderful art events have taken place (Gist Street Literature Series, dance and music events, film screenings, etc). The bathtub in the middle of his dinning room has become the staple of his space, and is usually used to hold beer during events. In their portrait, it contains the artist.

“Each photo session would see us implementing a number of different tableaux for our models,” Loyola-Garcia says. “The process involved them posing for long periods of time since each shot required a 30-second exposure for us to paint our subject into the picture using a variety of lights. The selection process of the final images for printing was difficult, since we had so many great photos to choose from.”

Likewise, choosing your favorite in the gallery will prove equally challenging. For example, artist Brian Brown's portrait brings together one of his massive pop culture-inspired paintings with his own sense of style and penchant for all things retro. This, combined with an expressive aura of white light surrounding him, makes for an almost-angelic image.

Actor and producer Adrienne Wehr's portrait was taken in her backyard garden, with the performing artist holding an incomparable pose on a chair while the artists bathed her in an unearthly blue light.

And, Quantum Theatre founder and artistic director Karla Boos brings drama to a stage full of papier-mâché animal heads, appearing in a vibrant red-satin dress as if emerging from a bolt of blue lightning.

“Karla's work in Pittsburgh continues to awe us both, and we were very happy to capture her in this other world of our creation,” Loyola-Garcia says.

Over at Fe Gallery, “Beautiful Dreamers” features 16 large-scale painted portraits by Sonja Sweterlitsch.

Influenced by painters as diverse as John Singer Sargent, Gustav Klimt, Lucien Freud and Cecillia Beaux, Sweterlitsch says, “I'm inspired by the beauty I see in other people.” And, in this case, the oil paintings on display depict young women who have made a positive impact on our city during the past three years since Sweterlitsch began the self-assigned project.

A self-taught portrait painter, Sweterlitsch says she got to know each of her subjects well, after taking their photographs for reference. “Although asking these women was the most difficult part, getting to know them has been, by far, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” Sweterlitsch says. “I've made friends with so many interesting, strong young women.”

Sweterlitsch says it took her just over two and a half years to complete all 16 paintings. And although all of the works are well-executed, Sweterlitsch's painting of Laura Miller is a standout. Miller is the creator of the “Secret Agent L,” an international project aiming to pay small kindnesses forward for great cumulative change.

“She's also the person who inspired me to paint this show specifically,” Sweterlitsch says. “The ‘Secret Agent L' project started anonymously, but when I read about Laura revealing herself as the person behind the project, I knew I wanted to create a portrait show to celebrate some of the young women doing great things in the city.”

Sweterlitsch's painting of Julia Erickson, principal dancer at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, is another standout. Especially because Erickson is also the creator of “healthy energy bars” she calls “Barre, Real Food Bars.”

“I was already a fan of Julia's when I asked her to take part in this show,” Sweterlitsch says. “She has an unearthly beauty and a radiant stage presence that makes her a joy to watch while she's dancing.”

Struck by the intensity of her devotion to her craft, Sweterlitsch says that when creating her portrait of Erickson, “I wanted to capture her lightness of movement and grace while still depicting an intensity in her eyes.”

Finally, Sweterlitsch's portrait of Kathryn Heidemann, director of the masters of arts management program at Carnegie Mellon University, also is telling. Showing tell-tale signs of Sweterlitsch's aforementioned artistic influences, she says, “In Kathryn's case, the burnished-copper color of her hair and the floral pattern of her dress reminded me of the color palette of Andrew Wyeth, so I followed that idea to set off Kathryn's coloring by creating the charcoal-colored barn-wood background for her.”

While traditional artistic disciplines such as figurative painting and portraiture are often derided as old-fashioned or passé, Sweterlitsch says, “I believe projects like mine show a way that this type of art can continue to be very relevant, by celebrating the greatness in our community and our lives.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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