Bloomfield exhibit displays more than artists' talents

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Currently at Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield, two art forms collide in the exhibit “Julia,” which features a dozen near life-size portraits of Julia Erickson, principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and founder of the energy-bar company, Barre LLC.

The paintings are by Sonja Sweterlitsch of Greenfield, an accomplished portrait painter from Silver Spring, Md., who moved to Pittsburgh several years ago to attend Carnegie Mellon University, majoring in studio art. She has since gone on to work for several Pittsburgh arts nonprofits over the past decade, first with the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, then the Three Rivers Arts Festival and now for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

“I live and work in my home studio in Greenfield,” Sweterlitsch says. “My painting studio is actually the living room in our house, and I usually paint late into the night after my husband and I put our 2 12-year-old daughter to bed.”

The paintings for this show took Sweterlitsch six months to complete.

“While working on the ‘Julia' project, I learned about James Wyeth's serial portrait project of the dancer Nureyev, and found some inspiration in that project as I began to focus most of the show's images on Julia's ballet,” Sweterlitsch says.

“I was especially excited by the idea that, cumulatively, a series of images of one subject can convey a broader and deeper understanding of the individual.”

Originally from Seattle, Erickson received her training on a scholarship with Pacific Northwest Ballet School and San Francisco Ballet School. She toured Europe and Asia with Pacific Northwest Ballet and danced with the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet for two seasons, prior to joining Pittsburgh Ballet in 2001.

Some of Erickson's roles include Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” The Sylph in “La Sylphide,” Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker,” Lady Capulet in Jean-Christophe Maillot's “Roméo et Juliette” and the leads in George Balanchine's “Agon,” “Prodigal Son,” “Who Cares?” and “Serenade.”

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre graciously allowed Sweterlitsch to use costumes, which are works of art in themselves, and the show includes several paintings of Erickson in the costume for Emeralds from the ballet “Jewels” by Balanchine, as well as a diptych of Julia as Odette and Odile from “Swan Lake,” which is the centerpiece of the show. At 6 feet high, the latter two paintings are almost life-size.

“Being the subject of Sonja's show has been an incredible experience,” Erickson says. “It is a rare opportunity to explore the facets of one's own personality through another artist's eyes. It's a real honor to be the subject of such a talented artist.”

Sweterlitsch says she became interested in focusing on Erickson for a “serial portrait,” after including her among 16 young Pittsburgh women she painted for another exhibition, “Beautiful Dreamers,” which was on display in December 2012 at Fe Gallery in Lawrenceville.

“When I met Julia as part of my ‘Beautiful Dreamers' portrait show, I was impressed by her dedication to her craft of ballet, her natural grace and intelligence,” Sweterlitsch says. “I asked if she'd be willing to collaborate on a ‘serial portrait' project, ultimately culminating in this show.”

Sweterlitsch says they met several times for photo shoots both in and out of the dance studio, and also met several times for coffee and dinner where they talked about their art and got to know each other more.

“I was invited to sketch during a rehearsal and dance class,” says the artist, who is also a Pittsburgh Ballet season ticket holder, “so I've been able to enjoy Julia's performances throughout the past ballet season.”

After Sweterlitsch invited Erickson to come to her house for the first photo shoot, but before she'd met her in person, she read an article Erickson had written in Dance Magazine called “Why I Dance.”

In the article, Erickson poses a question that all artists grapple with at some point: Is an artist's dedication to art “worthwhile” in a world beset by social and economic ills?

Erickson answers this question: “But the practice of a privileged art does not imply a lack of virtue or humanity. Rather, even with the pressing problems in today's world, to deny art's place is to deny humanity.”

“I find her answer elegant and inspiring, and hope that my paintings of her are able to communicate the beauty Julia lives and creates through her life and art,” Sweterlitsch says.

For her part, Erickson says being the subject of Sweterlitsch's serial portrait “has been a very interesting self-exploration.”

“I'm also appreciative that Sonja's show is an opportunity to highlight the arts in Pittsburgh and my professional life, with PBT and Barre,” she says. “It's a uniquely supportive synergy.”

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

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