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Arts & Entertainment

Artist Sonja Sweterlitsch

| Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 2:18 p.m.
Sonja Sweterlitsch
Sonja Sweterlitsch

Faces have always intrigued artist Sonja Sweterlitsch.

A look around her home-based studio in Greenfield is a virtual tour of her celebration of women with stories to tell, from the deep, piercing stare of her friend Kate Little to the warm, inviting gaze of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater dancer Julia Erickson.

"I'm really inspired by other people," says Sweterlitsch, a painter who has taught studio art classes at the Smithsonian Institute, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Trust Arts Education Center. "It's challenging to capture the spirit and likeness of a person ... but it's a challenge you want to take as an artist."

It can take Sweterlitsch several weeks to get that perfect image. But to hear the married mother of a young daughter tell the story, time isn't as important as conveying the moment.

A native of Silver Spring, Md., Sweterlitsch started out sketching images of people then began dabbling in oil paints while studying at Carnegie Mellon University. At the time, her exposure to oil was limited to installation art and abstract painting, but eventually she blended her newfound painting skills with her talent for portraits.

"The drawings were a step toward something more finished," she says. "Working with oils gave it that gloss, that final touch."

She has worked for nonprofit arts organizations for more than a decade, and also coordinates the Artist Market and visual-art exhibits for the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Sweterlitsch organizes visual art for First Night Pittsburgh and curates 709 Penn Gallery, Downtown, and also teaches oil colors. Presently, she's gearing up for a solo art show in December at the Fe art gallery in Lawrenceville. There, she plans to show more than a dozen portraits.

The star who would play me in the movie version of my life and why:

Steve Buscemi. Aside from the obvious, he's a great actor.

Childhood hero and why:

She-Ra, the Princess of Power

Pick one:

A. Go-Gos

B. Goo-Goo Dolls

C. Lady Gaga

D. Yo Gabba Gabba

Yo-Yo Ma

The piece of memorabilia from my childhood I wish I still had:

Crystal Barbie

The superpower I wish I had in real life and why:

I wish I could shoot laser beams from my eyes. I'd look at marshmallows and cherries jubilee.

I can't live without my: iPod, cellphone, DVR, or laptop?

I can live without all of these, and I do live without a few.

My favorite reality show:

"So You Think You Can Dance." I can't dance, but I love watching dancers.

App I wish I could invent:

A "Starwalk"-like app where you hold your iPad up to the city skyline from Mt. Washington, and it displays annotations about the various buildings and landmarks.

Favorite brunch food:

Waffles with whipped cream and strawberries

Favorite guilty pleasure:

Subscriptions to fashion magazines

Best mistake I've ever made:

Smashing my finger in a dorm window at CMU during my freshman year. The cast on my hand made me miss wood shop, which, in turn, led me to take other classes outside the art department, declare my second major and start on my second degree -- creative writing.

Something I would do over if I could and why:

I would have packed more sensible shoes for our trip to Europe.

Pick one:

A. Pirates

B. Penguins

C. Steelers

D. Other

E. I hate sports

B. Penguins. I don't really watch sports, but I'm a fan of my friend Katie O'Malley.

My favorite Pittsburgh athlete:

Sidney Crosby. He seems like a polite young man.

Favorite lunchtime spot:

Szmidt's Old World Deli, Crepes Parisienne and my newest favorite, D'Jeet.

Top thing on my "Bucket List" to do before I'm gone:

Go on a hot-air balloon ride

In five years, I'd like to:

Have a golden retriever

My favorite thing about Pittsburgh is:

My friends, who make everything fun

Star I'd like to dance with on "Dancing With the Stars":

I don't watch the show, but I'd love Bob Dylan to teach me to Cha Cha (I know that sounds weird).

Three people I'd love to have dinner with:

My husband, Tom; my daughter, Genevieve; and whoever's cooking (so Kevin Sousa?)

My quirkiest inherited trait:

What I would describe as a very slight germaphobia

My favorite sandwich, plus fixings:

The Szmidt's Doe Doe, Enrico's "Rosa" Sangaweech

One word my mother would use to describe me:

She once called me a "spicy little tomato" at the old Max & Erma's in Shadyside. I don't know why, and that's more than one word.

Celebrity crush:

Johnny Depp -- the "Don Juan DeMarco" and "Chocolat" Depp, not the "Ed Wood" and "Willy Wonka" Depp

The oldest thing in my refrigerator is:

An unopened can of "Roland" sliced mangos

When I was 10, I wanted to be:

An artist

Exercise I hate most:


I'm deathly afraid of:

Rodents. I once saw the Smithsonian Mall undulating with a wave of rats. This was after dark, and the Metro gates were closing.

If I was auditioning for "American Idol," my song would be:

"Jolene" by Dolly Parton

The first band I saw in concert (when and where):

Erasure. I was in middle school and have no idea where I was. Singer Andy Bell rode out on a white swan.

The best concert I've ever seen:

Tom Waits in Akron, Ohio. It was a surprise birthday present from my husband, and I went crazy when I saw the marquee.

TV marathon I could watch all day and why:

"I Love Lucy." Watching Lucy is sometimes bittersweet knowing her life story, but I love the comedy.

Favorite Pittsburgh-area landmark:

PPG Building -- the Glass Castle. Our skyline is beautiful, but the glass castle makes it uniquely gorgeous.

Saturday mornings you'll find me:

Saturday morning must be that thing I sleep through on my way to the afternoon.

Best new gadget I've tried recently:

iPad. At first I didn't think I'd have much use for it, but I use it for everything -- portfolio, email, taking notes during meetings, everything.

The person I'm most often mistaken for:

Really, anyone with blonde hair, even if I look nothing like them.

The worst advice I ever received:

Here, taste this.

In high school, I was:

In all the after-school clubs. Art club, Literary Journal, Mock Trial, Debate, all of them.

The most famous person I ever became friends with:

Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, author of "Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crab Cakes Later)"

The movie that always makes me cry:

"Cinema Paradiso," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," and "The Iron Giant"

My most treasured fashion accessory is:

My "Cherry Blossom" necklace created by Michelle Sabol, otherwise known as "Memphis George," whose work you can find at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

What you'll always find in my glove compartment:

A silver angel whose wings flap when you wind them up, and a rosary from the Vatican

My most embarrassing junk food:

I have no shame when it comes to junk food.

If I wasn't an artist, I'd be:

A children's book writer-illustrator

The last book I read:

"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," by Karen Russell

My favorite Pittsburgh pizza:

Rialto's in Greenfield

Movie I could watch every time it appears on cable:

"Wizard of Oz"

My favorite website: and Both of these sites are run by beautiful, inspiring Pittsburgh women.

My most memorable fashion mistake:

Um ... maybe every day. I work a lot from home, so my business attire is a very Julian Schnable-esque suit of plaid pajamas.

If I could live my life as someone else, it would be:

For some reason, I almost said Andy Warhol, but, man, that would be weird.

My childhood nickname was:

Sonja Begonia

My favorite "bad" movie is:


My first job:

A sales associate at The Limited in White Flint Mall, Silver Spring, Md.

My worst job:

A sales associate at The Limited. Although I was also a college intern for a rather successful artist who had me file his grocery receipts, that was pretty useless, too.

My favorite cable channel:

HGTV. I miss "The Antonio Treatment!"

The song that always gets me out on the dance floor and why:

"Smooth Criminal," by Michael Jackson. At least that's what worked at Angela Seals' house party last weekend!

Life would be better without:

War and hatred

If I could tour with any two bands, they would be:

The Beatles and No Doubt. But I'd be the singer of No Doubt in this scenario.

I never travel without my:

Epi-pen. If a bee stings me, I'm not accomplishing anything on my bucket list.

People would be surprised to know that I:

I've celebrated several Valentine's Days with my husband at the Grand Slam Monster Jam. (Grave Digger!!!)<

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