Art preview: Portraits capture 16 Pittsburgh women in 'Beautiful Dreamers' show at Fe Gallery

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Artist Sonja Sweterlitsch draws inspiration from the people around her. From the barista she knows at Crazy Mocha at Gateway Center, Downtown, to the musicians, museum personnel and media personalities she admires from afar, all have stories to be shared through brush strokes and paints.

Ms. Sweterlitsch, 35, of Greenfield spent 2 1/2 years painting life-size portraits of 16 women pursuing different life paths in Pittsburgh for her exhibit "Beautiful Dreamers," which closes today at Fe Gallery (open noon-4 p.m.) in Lawrenceville.

Surrounded by her work at the gallery, Ms. Sweterlitsch spoke enthusiastically Tuesday about the paintings, her first major solo show as a portrait artist.

'Beautiful Dreamers: A Celebration of Pittsburgh Women'

Where: Fe Gallery, 4012 Butler St., Lawrenceville.

When: Noon to 4 p.m. today.

Moreso, she gushed about the women in them.

"These people really are beautiful dreamers, young people doing exciting things in the city, pursing their dreams here," she said.

The exhibit's title is an homage to 19th-century songwriter Stephen Foster who was from Lawrenceville. "I find all of these women to be incredibly beautiful and inspiring."

Some of her earliest subjects were close friends, such as biologist Toby McHenry and Angela Seals, program manager at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. Then she moved to people with whom friends put her in touch, such as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Julia Erickson.

"I'm always extremely nervous asking somebody to paint their portrait," she said, "but everyone was an enthusiastic, 'yes.' "

She asked Dr. Kiran Perkins and several others without knowing them well firsthand or having an introduction from a friend.

"I met her actually in the delivery room" when giving birth to Genevieve, her now 20-month-old daughter. "She had on a surgical mask, but she just had these amazing eyes. And it's like 'Wow, she'd be wonderful to paint,' I thought in the middle of everything that's going on."

Others who were strangers at first were Larkin Page-Jacobs of WESA-FM (90.5) and Laura Miller, the woman behind the "Secret Agent L" international kindness movement.

"They're people I was fans of," she said. "They were people I knew about and wanted to include in this because I thought they were amazing."

A few subjects she met in person for the first time at her front door. They broke the ice over chocolate chip cookies or croissants before getting to work in her living room-turned-art studio.

"We'd end up spending the afternoon talking about art and what they do and life, and it was just wonderful," Ms. Sweterlitsch said. "I forged a lot of great friendships this way."

She encouraged them to bring a few outfits that reflected their personal style. Then she photographed lots of close-ups and long shots of the women posed in front of a makeshift backdrop. The pictures served as references for her to sketch them and then complete an underpainting of the portrait using burnt umber, raw sienna and white. This step gives portraits more depth and a sculptural look, she said. The final stage was adding color, as well as fine details such as eyelashes.

It took two to three weeks to complete each portrait, with lots of breaks in between, she said. She often worked late into the night, because by day she juggles jobs as a visual arts consultant for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and a visual arts curator for the Trust Education Center, First Night Pittsburgh and the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

She credited the support and encouragement to her husband, Tom, a writer and employee at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The two met in college at Carnegie Mellon University, where Ms. Sweterlitsch studied art and creative writing.

Her daughter also voiced her interest, often in gibbered words and mumbles, when she'd see the large canvases transformed from the time she went to bed to the next morning.

"I knew she was telling me something about them, probably what to do or change," Ms. Sweterlitsch said. "She's very expressive about them. Then seeing her run through the gallery and see all of these friends, it was neat. She's definitely another inspiration for this for sure."

Despite her subjects' varied backgrounds, one thing Ms. Sweterlitsch feels they all share is "a look that communicates intelligence" in their eyes.

"Focal points in almost all of them are the eyes," she said. "I feel like that's where a lot of the character is conveyed."

Capturing a person's aura through art has appealed to Ms. Sweterlitsch ever since she was a child in Silver Spring, Md., where she grew up with her older sister and school teacher mom and theoretical physicist dad. She regularly sketched portraits of friends, family members and people she spotted in cartoons and magazines.

"I got to where I really just was so interested in faces because they're really for me the most challenging thing an artist can draw or paint in order to capture a likeness, and beyond that have the spirit of the person come across," Ms. Sweterlitsch said.

"It's not just like a figure study that's almost treating them like a still life but to infuse life into them is a challenge, and that's something that totally excites me."

In high school, she was unsure about what career road to take, until she received a scholarship in honor of a young man who was killed on the beach while drawing portraits.

"That was my art scholarship for Carnegie Mellon, and really in a way art chose me."

She focused on abstraction for a while but switched back to portraiture after college. "Part of it was just in sort of finding my voice."

She set out to perfect her portrait skills, deciding to show little work in art shows for a period and instead spend time reading art books and visiting museums.

"It was the most rewarding really to stand in front of a painting and think about how it was constructed."

Abstraction, however, still infuses her creations. Some of the backgrounds in "Beautiful Dreamers" portraits feature pools of colors and subtle patterns. This is the direction she plans to continue heading for now, she said. In coming months, she has a group show at Space Gallery, Downtown, and a solo exhibit of more portraits of Ms. Erickson at Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield lined up.

"It feels like when I'm painting and drawing it's what I'm meant to do," she said. "It's where my talents lie and where I'm fulfilling my best potential."

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