An Interview with Tony Sobota

Tony is a painter, a thinking man, a caricature artist, and a joyful soul. He has worked with two of our favorite songwriters, painting the latest cover of Greg Adkins’ new record, Fighting a War, and the four serial works for Bill Wolf’s Easter: Stories & Songs. His extensive catalog of excellent personal work often explores the intersection of humanity and the deep matters of landscape, history, and faith.

FH: Your work can go to some pretty stark and difficult places, especially in the Syn Kronos and Icons series. How do you justify the use of darkness and difficulty in the stories you paint?

TS: With my work, I like to immerse myself in a subject and try to let the story emerge naturally.  If the story feels darker, I know I need to stay close to that mood or I’ll lose the message.  With the Syn Kronos series I dealt with family stories–mainly surrounding my maternal grandfather–so those pieces had a quieter, “sadder” tone evocative of my experience trying to discern meaning from black and white photographs.  With the Icons series, my subjects included some of the more controversial figures from the Old Testament, so the use of darkness or ‘grittiness’ in the work helped me convey a feeling of dirtiness while darker tones certainly provided the opportunity for stark contrasts of golden light.

FH: Your portrayal of canonical figures seems to evoke a broader interpretation of the canon than some people may be comfortable seeing. What would you say to people whose notions, especially of biblical figures, may be disrupted by your work?

TS: I wouldn’t say I’m trying to disrupt traditional images of canonical figures, but I do attempt to connect these characters to the present in order to convey a feeling.  Mainly, I view these folks as living, breathing, flawed individuals – and I want a reality about them to come through rather than an idealized characterization.  Certainly not everyone will share my view, but I hope my work gently invites viewers to contemplate these perspectives rather than heavy-handedly slapping them with an opinion.

FH: You mention a reality about the characters. How do you live in the tension between story arc and bare fact?

TS: Often with biblical characters we only know the story arc, so they become somewhat of a parody or caricature over time.  I think a lot of us in the technological/scientific age long for “facts”–why can’t we google a photo of “Leviathan” or see a wiki on Jesus’ teenage years?  Ironically, on the other side of the coin many folks live with heads full of knowledge but long for a meaningful storyline, so I suppose the tension between “story” and “fact” looms large these days.  With this tension in mind, I try to play the part of a storyteller: inviting people to experience or reconsider my subjects while occasionally referring to the familiar or known.

FH: What beauty do you see in your most struggling subjects?

TS: Beauty demands my attention–but the most attention-getting subjects of all occur against a backdrop of change, turmoil, crisis, darkness, etc.  A flower poking out of the concrete gets my attention, as did an elderly couple selling smooth stones and grass sandals along the banks of the Yangtzee before they flooded it.  A young African girl’s eyes sparkle–screaming beauty–even though flies covered her head.  Beauty means more in the struggle – like the account of the woman who poured expensive perfume all over Jesus.  What a waste, right?  Yet Jesus himself said this lady did a beautiful thing worth retelling.  I’m drawn to beauty like this–that seems to happen in the most likely of places and under impossible circumstances.

FH: What is the significance of the materials you use, especially gold leaf and wood?

TS: I began using wood panels when working on a piece in 2009 called “The Weak and the Strong.”  I liked the resistance the wood frame offered as a painting surface, as opposed to canvas which seemed more plastic and pliable.  I had also worked with gold leaf on several job sites when I was employed by a decorative contracting company.  In early 2010, I had the opportunity to combine both materials when I was commissioned to do four paintings corresponding to Easter.  I wanted to use the traditional materials of the medieval church-based artist, but in a contemporary way to communicate a relevant message.  The wood and gold leaf speak of an old, old story that still exists in our cultural consciousness, and I want to reach back to that place while looking at it from a different perspective.

FH: What sort of strength and significance does the new perspective draw from being connected to the past?

TS: Visually, I think including traditional styles and techniques lends weight and possibly strength to those paintings–the figures and stories emerge from a more substantial rather than whimsical, personal, or postmodern place (though I refer to those elements, too).  While various aspects of art history potentially add baggage, appropriate connection with the past allows me to reach back and continue the conversation.  Denying or despising this history would divorce me from the possibility of seeing it redeemed or re-created.

You can find more of Tony’s work at

TonySobota.com

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