Abstract and certainly bold, the heavy lines and shading breathe life into each character that Sophie Kipner puts on canvas. The piercing gaze of Debbie Harry, Brigitte Bardot’s cavalier-cool, the emotive brow of Biggie Smalls. The larger-than-life icons who currently grace the walls in her latest exhibit at DTLA’s Hotel Figueroa are, at once, familiar and complex.
The art, alluring and impactful as it may be, is the product of a much more layered process. Abstract and bold are both fair labels … but blind? Incidentally, another apt descriptor for the pieces, as it’s the crux of Kipner’s method each time she approaches the canvas.
The exhibit’s name, DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN captures Kipner’s process in quite the intriguing nutshell.
The drawing exercise known as blind contouring is an oft-used tool in art school to practice hand-eye coordination. Without looking at the paper, the artist draws the outlines of a subject, resulting in a less-than-obvious (perhaps Picasso-esque?) representation.
While Kipner recalls trying the method during a stint in art school, drawing was never particularly her long-term plan. Given that her mother and father, British and Australian, respectively, are both artists, the bohemian lifestyle seemed a natural path to wander. “My dad was a songwriter, producer, and musician over several decades, he was in London in the 60’s and 70’s, and eventually moved to LA, where he met my mom. She was a dancer, ballet at first, and then one of those Go-Go 60’s backup dancers, who danced the Palladium with Cary Grant and Paul McCartney,” shares Kipner.
In the 80’s, her parents settled in the “super laid back, artsy, hippie town” of Topanga Canyon, where Kipner was born and bred, spending childhood summers visiting family in England. The creative genes and progressive environs were critical fodder for her growing mind.
“I always joke that no one could really help me with math growing up, but they definitely encouraged me and showed me an example of what the pursuit of creativity could look like long term, and that it was possible,” recalls Kipner.
“I was lucky because a lot of people grow up where art is seen as more of a hobby. It’s not always encouraged, but my parents always knew that was me.”
While she always gravitated towards art in high school electives and college extracurriculars, Kipner’s initial dream was that of being a writer. She took a semester off to travel and take art classes before landing at USC and later embarking on her journey to literary fame.
“I tried to go the other way and do journalism and communications and got a corporate type of job. I was almost rebelling against my parents in a way by doing the ‘safer’ thing, but they were just waiting for me to realize that wasn’t me,” she laughs.
Nevertheless, as her writing career developed and her geography changed, art remained a constant in her background. “Throughout my 20’s, I was focusing on writing and would illustrate my short stories and maybe partake in the odd show here and there, just to keep it alive.”
While writing her novel, The Optimist, a clever fictional tale about a hopeless romantic named Tabitha, Kipner was working out of a literary club in London. Frustrated by the creative blocks and publishing woes that haunt most modern-day writers, her life’s work felt suddenly stymied.
“I was so heady about editing and trying to find a way to get my book out there that I was going a little nuts. I was in that world where most of my concentration was on the book. It was difficult because I didn’t know what the next step was,” she remembers.
With decades of the creative struggle of songwriting behind him, her father encouraged her to shift her gaze away from the novel and towards other pursuits.
“He was like, ‘You’re stagnating because you’re strangling it,’” she recalls. “‘If it has any chance, you need to put it aside and come back later. If it has a life meant for it, it will find a way, but you need to keep moving and do something else.’”
“Something else” turned into cooking, and then to hosting Sunday roasts for her friends, which often ended with playing games.
“At the end of one night,” Kipner shares, “we ran out of games to play, so without thinking what it was or anything, I brought out construction paper from my cabinet and gave everyone a pen and said, ‘You’re going to draw the person in front of you without lifting the pen or looking down.’”
It turned into a sort of musical chairs, with dinner guests moving around the table to draw another face, and then leaving at the end of the night with a stack of abstract portraits of themselves. From day one, it was a hit, and the tradition continued.
“I thought, ‘What a fun way to interact and have fun without any pressure — if you’re not looking, no one can judge each other or yourself. You can just have fun and be in the moment,” says Kipner. “It was so releasing, the juxtaposition of being so heady about the writing and self-conscious trying to turn over every word, versus not even allowing myself to look down. I could be totally free in the moment. My brain needed that total unedited release. And that’s how it started.”
Fast forward, and Kipner has turned blind contouring into her bread-and-butter. She brought the dinner party game back to Los Angeles, where she started doing renditions of family members and friends, at first for fun, and eventually for commission. Working from photography, Kipner depicts everything from family portraits to rock’n’roll icons.
“I work from photos people really love,” she explains. “I watch and observe like any artist and pick up on personality.”
A subject grappling with indecision or perplexing scenarios might, for instance, come out with a split head, while family tension can result in members spaced awkwardly apart. Kipner finds that inner emotional turmoil, stressful life events, even just the momentary unease of a bad day can affect the way she captures her subjects. That’s why, when portraying iconic characters like those in DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN, she works with photography she feels a connection to.
“I try choosing people I love [like Baron Wolman and Terry O’Neill] whose photos I couldn’t stop thinking about. I feel lucky to have photographers that are open to letting me pay tribute and do an original reinterpretation of their work. It brings a different life to how you might see it,” explains the artist.
“The photos that really stop me in my tracks are the ones that capture emotion. Juju in the photo really does make a difference.”
Whether depicting cultural icons spanning decades, professions, and genres, or doing a commissioned portrait of a beloved pet, Kipner approaches each piece with the same excitement as when she first began over five years ago.
“I feel lucky I get to do this; it’s just getting more and more fun,” says Kipner. “I find each one is taking me longer, because I have higher expectations of myself and am constantly experimenting with new materials and approaches. Even though blind contouring is still my way to capture the essence, the way I’m going about filling it in and bringing it to life keeps changing over time.”
Her current run at Hotel Figueroa’s rotating exhibit space features charcoal, acrylic, pastel, and oil renditions of music legends and strong female icons throughout history (a nod to the hotel’s own beginnings as one of the first female-owned institutions in the country).
“We all have different people we love and want to see — Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, The Beastie Boys — in a wacky reinterpretation,” she says with a smile. “I’ll have a go at anything.”
Marie Salcido is a freelance writer based between Mexico City and San Francisco. Raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the middle of seven children, family has always been a top priority, though her appetite for new places has pulled her far from her Midwestern roots. Whether posted in her home cities or exploring new locales, Marie’s keen interest in people has accompanied her throughout her travels — reaffirming her belief that the more you see of the world, the smaller it gets. Find her on Instagram at @mdsalcido.