Visual artist and writer Sophie Kipner finds inspiration in the unexpected.
Art is a multidimensional road map with dozens of endless highways. There’s the easy routes, the middle road, and then there’s the very edge, the uncharted.
Sophie Kipner, a visual artist based in California, makes those edges her playground. Without a GPS, she charts impressions, lives, moments, discontinuity — it’s all on the page, organic objects taking life in varied forms.
Her visual art has been featured in Flaunt Magazine, The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, Crave Online, The Examiner and many other publications. Not content to be just a visual artist, Kipner has written for Kugelmass: A Journal of Literary Humor, Metazen, Amy Ephron’s One for the Table, FORTH Magazine and The Big Jewel. Her new novel, The Optimist, is due this May.
Although she’s an accomplished writer, journalist and artist, it was actually an impromptu dinner party exercise that led her to the unexpected, and a new way to connect with an audience she didn’t know she had. While she was living in London editing her novel, her “brain just ached from overthinking everything.” Because of this, she was open to trying something different.
Blind Contour Drawing on Demand
“So I started doing these dinner parties at my flat in London because I was haunted by the idea that I couldn’t cook a nice roast meal for my friends,” Kipner says. “Maybe it was just [a] distraction.”
One night, they ran out of games to play, so Kipner suggested that the participants should all draw the person across from them at the table without lifting their pens or — here’s the kicker — looking down.
“I never thought, ‘Let’s do that old art school exercise,’” Kipner says. “I just figured it would be a fun way to engage and be creative without all the pressure of having to be good (one of the many reasons why I fear Pictionary). With a blind contouring game at the dinner table, if you were terrible, it was funny but never personal because, heck, you’re not even looking. And if it came out awesomely, then that was pretty fun and cool, too.”
She credits this experience with helping her to switch back to art again after having spent so much time on the craft of writing. Blind contour drawing became a gateway to a new way of artistic expression.
“It hooked me with its wildness and I just couldn’t stop drawing everyone that way,” she says. “I never thought about it becoming anything, until I posted a portrait I did of my family and someone said, ‘How much?’”
These unique portraits came to be known as the “Dontliftupdontlookdown” series. Consisting of pieces featuring celebrities, artists and pop cultural icons, they are haunting, raw, beautiful, strange — everything you would want in a piece of art.
And yet, there is still a connection between her art and prose — a crossover, if you will.
Where Words Meet Art
“I see them as concentric circles, allowing me to create in different ways, but the results come from the same heart and through the same fingers: they have the same center,” Kipner says. “But the juxtaposition between how I approach writing and how I approach painting is quite interesting to me. It is as if — in their polar opposite extremities — they refuel each other.
“When one avenue of expression feels congested or exhausted, I’ll swerve, often violently, to the other. I’ll then work that road for a while until I need to switch back again. I think it is within that balance that I am able to keep going with a consistently restored level of enthusiasm.”
In analyzing this intersection, Kipner sees her writing as “very heady, measured and premeditated, agonized over and tortured,” while her abstract portrait series is “very intimate, emotional, weightless and free from that nagging internal editor who joins me when I write.”
She adds, “There’s a freedom in not allowing yourself to look with your eyes because it forces you to see through other parts of you. I love blind contouring because it is not only alive; it is genuine. I love writing because it is immersive, rich and laborious in a different way. And I love that through a frustration with my writing came a new style of art. By letting go of my self-judgment at every step of the creation process, I found my voice. If only I could live the rest of my life that way!”
One area where her art and writing truly overlap is in their character-centered themes.
“I don’t always know where my protagonists will take me, but I usually sit down to write with more of a fleshed-out idea of who he or she is and what is happening, versus with my painting, where I have no idea at all until I finish the initial blind contour sketch. I have to still get ‘in the mood,’ but it’s more about giving myself time with the subject, looking at certain features, initiating a weird sort of unsaid conversation with it so I feel connected to it when I’m drawing. It’s only when I start to shade it in with charcoal, and the characters start to show themselves, that I turn my internal editor back on.”
Inspiration and Family
Kipner’s artistic drive comes from within but also from family. “I don’t know what I would do without my family. They act not only as a sounding board but entertain all of my questions and rambling and brainstorming without hesitation or (for the most part) frustration.”
They are great with helping Kipner stay honest and hopeful without expectation, she says. “My dad, a noted songwriter, always encouraged us to drive in our own lane because there will always be others who can do it better, so we might as well just do it our own way. My mom, being a Sheffield-born ballerina who worked until her toes bled, set the bar for what work ethic looks like. It’s like having a doctor as a parent, I imagine: you can’t get away with a little cough.”
One of the best parts of having such a close family is finding new projects.
“I love collaborating with my brother, Harrison Kipner, not only because he’s so funny but quite possibly because I am his biggest fan,” Kipner says. “I love his music and storytelling and I think we are always trying to find creative ways of incorporating each other’s work into new projects.”
‘Be That Creepy Voyeur’
Interweaving art, music and storytelling is hugely important to Kipner’s process.
“I sometimes listen to music that is relevant to the portrait, especially when I did Janis Joplin,” Kipner says. “I had ‘Piece of My Heart’ on repeat (to my neighbors’ dismay), throwing my body back when she sings ‘Take it!’ and splattering paint everywhere. But I also change it up, so long as it’s putting me in the right mind-set. I never listen to angry music when I draw. I’m impatient enough as it is and it only adds to it. I need music that makes me feel hopeful, reminiscent. Whimsical. Music I can get lost in the painting with.”
As someone who has traveled extensively, Kipner finds that the experience can be liberating for a visual artist or a writer.
Courtesy of Sophie Kipner
“I think travel invites a larger range of influences into the work, consciously and subconsciously,” she says. “When you see and hear and experience more, when you allow yourself to take note, study and be that creepy voyeur, you have more material, more characters and stories to pull and draw from later. I want the audience to feel like they are meeting new people when they look at a piece or read a story. I want them to feel like they are traveling, too.”