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Q&A with Award Winner Wijati Soemantoro

Abstraction of Woman's Gesture, lithograph by Wijati Soemantoro
Abstraction of Woman’s Gesture, lithograph by Wijati Soemantoro, was awarded the Eleanor Boudreau Jordan Award for Best in Show.

Gretchen Schemerhorn, November’s juror and a printmaker herself, recognized the lithograph pictured above for best-in-show honors in “Small Works.” Abstraction of Woman’s Gesture, like many of the small works, is simple and minimal, but what made it stand out, Schemerhorn said, was the attractive visual texture and the skill required to create the range of lights and darks.

The artist, Wijati Soemantoro, was an orthodontist in Indonesia before moving to the United States to work full-time as an artist. Earlier this fall, she was selected as one of nine artists who will have solo shows in 2015! Read on for more about the appeal of lithography, the Picasso series that inspired Abstraction, and the idea behind Wijati’s 2015 “Ring of Fire” exhibit.

You work in several different media — what is appealing to you about lithography?
Wijati Soemantoro: I remember how I felt when I had the opportunity to draw on 200-year-old Bavarian limestone. This limestone is considered classic, limited, ancient, heavy and hard to handle but it can give the soft and beautiful images with a greater tone range. At that time when I touched the limestone, I felt the memories of events of the artists who worked with this material before. It brings me to an unfamiliar past while I am living in the present. It was an experience of mixed feelings that I have been looking for. I observed that lithographic process contains 5 different elements of nature: water, oil, metal, stone, and wood/paper. It also contains repetitive actions such as press, push and pull; all those actions and elements represented the vibration that I felt while gathering information about the subject of my drawing. The technique of lithographic processing is very tedious and versatile, but all the hard work and hours spent was well worth it because it satisfies my inner need.

Why was this particular piece a lithograph as opposed to, say, a painting?
In my perspective, both medium are very challenging but also appealing. I made some pieces of art work on a limestone on the theme Abstraction of Woman’s Gesture. This limestone would take my vibration and reflect it, which satisfies my inner need. It gives a more delicate and softer result. I could feel micro vibrations, movements and sensations that were imprinted on the paper after transferring the original lines and images from the stone. Every line represents its own movement, meaning and function. On the other hand, a painting could give me more freedom of expression because it is unlimited in many ways such as color and size. The results of a lithograph and a painting are beautiful to look at.

What’s your creative process like, from an idea to a finished piece?
Abstractions of Woman’s Gesture is a series of artworks, inspired by Picasso’s Women of Algiers. I visited the Smithsonian Museum of Art and directly observed some of the original but different themes of Picasso lithographs. Instead of studying them, I was able to touch, smell and feel what was known to be the oldest form of the drawing on arches and newsprint papers. Afterwards, I utilized my mind and my heart and started drawing from my memory to portray movements and sensations originating from Picasso’s Women of Algiers. I usually draw directly into the limestone without a model or any object in front of me. After all the contents of the drawing are finished, I complete the process by using a standard lithography technique.

The stages of Abstraction of Woman's Gesture in progress.
The stages of Abstraction of Woman’s Gesture in progress.
From Pablo Picasso's 1950s series Les femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (d'après Delacroix)
From Pablo Picasso’s 1954–55 series Les femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (d’après Delacroix)

Many of your pieces are more representational portraits and figures. What is different about the process for a more abstract piece like this one?
I approach art in two different ways: with my mind and my heart. The final products of my mind are usually more representational portraits and figures. On the other hand, when I utilize more of my heart, it evokes an emotional response. It creates a vibrating sensation through my body. My arm begins to levitate very slowly. The rhythm and motion of my body merges with the art material. This causes my hands to a draw repetitious, fluid, spontaneous, emotive series of forms and shapes. Every curving line has its own color and movement. Together they intertwine to create new abstract forms.

What was your goal with Abstraction of Woman’s Gesture?
To understand the message behind the artist’s work such as Picasso’s Women of Algiers. Abstraction of Woman’s Gesture is not about a woman literally, but about movement, liberation, peace and freedom. I tried to draw without imitating but personalizing what I have learned and inspired from other artists. I am working on both the mind and the heart perspectives. In other words, drawing what I see and what I feel at the same time. To master this technique is my goal and it is an ongoing lifelong learning process.

Three of the prints from Wijati Soemantoro's "Ring of Fire" series, her response to her experiences with natural disaster, coming to The Art League Gallery in September 2015.
Three of the prints from Wijati Soemantoro’s “Ring of Fire” series, her response to her experiences with natural disaster, coming to The Art League Gallery in September 2015.

How does your life and arts education in Indonesia influence your work?
I was trained as an orthodontist in Indonesia. I have worked in the dental field for almost twenty-five years. I worked for a free clinic for the less privileged in Ubud, Bali (a small village well known for its culture in dance, music and arts). My artistic ability was a result of living among artists in this village and it continued to grow until I retired from dentistry. Then I started a new life in the US as a full time artist and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, majoring in painting and printmaking.

Are there any artists in particular who have influenced you?

  • Abdul Aziz, Realist Artist, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
  • Robert Liberace, Realist Artist, Instructor, The Art League, Alexandria, Virginia
  • Barbara Tisserat, Associate Professor, Printmaking Department, Virginia Commonwealth University

What are you working on now?
I have been working on a large, non-representational oil painting (6 by 4 feet) inspired by the Gaza Strip, an endless battle between Israel and Palestine. It is still an ongoing process. Also, I am preparing for my lithography solo show at The Art League, “The Ring of Fire,” in September 2015. The Ring of Fire is a series of artwork of my experience towards natural disaster. This is a very personal expression of my empathy and sympathy towards the victims of Mother Nature, especially earthquakes and volcano eruption, which are quite familiar for me as an Indonesian who grew up near the Ring of Fire. I witnessed the explosion of Mount Galunggung in West Java a long time ago. I am planning to explore the dramatic effects of the aftermath and how the victims and people within the vicinity react towards the disaster. To express this idea, it is important to understand Mother Nature and also the victims who are affected.

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