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Pregnant in a Barren Landscape: Art, Control, and Premature Ovarian Failure with Artist Elizabeth Sobkiw

headshot, with framed butterflies, of artist Elizabeth Sobkiw

Artist Elizabeth Sobkiw

In your linoleum cut monoprint, “Morning Sickness,” I was attracted to the haunting x-ray image of the pregnant skeleton. What a concept—pregnant skeleton—an intense duality (life-death) to capture; can you talk to us about how you arrived at the image? How you chose your medium?

This piece was for an assignment in my graduate printmaking class. I have always been inspired to do images that examined the body and pregnancy. When I was working on sketches, I wanted to explore some striking themes, particularly my fears and sadness surrounding pregnancy and fertility. The woman is pregnant in a barren landscape. This barren landscape swirls about the pregnant woman creating a sickness. The woman’s skeleton is revealed like an x-ray, as opposed to a sonogram. These contrasts interest me.

Your web page opens with the wonderful quote: “Art is one thing that can go on mattering once it has stopped hurting (Elizabeth Bowen).” Can you talk about the context of this quote for you? And any artwork in your life you have found to resonate with your internal themes?

Art is a therapeutic endeavor for me. Infertility has had such a complex and profound effect on my life. Each piece I create is a reflection of what I have been through as a young girl and woman living with POF. Many pieces are a release, getting my emotions, particularly pain and confusion, out. Once a work is complete, I feel I have either climbed over a mountain or a molehill, and am able to reflect back having learned something.

Elizabeth Bowen’s quote spoke so well to me because it explains why many other artists create. Art tells a story of universal themes that can always live on, even after the artist is gone.

In your cover letter, you shared with us that since the age of 16 you were diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Failure or Primary Ovarian Insufficiency. How has that diagnosis informed your artwork?

When I began studying to become a fine arts teacher, all of my work reflected living with POF (or POI). In fact, I decided to go to graduate school as my condition was becoming the forefront of my life again. I had begun dating someone (presently my husband), attending a support group in New York City, traveling to my first POF conference, and deciding to be a part of a study at the National Institute of Health. As a teenager and undergrad, dealing POF was an afterthought, particularly tied to denial. Starting a new chapter with graduate school and meeting my husband changed everything.

A dream of mine is to have an exhibition that showcases the work of women who have been affected by infertility. As a young woman diagnosed at the age of sixteen, I have often felt alone in my diagnosis. Infertility is something few want to talk about, certainly when it affects women at a young age. My hope with having an exhibition someday will be to shed light on infertility and women’s reproductive health. One of the worst parts of having a medical condition like POF is feeling you had no control over what happened. Creating my art allows me to take some of that control back. Someday, I hope to come together with other women who have felt a similar struggle. By showcasing each other’s art, hopefully we can all gain back a sense of control over our infertility and feel united in the search for understanding.

Both the greens and blues of “Water Birth” and “Feel the Flutter” present a soothing backdrop for the image of pregnant body; can you talk to us about the variations—and again, the presence of x-ray energy with the black pelvic bone, white spine highlights. Where did each variation take you? And can you talk about how you decided which image/s to add to each variation?

The process I used to create each of these pieces is called monoprinting. It allows for a lot a room to experiment with how the ink is manipulated. The purple and green colors are a personal preference, and I created the silhouette by wiping the ink away from certain areas. Every piece begins with an initial sketch, which is then transferred onto plexi-glass. These images were inspired by the sculpture “According to Light and Gravity.” I wanted to examine the “flesh and bones” of the body, and found that the pelvic bones mimicked a butterfly shape. Inspired by an older work of mine, I stitched and inked butterflies into the corner of each piece.

Your plaster work, “According to Light and Gravity,” with its rib and spine indentations, seems to echo the butterfly theme in “Water Birth” and “Feel the Flutter.” Can you talk about the process of making this work? What do you find satisfying about working with plaster vs. linoleum cuts vs. monotypes?

Carving plaster was an extraordinary experience for me. Most art that we create from the time we are handed a crayon is all about creating an image that is flat or two-dimensional. The first time I worked with plaster, the result was not as aesthetically pleasing to say the least. I treated the surface as though it was two-dimensional. Whereas this time, I was able to understand more about the plaster and how to work with it. Taking pieces of plaster away to reveal the smooth contours and graceful lines of “According to Light and Gravity” took me so much farther from where I had began. This piece was a catalyst for many pieces that I have made since then, including the monotypes “Water Birth” and “Feel the Flutter.”

Every piece of art that I create challenges me in a different way. As a teacher, this is important to recognize. Using new mediums, challenging myself, and seeing how my art evolves is always inspiring and exciting.

Any special projects you are working on in the art classes you teach? (Any desire to talk about your life as a teacher?)

I am currently in the process of obtaining a full time art teaching position.

What are you currently working on?

Recently, I have been working on portrait drawings. These skills are important to perfect in order to become a better artist in other areas. I love working with pencil. It is a completely honest and “no frills” approach to create art.

Elizabeth Sobkiw-Williams (www.elizandra.com) is currently an art teacher in Montclair, New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, Matthew. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater Studies in 2007, and completed her Masters degree in Art Education in 2011. She is passionate about art, travel, good food, and loves spending time with family and friends.

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