by Gussie Fauntleroy
The vast quiet of the San Luis Valley, for those who absorb and take on its rhythms, offers multiple gifts beyond the physical serenity that brings repose to the nervous system and soul. Among them: the freedom and space to step outside of, and live removed from, the frenetic, media-fed stimulation of contemporary American life.
In this other kind of quiet, where the imagination has room to roam and play without slipping into popular culture’s well-worn ruts, artists can draw from a deeper and more personal—yet also universal—creative well.
Especially for a young artist, it clearly takes a certain sensibility and strength of character to disconnect from the digitally driven umbilical cord of consumer culture. But this abundantly fertile space apart, with its invitation to creative independence, is what Sophia Dixon Dillo had been looking for since her formative years—and it is reflected in her art today.
Sophia’s current work, on view through Sept. 4 at Ice Cube Gallery in Denver, invites the viewer to enter a quiet space created by layered transparent and translucent ceiling-to-floor panels of paper and clear vinyl, patterned with variously shaped holes or white paint. Hanging slightly away from the wall and lit from both in front and behind, the gently shifting panels continually interact with the light—and are appropriately titled Light Works.
The result is an experiential encounter with the artwork and the physical space it inhabits, rather than an arm’s length, intellectual response. But the experience, Sophia believes, goes beyond the serene environment created by filtered light through the softly wafting panels. The patterning on changeable reflective and translucent surfaces resists the viewer’s tendency to project associations or conceptual meaning onto the work, as often happens with abstract art, Sophia explains. And it is this unnamable, ungraspable quality that represents the essence of her intention. “We want to cling to things and name them,” she points out. “I’m really interested in just that initial physical experience, which is visual and pre-conceptual.”
Sophia’s interest in the power of art to evoke a visceral, nonverbal response reflects her practice and lifestyle rooted in Zen Buddhism—the 32-year-old artist currently lives at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center with her husband Christian Dillo, the center’s director. But it also grew out of a lifetime of moving toward quiet and away from our culture’s constant clamor.
Growing up in the Marin County, California house where she was born, Sophia was known among her friends as the one who lived in the “quiet house.” Her father, an artist and a practicing Buddhist, didn’t talk a lot about his practice, “but it informed my world view and the atmosphere I grew up in,” she relates. Her mother also worked at home, as a caterer and antique dealer, adding to the unconventional nature of Sophia’s upbringing.
In college Sophia was drawn initially to the study of ethics. She earned a BA in philosophy, which began to address the yearning she felt for a deeper experience and understanding of life. Then followed a semester at an art school in France, where she rekindled her love of art. Back in the United States, she earned a Master of Fine Arts from Colorado State University at Fort Collins.
Early on, Sophia’s primary medium was painting. During her stay in France her work exhibited an affinity for soft, muted colors and geometric forms. When she studied with Chuck Forsman at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she began to move into a more biomorphic, richly hued style. A further shift, from painting to mixed media, was highlighted by installation pieces in which light played through hundreds of finely strung filaments of fishing line, producing shimmering, continually changing effects.
While living in Boulder and later Fort Collins, Sophia made frequent visits to Crestone, spending as much as a cumulative five months out of the year here. In spring 2009 she moved here full time and with the 2009-10 school year began teaching art at the Moffat School. She describes her studio in the piñon-covered foothills as a “retreat within the retreat of Crestone.”
“I’ve always enjoyed working and being alone,” she reflects. “This place fits me somehow. There’s the peacefulness, the ahh! of letting go of activity and leaving the culture behind.”
These days, periodic visits to Denver and Boulder offer creative stimulation and support through the larger art community, yet always with the gift of returning to the Valley’s isolation and quiet. Earlier artists whose lives and work have in spired Sophia, including Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe, also chose to live removed from the wider culture while occasionally visiting the city, she notes.
Along with the Light Works installation, Sophia currently is exploring other mixed media works that respond to and interact with light. Among them is a series of shallow wall-mounted boxes whose front surface is translucent sandblasted glass. Each box contains objects that are experienced as intriguing patterns and nebulous forms through the glass. As with the layered panels, the boxes encourage viewers to step outside the need for naming, narrative and pre-set meaning in art and to simply absorb and enjoy the aesthetic and visual experience, including its element of mystery.
“There seems to be a tendency, especially in the art world, that art has to be about something to give it validity—a story or concept that drives the artwork,” Sophia observes. “The taboo word is beauty. But that’s what I’m interested in: creating a nourishing space of beauty, which our contemporary art culture doesn’t seem to emphasize as much anymore.”