Sheila Wolk – “Spirit of Hyper-Reality” – 1987 Sport Artist of the Year
Wolk’s preferred style of pastels mixed smoothly with sports, mixing drama and blending intensity, power and grace, humor and tension, anguish with desperation. They are the emotions athletes juggle during the course of a competition, on a play-to-play basis.
Many artists use pastels for sketching, but Wolk is one of the few to master using the medium for painting. She cites Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo as her major sources of inspiration.
“My art has been the one constant factor that has helped me through the tough times, and there have been plenty of those!” she said.
Sheila Wolk’s first foray into sport art was the depiction of a boxing match. “It’s such an animalistic sport,” she said. “I wanted to show the struggling, the battle.” Wolk devoted twenty-three years of her career to the struggles and battles athletes endure every time they step on the playing field.
Before she painted a subject, Wolk studied photos of the sport and attempted to adopt a player’s state of mind. She would imagine the athlete’s weight and balance before proceeding. “What I do in essence is a self-portrait,” is how she described the process.
Her subjects included winners, such as tennis great Bjorn Borg as well as events that branded athletes as legends. She also painted the shrines that served as homes for their amazing accomplishments.
Still, there was always a place in Wolk’s work for the little guy, the athlete who may not cross the finish line first, but always gets credit for trying their best. She has professed her admiration of the athlete who “…comes in last. He’s not a loser because he is in there competing.”
Wolk’s works for the 1988 Olympics displayed a transition into her new style of art, hyper-realism. The style is defined as taking art one step beyond what a camera can do. This is not to be confused with other hyper-realism art movements which emphasize life-like paintings. With hyper-reality, art literally exposes the soul. The movement began in France, but Wolk was among the first Americans to explore and paint in this style.
Wolk was not only preserving the image of the sporting moments she would capture, but she discovered the very essence of them, the things that touched us in those moments.
The New York artist successfully turned the soft-edged medium of pastels into paintings capturing the glory and pain and agony and ecstasy of athletic competition. Wolk managed to incorporate her personal philosophy into her works. She showed there is more to a photograph than just colors and objects. ASAMA curator Robert Zimlich says of Sheila’s work,
“Her pastel painting of the 1987 New Orleans Saints’ head coach, Jim Mora, is a creative masterpiece. Her skill is evidenced in Mora’s hair, which is better than a photograph could have captured. Using musical instruments to represent New Orleans jazz is creative enough but the piece de resistance is using football plays as notes on a musical staff. Never under estimate this artist. Sheila always does her homework. Those are actually Mora’s winning plays.”
Wolk eventually left the sport artist profession, after deciding it was time for a change. She left at the top of her profession with a number of one-woman shows, numerous exhibitions, corporate collections in double-digit numbers, and a wealth of lithographs and posters published and distributed. She admitted it was a scary decision. “Being a woman in that world was extremely difficult. I won many awards, had hundreds of shows, was known all over the world and yet I still had to fight for every penny.”
The next stage of Wolk’s career took her into the land of fantasy, of mermaids and fairies. She blends techniques to create a stirring glimpse into a magical world of lore, myths and legends. “Art has to touch you somewhere,” she said.
The style fit Wolk perfectly, as she channeled the pain over her childhood into her art. One of her landmark paintings, “The Weanling,” was a prime example of her work during this period. She said the work expresses “man’s inner conflict within himself.”
Wolk’s transition into fantasy art seems like a natural step in that it goes beyond what photographs can do. It’s a step beyond real in more ways than an exaggeration of real. There is a connection that, at their very core, these paintings, like her sport art, revert to some basic human concept or experience.