Whitehot Magazine

The Dance of Beasts, Sophia Marie Pappas Exhibition, Howlin’ at Bottom Feeder Books

Installation view,  Sophia Marie Pappas: Howlin' at Bottom Feeder Books. Courtesy of the author.

June 10, 2024

Wafting through carefully curated racks of texts, and into a back room, I see Sophia Marie Pappas perched on a chair with a clipboard and paper. She is swotting up a woman with black hair, dipping her calligraphy pen every so often into the inkwell beside her. Around the artist, six jumbo cloth tapestries of stamping, grandiose, and gesticulating figures hang behind sizable paper animals affixed with string and floating alongside their human counterparts. There are crimson and periwinkle tigers, cerulean hounds, and canary-coral horses with rouge hooves. The beasts gallop and gambol in garish hues between the black and white painted people—a contrast of color and scale.

Sophia Marie Pappas, known for her illustrations for the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, and Eater, breaks loose from her usual confined and comfortable (and impressive) clientele to bring eager yinzers an alternative side to the deft designer.

Nested between Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze in the lush knolls of Pittsburgh is Bottom Feeder Books, a bookstore with rare titles ranging from limited edition literature, photography collections, to signed, exhibition catalogues. (I personally have my eye on a 1995 signed, Whitechapel Kiki Smith Exhibition Catalogue.) In its second year open, Bottom Feeder has made quite the imprint on Pittsburgh, becoming a place of aggregation for artists, mavericks and erudites alike. It’s a relaxing atmosphere requiring more conversation and less prestige, and a natural choice for Pappas for her first debut as per the artist, “In a long while…2018, before the pandemic.”

Installation view,  Sophia Marie Pappas: Howlin' at Bottom Feeder Books. Courtesy of the author.

“I have total freedom with this [space],” says Pappas in regard to the bookstore, its owner Ryan McLennan, and her choice of venue. According to the artist, she decided on Bottom Feeder after visiting the space for a DIY concert—its unpretentious quality is a lure for many, I’m sure. An easy show to digest and the ideal space to indulge in art, Pappas' exhibition is inviting and intimate.

In addition to the cotton-cloth paintings and dangling, paper beasts Pappas has put up sketches, handwritten notes, and letterpress prints on the opposing wall. She intentionally includes her studies, her flow, and her transparency of process. Her work is kinetic portraiture, much like her decision to set up a drawing station, she feels that she needs to do more than stand around. “I like having a job,” says Pappas, “It’s my way of making it more fun for myself.” Pappas prefers movement, but in this regard she is also a spectator.

Pappas plays with these dyadic constructs of movement throughout her work. Inspired by Salida Cubana, or Dile que no in Rueda de Casino, dancing and salsa music Pappas paints Mexican dancers amidst a cross-body move in one arras, and a pair of women wrestling in another; two bodies and opposing types of “dance” dueling and contending with one another.

Another example of her movement motif is the string-puppet depictions of animals. In the paper cut-outs, Pappas assesses how a horse may bolt across the horizon, the force of its legs, the power and structure of their muscle, how a tiger may spring to attack, or how a greyhound kicks all four legs up with such velocity it essentially flies when running. “They’re big, powerful bodies that have weight to them. It’s enticing to draw muscly power,” says Pappas. She’s interested in their weight, yet they are made of thin paper, hovering midair.

Installation view,  Sophia Marie Pappas: Howlin' at Bottom Feeder Books. Courtesy of the author.

I don’t sit for a portrait, but I invite the artist to paint my son from a picture instead. She makes brushstrokes as we talk. “Murals are my ultimate goal,” says Pappas. She tells me about a mural that she did for the Bunker Projects here in Pittsburgh and how she loved having the built environment as a backdrop for her work. “For a blank wall to be in a space where people naturally walk by it [is my ambition],” she says.

It’s not until I’m home and writing this piece that I realize that I've walked by Pappas’ mural, “Win Some, Lose Some,” maybe a hundred times on my way to work or dropping off my son at school. I even took a photo of it last year, admiring and appreciating it each time for its existence in my day-to-day life. Her work maneuvers, in and around us, energetic and inherent. Pappas’ work has already made an impression, before I had known it was her, which is exactly what the artist intended.

The exhibition runs through Sunday 6/30 at Bottom Feeder Books 415 Gettysburg St. Pittsburgh, PA. WM

Zara Yost

Zara Yost is an art writer based in Pittsburgh,  Pennsylvania freelancing for Newcity Magazine and Sixty Inches From Center in Chicago and Mt. Lebanon Magazine and Petrichor Magazine in Pittsburgh. Receiving her M.A. in New Arts Journalism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 2017, Zara has worked for prominent arts organizations like the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), United States Artists (Chicago), and the Boston Society for Architecture (BSA) throughout her career. 

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