At first, Sophie Kipner began blind contouring as a party game.
Coming from an artistic family — her father is a songwriter and her mother is a dancer — and growing up in the wild, hippie enclave of Topanga Canyon, Sophie initially adopted a corporate, stable life as the rebellious move, trying that for a while before realizing she too was destined for the artist’s life. Though she did attend a summer course on figure drawing at Otis School of Art and Design, Sophie went on to attend USC and worked in communications, PR and journalism, never thinking of drawing as anything more than a hobby.
Ironically, it was when she moved to London in her early thirties to pursue writing in earnest, and became a regular at a literary bar called The Society Club, that her whole world opened up. “It was a small little book shop with a cocktail bar, and it was like the best place,” she explained to me recently over the phone, following up on a conversation we had at a dinner party celebrating her art at Hotel Figueroa. “Everyone who would go to The Society Club was interested in the literary world; it had all these first editions. So I just started going there a lot, and fell in love with it. It really opened me up to everything in that literary world.”
Inspired by her environment, and finally committing to turn her short stories and inklings into an actual book, Sophie eventually began working as a bartender at The Society Club while she edited and shopped around the early manuscript of her debut novel, The Optimist. Back then, to get her mind off the intensive process of editing a book, Kipner began to throw weekly dinner parties, refocusing her brain on cooking and hospitality to get it out of the world of the book.
One night after dinner, she suggested an old drawing class exercise, blind contouring, a hand eye coordination exercise that most young art students learn. “I told the group ‘you have to draw the person across from you without looking down at the paper or lifting up the pen,’” Kipner explained. “It’s pretty much always just one line. And I didn’t think that much of it, except people began asking for the game over and over, and it started getting me into drawing again.”
Moving back to LA and continuing the practice, Sophie was shocked when people on Facebook and other platforms began asking to purchase the blind contour drawings she was doing of her family and friends. “I couldn’t believe it, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that someone would want to buy it,” she laughed. “I think the shipping at that time was more expensive than what I charged them, initially.”
As more people began to purchase the drawings, ultimately, Sophie’s work took another turn when she started getting requests for commissions, with people sending family portraits or photographs of their loved ones to recreate in her style for gifts and special occasions. From there, her work snowballed into shows and exhibits, culminating in her most recent honor as the historic Hotel Figueroa’s featured artist for 2019. Currently, the hotel is showcasing a collection of her reinterpretations of classic musical photographs by legendary photojournalist, Baron Wolman, who was foundation in helping visually define a little publication called Rolling Stone.
Bringing things full circle, Sophie actually connected with Wolman during her days bartending at The Society Club, but traveled to visit his archive in Santa Fe, New Mexico when her blind contouring work was skyrocketing. Working on photos of musical pioneers and honoring the legacy of so many other feminist trailblazers, people of color, and iconic figures, Kipner is very mindful of her role as an interpreter, and how the work of people like Frida Kahlo has paved the way for her own artistic life.
“There’s so much weight around it, that I want to do it justice,” she said. “And a lot of the people I chose are people who I love, but also those I know who have had such a huge impact on so many other people’s lives, and the life that I’m able to live as a woman today because of what they’ve done. Knowing how culturally significant they are, and what they’ve been able to do, rather than it being sort of a scary weight on it, I was using it to be as inspired as possible.”
Along with the pieces Sophie created working from Baron’s archives, the collection on display at Hotel Figueroa pulls from her ongoing project, DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN, which celebrates iconoclasts from music and culture over the decades. Since her drawings went on display at the hotel in July of this year, ten of the fifteen works have been purchased — a record both for the hotel and for Sophie, and a testament to the cultural resonance that is flowing through her like a spiritual channel.
“I’m doing it with so much love for each one,” she said of her drawings. “And I hope that I can nail it, and get it right. I think that it’s really special, and it feels good to me to be doing it. And that’s why having people respond to it is even better. It also feels really important to be part of this hotel, which has such an incredible history of being one of the first female-owned hotels in the whole country.”
To bring things full circle in her own creative life, putting the editing and writing work on the book aside to focus on drawing meant that, eventually, she was able to publish the book through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound. It also meant that Kipner was able to illustrate little bits and chapters of the book, effectively tying her two creative practices together. Released in hardcover in 2017 and paperback last year, The Optimist tells the story of “a delusional girl’s very misguided search for love.” And while it may be fiction, there’s enough of Sophie in it to make it clear that the writing is just as much an expression of her as the drawing is, and that both are love letters, sent back out to the world.