Meet Elo Wobig, Friends’ 2021 Plein Air Ribbon Award Winner
It’s August, and due to the newest COVID-19 surge the in-person meeting with an award-winning painter that was originally planned is unfortunately not in the cards. Instead I’m having a warm, candid chat over the phone with that painter, Elo Wobig, the winner of this year’s Friends of the Columbia Gorge ribbon at Maryhill Museum of Art’s 2021 Pacific Northwest Plein Air in the Columbia Gorge paint-off. In 2019, Friends and Maryhill, located in Goldendale, Washington, began a collaboration to further joint public education and community engagement efforts exploring the connections between art and the conservation of natural treasures, such as the Columbia Gorge.
Elo is an artist with a unique backstory. She is a landscape painter, a fast-working yet detailed plein air artist (the term comes from the French expression en plein air which translates to “in the open air,” painting outside the four walls of a studio). This type of painting requires pristine focus and an ability to surrender your paintbrush to the limitations of time, as the conditions of light, and in the sky, inevitably change as the work is created.
Two different aspirations
Elo’s story as an artist is inspiring because it doesn’t follow the narrative one would expect of a successful artist. In sixth grade, when friends asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, Elo answered very confidently, “I want to be a doctor or an artist.” It was a simple answer for Elo’s sixth-grade self, but as two adults conversing we enjoyed the thought of how opposite those titles really are. But she has done both. And it’s a story that hints at what makes her a remarkable artist.
In Elo’s words, she can “geek out” on something as simple as picking up a rock and appreciating its geological make-up by inspecting its every edge and color. She said she loves to learn because she’s fascinated by life itself which gives her a magnified lens and heightened awareness as an artist. She is patient and very conscious.
Elo was born in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. When she was five, her family emigrated to Michigan so her father could complete his residency as a thoracic surgeon, although he had already completed all of his credentials in Taiwan. Growing up in Michigan as an immigrant wasn’t easy because there weren’t very many immigrants, let alone other families from Taiwan.
In kindergarten, Elo remembers making friends in class by “winning them over” with origami animals she’d fold since she couldn’t speak English well enough to talk to anyone. As a child, she was most passionate about art and music. “My mom was the kind of mom that let me draw all over the walls,” she giggles. In second grade, her teachers started giving Elo projects to create for the class such as the honor roll scroll after finding out she could draw in 3-D.
In college, her passion for medicine and art continued and she planned to double major in art and biology at Stanford University. But after realizing she could graduate early if she chose one, she decided on biology. In the meantime, she took as many art courses as she could fit into her schedule. As she describes this, I imagine her changing out of her lab coat and goggles, leaving such a sterile space to rush to an art studio filled with messy aprons, spilled paint and colorful canvases, ready to switch her mind from human anatomy to mastering the painting concepts of Picasso.
Decades later, re-committing to art
Elo graduated from Stanford and went straight to the University of California San Diego to complete her Doctorate of Medicine. Later, she and her husband (whom she met at Stanford) both completed their residencies at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and settled in Portland, where they still live today. After those few art studio courses at Stanford, she didn’t have the time to paint or sketch, especially after becoming an emergency medicine physician. She was busy and exhausted.
Nearly twenty years later, with two kids and a successful career as a doctor, Elo stopped practicing emergency medicine to have control over her schedule and focus on her family. "I channeled my efforts volunteering at the the Good News Community Health Center as a physician seeing low-income, uninsured patients, and also served in many ways at my children's school," she says. "One of these ways was through creative projects."
Until then, most people did not know Elo had any skills in drawing and painting. She was challenged to paint daily and post her results on her Facebook page. The showering of support gave her confidence to offer these paintings for donations to three local non-profit organizations. This experience was "the most incredible feeling" for Elo because it assigned a real value to her artwork by benefiting causes she really cared about."Seeing that people valued my work did not make me immediately think I could be a commercially successful artist," Elo says, "but it did make me realize that my passion for drawing and painting was not a diversion from what I was supposed to do, but was an intrinsic part of who I always was. It gave myself permission to dive in and pursue the arts." Elo dedicated herself to painting, jumping into courses and every YouTube video or blog article she could get her hands on. She explains how she became an emergency physician in three years and now was going to see what kind of artist she could be if she dedicated three years to painting.
Never too late to pursue passions
Since seriously devoting her time to painting in 2017, Elo has won several local competitions and has even been recognized nationally at the American Impressionist Society Annual Juried Show where she was awarded Honorable Mention in 2019. At the Maryhill Plein Air paint-out that same year, her painting was chosen as runner-up for the same Friends ribbon she won this year. You can find her winning oil painting called Opaline Sunset at Maryhill where it is in the permanent collection. Elo believes it’s important that people recognize the landscapes she captures so she isn’t afraid to use her full pallet of color and textures to paint distinct features.
"When I’m doing a sunset, I’m painting as fast as I can," Elo stressed. "It’s a magical headspace to be in because you’re not thinking about anything else and you don’t have time to paint everything because the colors keep evolving moment by moment. You can’t predict a sunset but you know it’s a beautiful view in the Gorge for a sunset anytime."
I find Elo Wobig’s story inspiring because it is proof that it is never too late to pursue your passions; most importantly you can have more than one passion. The way she has beautifully woven her two biggest passions in life together, willing to learn everything needed to master them, is beyond impressive and enlightening.