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creative:impact - A conversation with a conservation artist in two parts

Inflection Point II
Leslie Sobel
Inflection Point II

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Leslie Sobel in the Arctic.
Leslie Sobel
Leslie Sobel in the Arctic.

Leslie Sobel is the artist daughter of two scientists. The dual perspective of art and science drives her work. Her work reflects her her deep focus on climate change and our disconnect from the natural world. She works integrating wilderness fieldwork in remote places with scientists and time in the studio. In 2017, she camped on an ice field in Yukon Territory with a group of glaciologists and she continues to collaborate with those and other climate scientists focusing on the effects of climate change on the high latitudes. Her BFA is from the University of Michigan, MFA from the University of Hartford. She works in mixed media frequently incorporating photography, scientific data and more traditional materials.

She has shown widely with numerous solo exhibitions and has curated a number as well. She worked in tech for a decade and did masters work in technology management. Her experiences as an activist, a mother of three adult children, a caregiver for a 90+ father, and former tech entrepreneur reflect the way many women are pulled in multiple directions - both strengthening and challenging her focus as an artist.


Leslie Sobel

Resources for Artists, Creative Workers & Businesses

Arts + Creative Job Listings

Creative Washtenaw Contact Info

Res Artis

University of Michigan Artist & Scholar Residencies


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your creative:impact host. Thanks for tuning in to meet another creative guest deeply rooted in Washtenaw County and discover how their work, business, products, programs, and services impact and add to our quality of life, place, and economy. The legacy of these creatives make Washtenaw County one of the most artistically vibrant regions in Michigan and the nation. This is the first of a two-part series with Leslie Sobel, local artist, curator, environmentalist, and activist. In this first segment, we'll learn about Leslie and her art, as well as how she has grown as an artist by participating in artist residencies. That will prepare us for our next segment next week on Leslie's extraordinary residency in the Arctic Circle. Leslie, welcome to creative:impact.

Leslie Sobel: Thanks for having me. Deb. It's good to see you.

Deb Polich: Yeah, it is, indeed. Welcome back to the States. I love that you describe yourself as the artist daughter of two scientists. I regularly stress on creative:impact that every discipline connects to arts and creativity, though it's not really obvious to everyone. What area of science were your parents engaged in?

Leslie Sobel: My father was a physicist and an electrical engineer, and my mom started out as a research chemist and ended up teaching sixth grade earth science for the last 20, 25 years of her career.

Deb Polich: That's very cool. And what about you? What came first? Your interest in art or in science?

Leslie Sobel: Yes.

Deb Polich: That is often the case.

Leslie Sobel: Yeah. I mean, when I was a little kid and I got interested in really small stuff, my parents got me a microscope. I still use it.

Deb Polich: The very same one?

Leslie Sobel: The very same. I mean, I have a bunch of other ones now, but I started drawing things and exploring the natural world, and it all just flowed together really from day one.

Deb Polich: And how did your parents respond to your interest in art as scientists?

Leslie Sobel: They were supportive. My mother has a sister who is an artist, but I think they were also dismayed because they figured I should probably do something where I could eat--you know, pragmatics.

Deb Polich: Right. Right. Right. I would imagine that'd be the case. And you have both a bachelor's and a Master of Fine Arts.

Leslie Sobel: Correct.

Deb Polich: Which probably, you know, has lots of training. And you've refined your point of view through that. But you also are very involved and have done many what we call artist residencies.

Leslie Sobel: Yes.

Deb Polich: Can you, for our listeners, just explain what an artist residency is?

Leslie Sobel: So, residencies are, you know, a chance to go somewhere and immerse yourself in your art making. And they range in length. The shortest one I did was 48 hours long--cold 48 hours of making art in a suburb of Cleveland. The longest I've done is a month, typically. Some of them are run by organizations where you're going because you want access to a technology, like a print lab or a painting studio. Some of them are more about the place. I did one at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument--oh, what, 13, ten years ago. And there we worked with archeologists and biologists and geologists, and that was a program that was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

Deb Polich: So, really multidisciplined.

Leslie Sobel: Yes.

Deb Polich: And so, you mentioned organizations. Are these almost always organized by an institution or an organization? And how does an artist find them?

Leslie Sobel: Usually, yeah. And there are a bunch of websites. Res Artis is one that comes to mind. You can get on mailing lists for anything, including Creative Washtenaw, which lists a bunch of them.

Deb Polich: Thanks for the plug.

Leslie Sobel: Absolutely. Former board member here. Big fan.

Deb Polich: True.

Leslie Sobel: But, yeah, they range. Some of them are run by art centers. Some of them are in association with universities. The University of Michigan has several. Some of them are--well, there's a whole bunch run by the national parks.

Deb Polich: Okay. And do you, as an artist--I know you apply generally for these. Do you also have to finance that sometimes? Are they paid, or how does that work?

Leslie Sobel: It depends. Some of them are pay to go. Anderson Ranch, very prestigious, but very much a pay-to-go take essentially a class as a residency. Some pay you a stipend. Some are a mixture.

Deb Polich: And what's the difference between an artist residency and an artist-in-residence?

Leslie Sobel: Not a huge amount.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Leslie Sobel: It's semantics. You know, it's "Are you the artist-in-residence," or "Are you doing the artist residency?"

Deb Polich: Okay. Thanks for that explanation. 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich. And my guest is Leslie Sobel. We're talking about the who, what, where, when, and why of artist residencies. So, as I mentioned, you find great benefit in participating in artist residencies. Why?

Leslie Sobel

Leslie Sobel: Well, they're immersive. I get to have a relationship with a place that's usually deeper than what I might have by going there as a tourist.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Leslie Sobel: The aforementioned residency at CANM (Canyons of the Ancients) is a good example. I got to go places in the back country I never would have been able to go solo. I worked with an archeologist in the archives of their museum, which has more than 3 million artifacts.

Deb Polich: Oh, my gosh.

Leslie Sobel: Just incredible access. And that informs my work to have a deeper relationship with a place than I might have from a more superficial visit.

Deb Polich: So, it's really the immersive experience. But tell me about what it's like to be with other scholars or other areas of interest--people with other areas of interest. How does that inform your work?

Leslie Sobel: It's really expansive. You learn so much from how other people approach the world. I've done residencies with writers, musicians, you name it. Very fond memories of a residency where I was camping in the back country--CANM again--with my partner-in-crime at that time, who was a cellist.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Leslie Sobel: And she brought her cello on a couple of these backcountry camping trips. And I got private concerts on the middle of a plateau in the high desert. It was amazing.

Deb Polich: Oh, man, what an experience. Yeah. And then you get to capture that in your art.

Leslie Sobel: Yes.

Deb Polich: So, without mentioning your most recent residency, which we'll talk to and deep dive into next week, tell us about another that expanded and/or informed your practice.

Leslie Sobel: Well, my grad school program was a low-res program, so it was all residencies.

Deb Polich: So, I'm sorry. Low-res? Not like low-res. Tell us what low-res means.

Leslie Sobel: Okay, low-res meaning that you're not at your university for two years, like a typical MFA.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Leslie Sobel: But it's a drop-in, super-intensive, three weeks a month at a time kind of thing.

Deb Polich: Got it.

Leslie Sobel: And so, a nice kind of program for working adults who aren't necessarily ready to uproot the rest of their lives.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Leslie Sobel: And my program, which was focused on regenerative culture, ecology, climate change, so all the kind of lefty, land-oriented stuff that really informs what I do. But we went to Oaxaca. We went to New Mexico. We went to Florida. We went to New York City, just a whole bunch of places, but worked closely with people in all of those settings.

Deb Polich: And do you ever do collaborative work with the other artists that are there?

Leslie Sobel: Sometimes, yeah.

Deb Polich: And, frankly, just a practical question. When you do a collaborative piece, who ends up owning it?

Leslie Sobel: Yes, that's complicated.

Deb Polich: I bet.

Leslie Sobel: And often, those are ephemeral pieces that might be a performance piece. So, it's a non-issue. Sometimes, there are multiple components that get divided. Often, it's not something where there's a big, physical outcome.

Deb Polich: And then, in your personal work, when you leave those residencies, where do you see or how would we see, as your audience, how would we see the impact of your work?

Leslie Sobel: Well, I think you see a deeper connection to the places I'm making work about. I've made work about high-latitude places for a long time, and my work keeps edging further north. Five years ago, I started working with a group of scientists from the University of Maine and went to Yukon Territory with them. And I'm now teaching with those folks. I'm teaching scientists about communicating art and also making work that experiences climbing around on glaciers, whale watching...

Deb Polich: And you're also collecting a lot of really warm clothing.

Leslie Sobel: Oh, my gosh. A stupid amount.

Deb Polich: Right, right, right. Well, we are really thrilled, you know, to have you help us understand what residencies are and how it can impact an artist, such as yourself. And we're very much looking forward to our conversation next week. As I've said, you know, some conversations just can't be done in 10 minutes. So, I really want to thank you for sharing with us and spending enough time with us to really get what this is all about.

Leslie Sobel: Oh, thank you, Deb. It's my great pleasure.

Deb Polich: Leslie, thanks for letting us know what you're doing. Thanks for being on the show. And we really can't wait to have you back next week to hear more about your amazing journey to the Arctic Circle. I have to articulate Arctic.

First morning in Arctic.
Leslie Sobel
First morning in Arctic.

Leslie Sobel: Yes. Thank you. Looking forward to it.

Deb Polich: Me too. That's Leslie Sobel. We've been learning about artists residencies in preparation for part two of our conversation with Leslie next week. Find out more about Leslie and her work at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host, Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet creative Washtenaw guests. Celebrating 45 years of jazz broadcasting, this is 89 one WEMU Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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