Clee Sobieski: pronounced SEE-lee SOH-bee-ES-kee
When I first saw Clee’s work at Tiki Kon 2016, I knew I wanted to do a post about this talented fellow. Clee’s art pulls from Tiki, Mid-Century, and everything in between. The thing I love most about Clee’s work is that it’s totally unique and timeless. When you see a painting by Clee, you know it’s his. And now you know how to pronounce his name correctly! Let’s get to know Clee a little better…
What brought you into the “Tiki lifestyle” and how long has it been part of your life?
Clee- Y’know, I dunno that there’s necessarily one single event that brought me into the wonderful world of Tiki. I think Tiki has always been around me, gently tuggin’ on my arm and guidin’ me throughout the decades.
Though I was born in Honolulu, we moved to California when I was still really young, so I don’t remember any of it. One of the things my parents brought back from the islands was a crying Tiki candle. I was kind of obsessed with it as a kid. It was never lit—not even once. I can remember doing a couple drawings of it as a kid. So I was super-stoked that my dad gave it to me for my birthday last year! And now I have two: one I picked up off of eBay that’s been burned on several occasions and this original one!
In 2003, I returned to Honolulu for the first time. Soon after checkin’ into the hotel, I found myself on the sands of Waikiki and I just started cryin’. Completely overwhelmed with emotion…in a good way. In a very good way! It’s like I was home.
I returned to the islands every year for the next half-dozen years or so, mainly to Maui (which I now consider second-home) and once to the Big Island. And with each trip, the amount of collectibles and souvenirs would grow and grow and grow…y’know how it goes.
So I can remember it being early 2013. I was feelin’ kind of stuck or stagnant in the art I was creating and just wanted to do something completely different. So I grabbed a bunch of the Tikis, Tiki mugs, and postcards and brought ’em into the studio with me. I just started sketching in the hopes of coming up with something cool enough to paint. So that was my first Tiki painting. But it would be maybe another year or so before I’d do another, cuz I honestly did not think I was doing the genre justice. True story!
In the fall of 2014, I finally returned to Maui for the first time after a 5 year hiatus of sorts. Just a short 4-day visit, but man, it was awesome! In that short period of time, I met some incredible people, including one woman named Michelle Kemper, one of the owners of Beach Bumz, which was where I just happened to have purchased my first Tiki mug maybe a decade earlier. True Story! We got to chatting and I showed her some pics of my art, including one of the Tiki paintings I had just recently completed (still, maybe like only my 3rd Tiki painting). Anyhow, she loved it and I can remember her sayin’, “My husband would really love your artwork!”
So soon after that trip to Maui, I painted another Tiki painting. At the time I was selling primarily on eBay. When that painting sold, I remember looking at the buyer’s name on the invoice and thought it looked familiar. So I went through my records and noticed it was the same buyer who bought my previous Tiki painting. This same buyer would buy each subsequent Tiki painting I created. So, I mean, that started building my confidence a lot. Like, a WHOLE lot. So I have Michael Bong to partially thank for being such an early fan of my Tiki work and in many ways shaping the direction my art has taken.
The following year, I decided to return to Maui in the summer, but this time I thought, “Why not create some paintings while you’re there? The ‘Maui Series.'” I set up a little studio on the lanai spent a good chunk of each day working. The Tikis and the Tiki mugs I purchased would serve as inspiration. At some point during that trip, Michelle had tagged her husband, Scott Taylor, in one of my Instagram posts. Soon afterwards, Scott had gone through pretty much my entire feed and liked everything Tiki on it. He contacted me and asked permission to share one of my paintings on his IG post. (What, like I was gonna say “no?!”) The next thing I know, my phone had started blowing up with new followers and likes, pretty much introducing me to a large chunk of the Tiki population. So I have both Michelle and Scott to thank for that. I got the chance to meet Scott on that trip as well as Rob Hawes, who also posted my artwork on his feed. I can remember Scott, Rob, and I hangin’ on the patio of Maui Brewing Co and thinking to myself, “I guess if these two dudes wanna hang out with me then I must actually be a Tiki artist…coooool!”
So, um, I dunno…did that answer the question?
You also have a love for Mid-Century. What turned you on to that?
Clee- Dang! Don’t you have any yes or no questions?
Kinda in the same way that Tiki has been all around me over the decades, so has Mid-Century. But to cut to the chase, it was my first trip to Palm Springs the summer of 2013. I fell in love with the city immediately. The architecture, the signs, everything. I’d come out every so often and take pics of houses, buildings, business signs, whatever. There were just so many interesting designs and elements that just spoke to me. Later, back in my studio, I’d take out my sketch pad and start doodling. I’m tellin’ you, great things can come from just a doodle!
When and what made you decide to start painting?
Clee- I had a brief affair with painting, or at least attempting to, in the early ’90s while in college. But it was in ’96 or ’97 that I picked it up again, all on a whim, and this time it stuck. I was reading a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I guess it might be more of a self-help book, but my best friend had just gone through it and highly recommended it. At the time I was more of a writer. I had been working on a series of short stories and attempting a novel as well as performing spoken word at open mics at neighborhood coffee houses. Anyways, one of the things Cameron suggests in the book is the concept of a weekly “Artist Date,” which could range from any number of things, but the idea is that it would entail doing something different than what the reader does in their quotidian life. Somewhere around this time, my then housemate took me to an art store in the avenues in San Francisco that was moving across the street (I wanna say it was Amsterdam Art, but I’d have to go through old journals to be sure). They were having a ridiculous sale (cuz they didn’t wanna have to move it all across the street). I think I spent maybe $50 and came home with a truckload of new goodies to play with. I wasted no time unpacking them and having some fun. I remember telling myself as I started—and I kinda think this is something maybe any new or young artist might keep in mind—”I give you permission to create the crappiest art on the planet! Just do it and have fun doin’ it!” I still say those words to myself every morning when I begin a new canvas. True story!
Who or what would you consider your influences to be?
Clee- So, since I was so far down on the waiting list for beginning drawing class in college, I decided to take Art History (cuz it would satisfy not only my art requirement, but also my history requirement). Turned out to be one of the best decisions as I was exposed to pretty much all art from the caves at Lascaux to Keith Haring over the course of the year.
But if we’re talking about artists themselves, some influences may seem obvious in the work I’m doing now, but all have impacted my art in one way, shape, or form. So, in no particular order: Marc Chagall, Tamara de Limpicka, Fernand Léger, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joe Ledbetter, Gary Baseman, Frank Kozik, Tim Biskup, Camille Rose Garcia, Shag, El Gato Gomez, Derek Yaniger, Jim Flora, Mary Blair, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera, Brian Barneclo, Ursula Young, Johnny Botts…
Your work has a very unique style: Can you talk about it?
Clee- When I’m out vending, many people who are seeing my paintings for the first time think they’re digital prints on canvas. I like to joke that whereas many digital artists work hard to make their work look like paintings, I work hard to make my paintings look almost like prints. Over the years, I started painting flatter and flatter and I actually try my best to remove any evidence of brushstrokes from the canvas. I really dig the clean look. I’ve been known for my (obsessive) line work for a long time, even well before my work primarily focused on Tiki. I’m also super-obsessed with color…obviously, right? But, even though I’m two decades into this career, I feel as though I’m still a noob and approach each new project with a childlike sense of wonder and innocence.
What is your favorite Tiki drink? Why?
Mai Tai. It was my first Tiki drink.
What is your favorite Tiki bar? Why?
Clee- The Tonga Hut in Palm Springs. Love the place! Super close to home, amazing cocktails, and a wonderful and friendly staff!
What does the future hold for you and your artwork?
Clee- Y’know, I guess only time will tell, right? I mean, I have some ideas on some new things I’d like to try (namely other mediums), but ultimately we’ll just have to see.
Anything else you would like to add?
Clee- Just a ton of thanks. First, thank you for this interview: I really appreciate your time. Then I gotta thank everyone over the years that’ve dug my art and for all the support. I’ve said it over and over again, but I’m a lucky dude in that I get to do what I do every day that I’m currently having the life that I imagined when I first started down this road as an artist. It ain’t a cake walk, by any means (nor did I ever imagine it to be), but I love everything about it. But none of it would be possible without the support from the fans of my work. I honestly can’t thank them enough!
Check out Clee’s website!