To understand how immigrants can enrich our state and country, you need look no further than Pilar Pobil, ensconced in her beautiful home and garden. The Spanish painter and sculptor started her art career late, but made up for lost time with a prolific body of work full of sinuous line and bright color. Paint leaps off her canvases to cover her frames, her furniture and even the walls of her house — a work of art in its own right that has become a gathering place for Utah artists and a catalyst for the development of a philanthropic Salt Lake City art community.
Born in Madrid in 1929, Pobil spent her childhood on the beautiful island of Mallorca, where her father was an important influence on her artistic development. “My father always treated me like I was someone special. He would ask me what I was working on every day when he got home and loved to see the little drawings I would do,” she recalls. He bought her paints, brushes, and books to help her developing skills, an attitude uncommon in conservative Spain. He was an admiral in the Spanish navy who remained loyal to the Spanish Republic during the Civil War there and was tragically killed by a street mob when Pobil was 9. The family was forced to flee the island, taking refuge in Alicante and then Portugal, and when they returned, life was different. On the national scale, Franco considerably altered the country when he came to power, including outlawing Catalan and its Mallorcan dialect Pobil’s family spoke in the home. Within the family, Pilar’s conservative Catholic mother discouraged her from painting or drawing. Despite this, Pilar refused to let her mother dominate her life and continued to pursue her own interests, earning her a reputation as a rebel among her sisters and mother.
Although her opportunities to create were limited, art in Mallorca was practically inescapable. Mallorca is a decorated, opulent, historic city full of opportunities to interact with past art and see how the culture was reflected in the lives of everyday Mallorcans. At her family home of Son Vida, which is now a luxury hotel, paintings and sculptures filled the halls and frescoes adorned the walls of a dining room that could sit more than 100 people. “In Spain, everyone sees art all the time,” Pobil says. “There’s art in the streets, beautiful palaces with antique facades, monuments in the squares, it’s there for everyone.”
The constant presence of art and the beauty of the Balearic Islands made it difficult for Pobil to leave when she immigrated to Utah in 1956 to marry Walter Smith, a Utahn she had met after he leased the house next to Pobil’s family. She loved the mountain landscape and the people, but found the city lifeless: apart from Temple Square or the International Peace Gardens, there was little public art and the houses and buildings were plain in comparison to Mallorca. Utah pioneers had placed an early emphasis on the theater and had organized one of the country’s first arts councils, but it was still a relatively unpopulated state, with only a small art community: the Utah Museum of Fine Arts was in its infancy, the Salt Lake Arts Council had yet to be conceived; there were only a few small galleries. It was nothing like the rich history of Mallorca.
Though her husband supported her artistic efforts — a talented pianist, he was for several years a board member of the Utah Arts Council and became chairman — Pobil didn’t start seriously painting until 1973, after her three children had grown up. She considers herself a self-taught artist, which has allowed her to develop her own styles and techniques without feeling she had to restrict herself to a signature style or particular medium.
She actually started with sculpture, something she began while taking a pottery class at the Art Barn in Reservoir Park. The class was overfilled, and all the wheels were busy, so she used the clay to make figurines, similar to ones she created from mud as a child. This initial foray developed into larger figurative works, as well as three-dimensional paintings on wood that are partly clay, mosaic and objects. They are joyful, colorful pieces that play with scale and proportion freely to create graceful lines and interesting textures.
All her art — which has been exhibited at many venues in Utah, including the Salt Lake Art Center, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Springville Museum of Art, Eccles Community Art Center, Utah Museum of Fine Arts and Kimball Art Center, as well as in New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, California, New York, Chicago, Mexico and Spain — is an open, flowing conversation between her experiences and the piece itself. “The painting tells me what it wants to look like,” she explains. “I often don’t know what a piece is going to look like when I start it. As I paint, I begin to have a better idea of how it should look until it comes together on the canvas.”
Her paintings play with vibrant, strong colors and freeform scale. They are powerfully bright and emotional works akin to Fauvism. Most are figurative — memories of people from her past, political figures she admires, or scenes of religious devotion from many different faiths — but she also paints landscapes, real and imagined: one painting shows a view of her kitchen table in Salt Lake City but out of the window is a scene of the city wall and idealistic seaside view from her grandparents’ home.
One immediately identifiable feature of Pobil’s work is the beautifully decorated frames, which she paints with organic and geometric designs. They are a reflection of Pobil’s approach to her life, breaking from traditional ideas of where art begins and ends. She has applied the same unconventional approach to her home, beautifying her surroundings in a way that appeals particularly to her.
Four years after they were married, Pilar and Walter bought their home in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood. They quickly decided they needed to renovate. Walter was a talented pianist and in order to make room for a grand piano they expanded: the porch became a front room, a new porch was built around it, and the fireplaces were rebricked — these Pobil painted in bright pastel colors. “People say I paint everything, but that’s not true,” Pobil says with a laugh. “I only paint things that are not already beautiful.” Some of these include a painted cover for a washer and dryer, a beautifully tiled kitchen, and clay paintings hung in the bathroom so they won’t be damaged by water condensation and steam.
Pobil is passionate about her house as a representation of who she is and how she lives. The most important room is her “burial chamber.” Modeled after ancient crypts and Spanish royal tombs, the basement room is filled with pictures and special items that evoke memories of her family and loved ones. She also keeps a small diptych watching over her family, a record player, a paella dish, her father’s sword, and a set of brushes and paints there — all things that she loves and that are dear to her heart.
Pobil began to think of her home as a work of art, as a place others would want to see and investigate, in the late ‘80s. When the Friends of Gilgal Garden organized a night tour of local gardens, created as a fundraising event to restore the unique gardens created by Thomas B. Child Jr., Pobil happily agreed to participate. During the event she noticed that attendees, who weren’t allowed in the houses due to insurance restrictions, were pressing their noses and cupping their hands against the windows of her home and studio, whispering excitedly to one another, pointing at things inside the house, trying to see what she was working on and what the house looked like on the inside.
This experience sparked one of Pobil’s longest-held traditions. The year after the Gilgal fundraiser, she held an art exhibition in her garden and nearly every year since has invited her friends and new artists to exhibit. At the first event, more than 80 people came during one day, stretching her back patio to the limit. The idea of Art In the Garden took off in Salt Lake City, inspiring many copycats to hold their own “art in the garden” parties. This resulted in confused friends asking if she’d changed the date or location of the event, inspiring the name change to Art in Pilar’s Garden. “There’s no one else named Pilar around here, so it was just easier,” she jokes. In a few years, the three-day event became so big Pobil decided to charge an admission fee and invited the Utah Arts Council to take the cash.
Art in Pilar’s Garden became so successful and inspired so many local artists that Pobil’s friends began to talk about creating a foundation. “There was a lot of talk but not much was happening until Patrick Hoagland got involved,” says Pobil of the late gallerist. Hoagland was one of the first people to recognize Pobil’s unique contributions to the Utah art scene and served as the foundation’s president until he passed away in 2018. Under Hoagland’s direction, the foundation took off, devising ways to become involved in and support the art community in Salt Lake City. The foundation’s main concern is to preserve Pobil’s house, exactly as it is, for future generations to enjoy. Their secondary aim is to help local established and budding artists grow by inviting them to exhibit at the house. The foundation has children from the Granite School District visit Pobil’s home and meet with her. She looks at their artwork, responds to it, but is very clear that she doesn’t teach them. “I help them learn how to talk about their art and see value in it, but I don’t teach them painting.”
Pobil’s garden is also available for use by causes or organizations she believes will be good for the community. In June of 2018, Kwiila & PANDOS (Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue and Organizing Support) held an event in Pilar’s Garden to honor missing and murdered indigenous women, which Pobil felt was an important cause that had not been given appropriate visibility in the community. She also allows literature classes from Westminster and the University of Utah to come read in her living room, nonprofit groups to do fundraising in her garden, the Utah Women’s Forum and other civic groups to meet there, and, of course, for other artists to display their work. Her home has become a haven for artists in Utah as well as offering a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary woman.
“I really think in my own little effort I’ve been part of [developing the art community in Salt Lake City],” Pobil says. “I think there are a lot more people now who like art, either because they’ve come in contact with artists or even have come to my house. I really think Utah is now much more of a place where people enjoy art, whereas 35 years ago there was barely anyone.” Her achievements also have been recognized by her native country. In 2016, Pobil was honored for her efforts to bring the history and culture of Mallorca and Spain to the United States. She received the Cruz de Oficial de la Real Orden de Isabel la Catolica, an honor given to those who were born in Spain and have helped to expand the country’s art and culture beyond its borders. Her recognition included a certificate signed by King Felipe VI, a personal thank you from the king himself. In 2018, she traveled back to Mallorca and was interviewed for an article in the Diario de Mallorca, the local newspaper.
Pobil continues to live a fulfilling life, exploring her artistic talents and creating a strong community of Utah artists. She credits her longevity partly on her rebellious spirit and her lifelong commitment to follow her own path. She hopes her home will remain a reminder and inspiration of what is possible for those willing to lead a life different from the norm, a life filled with creation and beauty. “I think it’s good for cities to have places preserved where people lived. Not just the leaders and the kings, but regular people who had extraordinary experiences. I’ve had many people tell me that this place has made a difference in their life because they have a chance to see art that they might not have otherwise seen.”
27th annual Art in Pilar’s Garden, featuring work by Ben Behunin, Steven K. Sheffield, David Estes, Jamie Love, Annie Farley, Stacy Phillips, Erin Berrett, 403 8th Avenue, June 7-9, 5-9 pm. $15 admission supports pilarpobillegacyfoundation.
This profile was published in the Artists of Utah publication Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists (Vol. II). You can order copies of the publication here.
Hannah Sandorf Davis graduated with a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts from Brigham Young University.