Greg and Wanda Sobran’s bold strokes


Rolling hills along Schomberg Road in Leelanau County.

By F. Josephine Arrowood
Sun contributor

Over the past 20 years, Greg and Wanda Sobran of Sobran Studios, have become fixtures of the Glen Arbor arts scene — if two inveterate, peripatetic adventurers could be described in such stationary terms.

“We love to travel,” Wanda says. “Our ‘home’ home is a house in Ann Arbor. We’ll be there for a week and just look at each other,” and know it’s time for a new journey toward a distant horizon.

“We’re in France two months of every year — we go to Key West, and now Isla Morada near Miami. We’ll go out west to Colorado; one of my sons and Greg’s daughter live in California, so we paint in the Los Angeles area, and San Francisco,” before heading east and up north to Glen Arbor each summer to capture the bounty of the region’s many spectacular vistas.

Greg describes his working process as “more ’sur la place’ than ‘plein air.’ I’m not always outside, but I’m always on location,” whether at Yosemite National Park, the street scenes of Paris, or up on Inspiration Point overlooking Big Glen Lake, trying to capture a moment, or a feeling, or the light in the ever-changing landscapes.

In addition to his views of Lake Michigan seen from many vantage points on the Leelanau Peninsula, he enjoys painting farm and field, particularly those of another era, such as historic structures in the Port Oneida district of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

About a recent scene he portrayed of Bodus Road in central Leelanau, he says, “There’s all these tall, tall poles, maybe so they could get the hay wagons past? While I was out there, a Mr. Leonard Bodus came by and introduced himself. His grandfather, or maybe great-grandfather, settled the place. There used to be a little potato railway there that ran into Leland. These are the things I really enjoy talking [about] to the people,” in the places he sees and paints.

For those who have seen the painter’s work, his bold strokes, dabs and freely rendered blocks of color, along with a bright and airy palette often incorporating blues, greens, yellows and whites (as well as the trademark red signature casually scribed in a corner), render his pieces instantly recognizable.

“The other day, this woman was standing behind me, watching me work, and said, ‘Why do you use those colors?’ almost in an accusatory way,” the artist laughs. “I couldn’t really answer that; I’m going on instinct. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

In the same vein, he adds, “Some people get mad when I paint cars or telephone poles, or the guardrail,” at Inspiration Point’s famous lookout. “But we don’t want to paint this idealized world; we want to celebrate what’s really here. There’s enough beauty — I once actually painted a junkyard in snow!”

Greg’s 1997 watercolor of a humble roadside produce stand demonstrates his powerful ability to share this vision of beauty in the mundane world. The late Sonny Swanson’s yellow structure was — and is, thanks to the Leelanau Conservancy and Sonny’s heirs — locally famous, with its sign reading, “God knows everything, thank you for being honest,” next to the money box, which has amazed generations of jaded visitors from more populous regions. The painting, owned by Bill and Cherrie Stege of Glen Arbor, became a best-selling poster for the Glen Arbor Art Association’s (GAAA) Manitou Music Festival, and indeed an iconic image in the artist’s oeuvre.

Greg says, “Maybe I’ll go back and paint Sonny’s stand again. [Its preservation] is really good news for me,” as he enthuses about the quirky, patched yellow tones of the tiny outbuilding, and the efforts of the current farmer-caretaker to restore its spirit.

“I did that [piece] at the beginning,” of his tenure in Leelanau County, when painter and Glen Arbor Art Association co-founder Suzanne Wilson discovered him at Art’s Tavern and was an early local champion of his work (see “Portrait of an Artist: Greg Sobran,” Aug. 14, 2003, at He and his wife Wanda had already decided to make his art a fulltime business, and the chance meeting with Wilson added synchronicity to their choice: another message from the universe to pursue his muse fulltime, with Wanda’s marketing expertise to sell his work to an eager and growing audience of collectors.

“I’ve always been in sales and marketing my whole life,” says the University of Michigan graduate and former advertising businesswoman. “I’ve known Greg for about 30 years; even before we got married, I always tried to help him sell. Later, I said, ‘Listen, you should just paint full time and I’ll do whatever it takes to make this [business] work.’ He used to give his paintings away! For the past 25 years, he’s been doing this full time.” The dynamic duo’s strategy has paid off as demand both here and around the world for Greg’s work increases, allowing them extensive travel and artistic opportunities.

Wanda talks about the changes she has seen over two decades as Glen Arbor has transformed from a sleepy, part-time artist colony of summer visitors to a year-round arts and cultural tourism destination.

“Things are really changing in Glen Arbor,” she says bluntly. “My husband’s work sells at the highest level here, but I’d rather have more artists in our price range and higher. With such a variety of artists showing their work, and a lot of amateur artists with the GAAA here, there’s a need for, how do I say this, an ‘educated eye’ of art collectors. You get someone going into a show and saying, ‘I have this big wall I want to cover in my home — what can I get for $800?’” — as if buying high end, pleasant wallpaper, rather than a serious artist’s work (that may sell at that size for several thousand dollars) as a financial and aesthetic investment.

This year the Sobrans decided they needed a fresh venue in Glen Arbor, and left Sobran Studios’ old space in the Lake Isles retail complex next to Ruth Conklin Gallery on Western Ave. which, until recently, was also home to Bittersweet, Hepburn-Holt and MacBeth and Co. Greg and Wanda took their show downtown.

“This is how we make our living and our decisions have to be based on what is good for us,” the outspoken entrepreneur states. “We’re very happy in our new midtown space at the Thyme Out building, a very charming, beautiful building. It’s tiny, people love it, the lighting is wonderful.” There she shows Greg’s works, enjoys the “incredible artisan pastries” of the Thyme Out bistro, and sells handbags created by Barbara May of Petoskey, whose B. May line has recently taken off in the larger fashion world.

The couple also plans to open a Sobran Studios space at the end of the summer in Harbor Springs, one of their many “home” stomping grounds since before their Glen Arbor days.

“Chris Rau knows the art scene really well; she’s worked with all the galleries. She was the manager at Huzza, in my opinion one of my favorite stores in the world. Harbor Springs is an area where there are serious collectors, and there are more artists in our price range and higher — that’s a good thing — like Jim Peery, who we know pretty well.”

Their Sobran Studios website has also proven a valuable resource, begun in the hazy early days of the Internet, about 1996, by a web designer friend in Ann Arbor.

“Our website is really important to us,” says Wanda. “Greg can put pictures up of what he’s done that day, and people will buy them. We ship out to people all over the world; once they have seen his work and know it, they want to see more.” Even those who have not had an opportunity to visit Greg’s art in person are often enchanted with the images, and will buy. This is especially important to the artist, as he does not reproduce his works (with the exception of the early “Sonny’s stand” contribution to the GAAA).

The decision not to reproduce artwork seems to fit well with Wanda’s determination to emphasize the value inherent in Greg’s paintings, as well as his artistic philosophy of staying true to the work.

“It was a pleasant surprise from having to save up all your money to go on vacation and paint, to having people pay you to do it. We had that first show at Suzanne’s, it wasn’t much of a thing back then — a little garage, it was so simple — but by the end of the two weeks … she’d sold all my work.

“If I’d known it was possible, I would have done it earlier — that’s what I’d tell everyone, that’s my only regret. I just go out there every day; I can’t worry about the big picture, or I would freeze up. You can’t go at it with that approach, if you’re doing it based on what people tell you they like. A painter must be sincere in motivation and inspiration,” he avers. “The selling — that’s Wanda’s part, what she does.

“In the artist lexicon, there’s the word ‘palomino.’ It’s letting slide your ethics,” for the sake of making a buck — in other words, becoming a hack, even if only temporarily. He tells the true tale of a well-known painter whose panoramic scene of a Montana valley tempted a wealthy buyer — if the artist would only paint the would-be collector’s favorite palomino pony into the vista. Eventually, the artist, in need of cash, agreed — and thus took home an interesting lesson about commitment to the work, along with his $40,000 commission.

Although Greg first became known through his watercolors, he has been focusing more on oils lately, “a nice, fresh, powerful medium that I like. With watercolors, I felt like I did what I wanted to do. It’s different with watercolors because of the exciting, high tonal key, the brightness, the transparency. You don’t want to get too muddy and dark there.”

He goes on, “I can delve into the dark tones with oil, the higher contrast and power, its opaqueness. It can really punch you when you look at it. You follow your instinct and inclination … that opens it up,” to keep the creative forces flowing.

“[At some point] I’ll go back to watercolor. I just had a commission to do 10 paintings in Florida — there’s something nice and clean and pure about working with watercolor.”

His voice brightens. “It’s like red wine and white wine — I want it all!”