A Polish painter dubbed Silicon Valley’s ‘favourite artist’ has raised USD 40,000 for Ukrainian refugees with a painting she co-created with a robotic dog.
Titled Sunrise March, the painting by Agnieszka Pilat was created using “the robot’s marching feet” to stamp blue and yellow paint on the canvas.
Meant as a lyrical metaphor, these tiny footprints, says Pilat, are representative of the vast numbers of refugees making their way towards Poland.
Speaking to TFN, she said: “I watched Russia’s invasion in terror, though sadly it did not come as a surprise to me – nor to anyone who knows the history of Eastern Europe.
“Russia has been invading its neighbours for centuries, and Ukraine has been one of the most tragic victims in all of this.
“Looking from afar, I was saddened and inspired by the developing events, and being Polish it was not hard to see parallels between the heroic defenders of Ukraine who are waiting for the West to provide help (such as a no-fly zone), and those Poles who desperately defended their country in 1939 whilst holding out hopes that France and Britain would come to its rescue.”
Describing her sense of solidarity with Ukraine, Pilat said of Sunset March: “It is especially painful to see pictures of old people marching. They have seen it all before and I don’t see how they are going to give up.
“I’ve realized that many of my paintings of the last twelve months have been in the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag.”
But more than just an artist ‘of the now’, Pilat has forged a name as an artist of tomorrow.
Born in 1973, and raised at the height of the Cold War in Łódź, Pilat moved to the United States in 2004.
Struggling at first, she took low-paying jobs at a gym and then a café before enrolling in art school to study illustration.
“At first, I dreamt of working on a graphic novel, but by the time I graduated I knew I wanted to paint – what I didn’t realize at the time, was that just because you’ve been to art school that doesn’t mean galleries are going to be falling over backwards to welcome you with open arms.”
Her big break came when she met Paul Stein, a developer credited with building Airbnb’s HQ. Commissioning her to paint a portrait of a machine – a fire alarm – word of the work filtered back to the tech community in the Bay Area and soon more orders followed.
“Meeting Paul Stein was a real game-changer,” she says, “not only as a contact but also because the commission made me change my style.”
From thereon switching to specialize in painting machines, this is something that Pilat maintains she has always been comfortable with. “Growing up in Łódź I was surrounded by old factories and such elements of industry, so in some ways this was a continuation.”
Though encoded in her artistic DNA, painting machinery has not been without its challenges she says.
“In the past, I presented these old machines as if they were heroic old portraits. As someone who has always been quite introverted, I actually felt more comfortable painting machines and I approached them as if I were painting a portrait.”
Doing so, she says, meant not just capturing their superficial details, but their inner spirit. “As a portrait painter, you’re always looking to capture the essence of the subject above anything else,” adds Pilat.
With orders stacking up from the high-flying executives of Silicon Valley, this was not without difficulty. “I had to change my approach a little as I found myself painting new machines, machines that did not have this storied past. It was hard at first, but then I found a formula and started viewing them as if they were adolescent teens who had yet to find their role in the world.”
Embraced by some of the tech world’s biggest names, Pilat has since painted for board members of SpaceX, Tesla and several other visionary companies shaping the world’s future. Commanding huge fees, her art has become viewed as essential among the corporate collectors of America’s West Coast.
“They’re a different species of people in terms of their huge tolerance for taking risks. Sure, I feel a little insecure around these people at times, but as a whole I think they all like to view themselves as a positive force for the world. They are people for whom limits do not exist and who do not fear failure.
“For them, it’s all about creating a legacy; they see themselves as changing culture, and so I think my art is relevant to them; I think that’s how I explain my popularity within this niche of people. It’s not so much about the visuals of my art, but the fact that I am an evangelist for the machine – so are they, and I think they see that I am singing their song.”
Even more exposure arrived when she teamed up with Boston Dynamics to serve as their artist-in-residence. It was there that she was first acquainted with Spot, a robotic dog developed by the firm.
“They gave me a brand new robot which I named Marcella; although I used her to paint with me, I also found myself really cherishing her,” she says. “Unfortunately, when I returned after a break I found that she had been sold – I had connected to her on a legitimately emotional level so to learn that she would be engaged in hard labour down a coal mine or on a building site shook me a bit.”
Other dogs have followed, however, and Pilat can often be seen taking her robotic pet for a walk around town.
But although her art has gone viral, there have been no shortage of detractors.
“There have been some very unkind words, and there’s definitely a huge clash between the old money traditionalism of America’s East Coast and the West Coast’s new way of looking at things. I’ve become almost symbolic of the latter, so I do face criticism as being a Silicon Valley sell-out.”
For Pilat, though, this is part of life’s natural story line. “When the car was first invented people were terrified of them. People ran out of the cinema in fear when they first saw a train coming towards them on the screen. But I think it’s not technology we really fear the most, but change, and I think when it comes to technology we have to realize that in this industry there are many good people who realize that robots need to have respect for the natural world around them.
“It’s a sector that attracts great minds so I am certain it’s not robotics we should be distrustful of; personally. I’m far more concerned about the direction the metaverse and social media is taking.”
Determined to show new ideas via old language, i.e. the canvas, Pilat hopes one day to do for Silicon Valley what Diego Rivera did for the working class through his work. Bold and unapologetic in its style and engagement, it is certainly art that has captivated not just the billionaire visionaries of America, but also a curious public intrigued by Pilat’s revolutionary approach to art.
Yet in spite of this, it is not the masses that Pilat seeks to please, but rather the machines themselves.
“I’m working for the machine,” she states. “It’s my dream that one day robots in the future will look at my portraits and say to themselves, ‘those are my ancestors’.”