Isabel Bornstein uses intuitive mark-making with oil pastels on watercolor paintings, finding endless inspiration in the color combinations of the natural world | Credit: Ruta Smith

Isabel Bornstein’s recent abstract paintings are a result of a shifting attitude in her artistic practice, one of letting go of control and perfectionism. Her art recently landed her a spot on the roster at the esteemed George Gallery downtown on Broad Street, where her most recent works are on view.

Bornstein was raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by artistic parents. Her mother, Laura Lee Robinson, is a painter, illustrator and graphic designer, while her father owns an art gallery in Buenos Aires.

“When I first moved to Charleston, I was walking around downtown with my mom,” said Bornstein, who moved to Charleston in 2017. “We looked in the window [of George Gallery], and I knew this was a place I wanted to be a part of.”

After working in food and beverage jobs for her first few years in town, she was hired as an assistant at the George Gallery in 2020, an experience she said confirmed her desire to focus on art as a career. Bornstein dove into creating works which combine collage and painting, and in 2021, she presented a pop-up at the gallery featuring a series of collage works titled The Seafood Series. In 2022, Hed Hi Studio on King Street gave her a solo exhibition.

Growing up in an artistic family (her uncle, brother and grandfather are also artists), actually created insecurity around her own artmaking in some ways, she said.

“I think the fact that everyone was doing it so proficiently, it almost shied me away from it. Seeing how good they were, I had a lot of insecurity about it. But what my mom always said was, ‘If you want to do it, you just have to do it every day.’”

And that’s exactly what Bornstein did. As she worked on her art, her confidence and trust in herself grew each time she hit the studio, she said.

“Now I’m in that place where I wake up, and I want to do it. It’s absolutely therapeutic. I think it’s sort of a universal language — there are no words, but you’re able to really communicate emotion.”

Experimenting with mediums

At first, Bornstein said working in collage was a way to dip her toes into creation without having to start from scratch.

“With collage, there was a sense of security of context,” she said. “I could use one image and then work around it. And I was always sort of fearful of taking away that image, because then it was sort of all on me to create something fully. And then, something clicked in me, and I just went for it.”

“Río Negro” is a painting with oil sticks on panel that memorializes the shift in Bornstein’s practice from primarily collage into abstract painting. The work, which is currently on view at the George Gallery, provides clues into Bornstein’s intuitive process. She works on the floor from all angles, not rushing to find the image’s “right side up.”

In “Nubés” (the Spanish word for clouds), Bornstein presents a peach-toned work in which variations in pink shades are made by pooling and pushing water on paper.

“In the paintings, I like to pool the water on the floor, and then I go to sleep. I love waking up and seeing what happened. It’s like a game between you and the work. … The surprises are awesome.”

After this process, she uses oil pastels to determine landscapes through linework, imagining each painting as a pool of living organisms, plants, clouds and sea creatures.

“Water is definitely my element. I always love rain. I take a bath every day. And with big bodies of water, I just always found it so moving and such a good reminder of how we have such an importance in ourselves, and there’s just so much more to life outside of us,” Bornstein said.

Her linework with the oil pastels ranges from the lightest touch to heavy-handed scribbles, creating layers of water — from shallow pools, water caressing the shore, to the deepest depths of the ocean. It doubles as a metaphor for emotion.

“Everything has layers in it. And one is not better than the other or more significant in nature — it all works together in harmony,” she said. “And that also exists in the universe inside of us … so [painting] has been a really helpful way to learn about myself.”

Bornstein said curiosity, emotion, improvisation and reverence for nature will continue driving her future work. She seeks to combine the freedom she’s found in abstraction with her longtime collage practice.

Bornstein’s recent work is on view at the George Gallery on Broad Street, which will host a group show featuring its 17 artists Oct. 13 through Nov. 3 in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Visit or find Bornstein on Instagram @born_a_collage for more info.

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