You might not be familiar with the name Sonja Ahlers, but you're probably familiar with her work.
You might also be the thousands who have purchased her Fierce Bunnies — the craft bunnies that she’s been creating from reclaimed angora since 1995, which have even been featured in a little movie called Twilight.
The self-taught artist, who was born in Victoria, B.C., also has a number of published “scrapbooks”, including The Selves (which was the book that sealed her relationship with Rookie’s editor-in-chief Tavi Gevinson) and a long list of loyal, passionate fans (including former Lady We Love Liane Balaban).
I caught up with Sonja to talk about her creative process, the difference between masculine and feminine art, and working with Tavi.
Were you always interested in art?
My mom said I was ambidextrous, but a teacher forced me to use my right hand. There are photos of me in the backyard furiously coloring paper bags. I’ve been doing installation work since I was about three or four years old. I would make displays of found objects in my bedroom.
What's your background in art? Who were your mentors and/or biggest inspiration/influencers?
I’m self-taught. I was in a program for gifted students all through high school, and then took some random college courses here and there. I tried to go to art school a few times, but I knew it was a mistake for me. Some people tried to force me to go, which is hilarious because you can’t tell me to do anything. I’ve had many mentors over the years, but I tend to learn on the job. Learning on the job has its drawbacks — my art career has evolved at a sloth-like pace. It has been a slow burn. I also learn by observing other artists’ work process. I shared a studio space with Shary Boyle and learned a lot. She is the most productive and efficient artist I know. I’m always looking for a more efficient way. It’s hard to explain that. I guess it’s like watching an animal get from A to B and how do they go about that?
I think my biggest influences are my mother, father, aunt, and grandfather. They did a real imprint on me.
What's inspiring you right now?
I watch one film a day. I wish I had my own rep theatre so I [could] watch things like Spirit of the Beehive on the silver screen. I just re-watched Todd Hayne’s Safe from 1995. It is completely perfect and ahead of its time. I loved Whiplash and It Follows. I’ve been reading more these days: poetry, self-help books about death, Hilton Also, the Joni Mitchell book In Her Own Words, Alice Munro. I’m always looking for quotes. I love Jason De Haan’s work and my friend Sarah Cain.
I like Run the Jewels. And it is spring right now so all the lilacs are in bloom. I like nature.
What's your process like? Is it intuitive? Do you need to be inspired to create?
It is mos def intuitive. I make things all the time, and have projects organized in containers. I have ongoing books and collected textiles for future projects — maybe quilts? I have to live with a piece of art for a long time before I can see the worth in it. If a piece can survive my ongoing editing process and constant moving, it feels valid. I’ve destroyed a lot of work over time. My installation work gets absorbed into near-nothing. It is exists in a physical space for a period of time and then it dies. I never recreate those works unless I’m working with my toe shoe collection. I have over 200 pairs now. I come from a clan of pack rats and salvagers, so it has been the ultimate challenge for me to attempt minimalism (my ongoing joke with myself).
I've read that you mention a distinction between masculine art and feminine art. Can you speak a little bit about that, and how that applies to your work?
My favorite example of “masculine art” is the Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman. I have an obsession with the Washington monument and was trying to find images of obelisks when I found this sculpture and had a freak-out moment. The obelisk itself is one of the more hilarious and obvious phallic symbols going, but this sculpture made me cry. It’s poetry. It was produced in the late ‘60s. My idea of “feminine art” is kind of the opposite. What’s the opposite of three tons of steel? A pile of fabric and ten boxes of ephemera. The quilts of Gee’s Bends are probably my favorite pieces of art. These women made quilts that are better compositions than any abstract expressionist painting I’ve ever seen.
I wish I could make a giant outdoor sculpture and have it survive an earthquake, but instead I make the kind of work that wouldn’t survive a lit match. So I’m trying to figure out what makes the most sense for the next phase of my work. I think this is why film appeals to me so much, but it seems like such an impossible and privileged form that you have to kill yourself for. I’m a workaholic but I’m not sure I’m ready for that world. Maybe I’ll do some natural disaster relief work instead.
What does art mean you? How does it affect your view of the world?
It took me years to refer to what I do as art. It doesn’t feel like art to me; it’s how I survive and make sense of chaos. Looking back, it’s why I made displays of objects in my bedroom as a child. My parents had so much stuff and it was a way for me to process the chaos of the house. I’d choose a group of objects and arrange them into something beautiful.
With this kind of installation work, I think I attempt to create wordless poetry. I see poetry as a distillation process. Plath said, "poetry is a moment’s monument." I’m reading Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words right now, and she talks about a school teacher who said “If you could paint with a brush, you could paint with words.” I think this works for any medium. For me it’s also about conveying an internal dialogue and trying to connect with others.
Let's talk about your Fierce Bunnies. Your bunnies are famous. They even appeared in Twilight! How did the bunnies come about?
If you Google my name, all you see are bunnies. I started making them in 1995. Back then, I was in the house a lot making things with whatever was lying around. I dismantled a pink angora sweater and started sewing in a semi-possessed way. Soon, a crude, Frankenstein-like bunny appeared and I’ve been making them ever since. Their evolution over the years marks a lot of growth. It took me years to connect that dots — I started making them right after I had an abortion. Rabbits represent fertility. Plus, angora is knitted bunny fur so I was taking the sweater and turning it back into a bunny. I got very dizzy after connecting the dots. That pretty much sums up all my work. Kind of meta matrix or something. Only in hindsight do the stepping stones make sense.
I noticed the bunnies are a bit on a break on Etsy. What was the reason behind the break? Will they come back?
The bunnies are on the back burner. It’s breaking my heart! I have amazing bunny collectors out there. But I’m in a pretty serious transition right now. My mom is also a big influence on the bunnies having weaned me on Beatrix Potter and Steiff animals. She helped me collect angora and cashmere sweaters for the bunnies. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer three years ago and is in her final stages now. I’m not sure if I can carry on with them without her. But maybe I will as a homage to her? I don’t know right now.
How did you get involved with Rookie Mag? What was that experience like?
I heard a rumor that Tavi liked my book The Selves. I saw a photo of her in the New Yorker with the book on her shelf. I was so flattered. About a year or two later I was in Toronto for the summer and feeling a bit frustrated with my work and the state of things. During that week two separate friends suggested I contact Tavi about an online magazine project somehow connected to Sassy magazine — a magazine I read and adored as a teen. I took it as a sign, and sent her an email. She got back to me 15 minutes later. We come from two different generations, but our aesthetic overlap is uncanny. My intuition serves me well when it comes to doing art for Rookie. Everything is done online, so there’s a weird ESP thing that has to happen. I started out with online illustrations. Less than a year later, we were working on the book at Drawn And Quarterly. It was unbelievable. We are working on the fourth and final Yearbook (one book for each year of high school). What a ride it has been.
Where can people buy and view your work?
For now, it is best to contact me directly at Sonja.email@example.com
I tweet sometimes @sonjaahlers .
What are you currently working on?
I’m developing a horror movie loosely based on events in my life. We’ll see how that goes. Otherwise I am working on books, as always. I have several apple boxes of book material to sort. I’m very, very backlogged. I have enough material for a zine series or a three volumes of “more Selves”. I tend to outgrow work and throw it out, or it sits in a box forever. The horror movie is the most appealing to me at this point. I want my ex-boyfriend to score it.
I have a lot of paper materials on manmade and natural disasters. I think I need to do a bunch of clean-up before I start the next project. I am still tying up loose ends.
What would your advice be to emerging and/or young artists?
Do what you need to do to make yourself happy. Start there. And then just keep doing it.