Interview: Sonja Ahlers

It's funny how sometimes you cross paths with specific people in your life and unintentionally you get inspired. Such is the case with Canadian artist, Sonja Ahlers. I first met her while attending a gocco workshop on a chilly Saturday afternoon back in the fall of 2005 here in Vancouver. Normally at workshops like that you chat up your neighbor, but Sonja who sat beside me was intensely concentrating on her craft focusing on the task at hand. During the workshop I found out by the gallery owner that Sonja's work was the current exhibit at the time. Mesmerized by it, I managed to snap a few photos of it and subsequently wrote about it. Her work was filled with silhouettes of horses and trees and intimate words.

Fast forward to the fall of 2006, I kept checking her website to see if anything new had appeared. I found a few of her photos of an installation she had done which spoke to me. Items stewn about of collected things like lace doilies, natural woods, vintage ephemera and other found things.

Now it's 2008. Sonja in her new place of temporary residence in the Yukon. She is on a self-imposed retreat. I asked her if she'd like to do an interview about her d.i.y. background, since she's been in the business of making art for the past 15 years, if she could give us a perspective the way she did things.

I also wanted to talk to her about her Fierce Bunnies she's been making since 1995. Made from vintage angora sweaters - angora is knitted bunny fur, she transforms the sweaters back to its "original" bunny. The truest form of repurposing/recycling. These bunnies live in many folks' homes including members of Sonic Youth, fashion designer Sonia Rykiel and one magically appears in the French electronic outfit M83 video, "Teen Angst". She also is the author of two graphic novels that have peaked my interest.

Here's our interview:

I wanted to ask how you started out. Where things all began if that's not too big of a question. {Your arts background; where you studied, what, when?}

I am a rebellious self-taught artist and writer who has been fortunate to have had mentors along the way. I've made art since I was a child however, as a teen I was more interested in drama club. After high school I felt pressure to be practical so I took university courses. At the same time I enrolled in an office admin program with the idea I was going to travel with this skill. I remember working for the government and waking up in the morning crying because I was so unhappy and lost. Eventually I made it back to myself.

At age 21, I moved to Montreal and was inspired to make art again. It was a cold winter so I stayed inside working in bliss. I was making small collage pieces and doing a lot of drawing and writing poems and letters. Correspondence is a large part of my art, too.
This was the beginning of an incredibly fruitful and productive period in my life. I started producing small zines and chapbooks which led to published books. If I wasn't sewing, I was sanding down and re-painting furniture or framing my art pieces or writing like a fiend. I also had a band called Kiki Bridges for seven years. It was a good outlet for me. This is what my demographic did in the mid to late 90s. I didn't question it.

I have to say, my bookwork is at the core of my practice. I reference my book material to do installation work and visual art. I have two published graphic novels. They are the best container for my art because I have a million ideas all the time. It is hard to keep up sometimes. The bunnies that I make is the relaxing part of my practice.

Your work is noticeably organic. Where do you draw your inspiration from and where does that stem from? {What are you inspired by?}

I am inspired by everything but I have a critical eye and am very picky. I get inspiration from animals, friends, nature and landscapes. I love colour and have a palette that is ever shifting. Right now I love tea-dyed shades and neutrals, goldenrod, ballet pink, navy blue, neon orange and pink. I love to travel to new places and make art. I tend to absorb my surroundings like a mushroom – so there are subtle changes to the work. I'm inspired by rock and roll, original thinkers. I love to watch movies and read books. Loads of inspiration there. I am a pop culture buff. I feel like I am out in the world filtering and processing everything I take in.
Lately, I've been collecting these tiny pinecombs I've been finding out in the woods behind the house. They are precious things. I tend to notice overlooked objects. I collect coat hangers. I like to use the materials around me. I am interested in reduction – I am always editing. I love to look at beautiful things. I have been taking lots of photographs here in the Yukon. The skies here are gorgeous. When the sun is going down it turns the snowy mountains pink.

What does art mean to you and how do you apply it to your life?

Art comes so naturally to me, I didn't even consider myself an artist for years. My friends referred to it as 'Sonja Stuff'. It's who I am so in that sense – my art is my life and my life is my art. I remember being 3 years old and re-arranging my bedroom. I would make little installations with my toys and objects. I remember taking an old 40s suitcase, turning it on its side and using the surface to create a display. I called my mom upstairs to come see. She was holding my baby brother Cubby and gave me praise, "That looks really good, Sonja". It was my first recollection of feeling pride. There is a photo of me around that time in the backyard colouring on paper bags using both hands. I was ambidextrous. My hands have lives of their own. There is direct communication between my hands and my heart. That's my art.

I love the idea behind your Fierce Bunnies, how did that all begin?

After Montreal, I moved back to Victoria and I found this beautiful apartment in an old mansion. I loved it so much I didn't want to leave. Again, I stayed in and started making stuff with anything I could get my hands on. That was 1995. One night I sat down on my bed with a pink angora sweater. I dismantled it and produced a bunny. He was a very crude looking Frankenstein-type bunny. It looks like I made him with my eyes closed. I rarely start out with an idea. This is part of my organic process. I just go with it. It's like magic.

My mom and I collect old toys and are packrats. Years ago, she found a homemade knitted bunny in a thrift store with a very hilarious pissed off expression. We named him Fierce Bunny inspired from the Beatrix Potter story The Tale of the Fierce Bad Rabbit When I first started making the bunnies, they all looked mad. But they have softened up over the years. They look more peaceful. Some of them still look mad…they each have their own character.

The bunnies are talismen to me. I put a lucky penny in each belly and I stuff them with lambswool. I make pregnant mums, too. I've heard a few stories about bunny owners getting pregnant after acquiring one. Interesting to note that the rabbit symbolizes fertility and reproduction.

My aunt Diane Jordens is a dollmaker so it is in my blood. I spent a lot of time with her when I was child. For me, making the bunnies relaxes me and forces me to be still. It is meditative and healing.

Who are your favorite artists (in any genre)?

I am inspired by the feminine process of art making which is a more heartfelt, intuitive process. I'm interested in women's work. It needs all the support it can get – especially in today's art world.

I love my friends' art. I feel incredibly fortunate to know so many fabulous lady artists: Shary Boyle, Sarah Cain, Sydney Hermant, Beci Orpin, Candice Tarnowski, Julie Morstad, Lisa Smolkin and so many others.

I like the art of Rita Ackermann, Yoko Ono, Mary Cassatt, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite who is an amazing Australian illustrator from the turn of the century. I like Emily Carr and Beatrix Potter. I've been reading a bit about Tracey Emin. I like her monotypes, quilting, text and neon as a body of work. I love Meret Oppenheim's Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) which is the fur-covered teacup, saucer and spoon. That is one of my favourite pieces.

What advice would you give to young artists starting up today?

Oh gee, that's a toughie. Trust your intuition. Spending time alone making work is good for this. Seek out like-minded individuals to connect with – other artists you feel a kinship with. Make the art that makes you happy. Make art out of love or make art for someone you love. That is the best kind of art.

Could you share some photos of your studio?


Sonja Ahlers is represented by the following galleries:

Atelier Gallery, John Ramsey, Vancouver, BC (
James Harris Gallery, Carrie E. A. Scott, Seattle, WA (


Her book Fatal Distraction is available at fine book stores, Insomniac Press or best of all directly via

Thanks Sonja!

Jan Halvarson


Anonymous said...

Thank you for publishing this interview! This is one inspirational lady!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this interview!! Just the little boost of confidence and inspiration I needed! :) Its always lots of fun to find out an artist's background and what drives them to make art. Thank you for doing this interview, and thank you Sonja for such a lovely piece!

Fiona Cartolina said...

Wow Jan - that was really really interesting.
She's a talented, driven woman who takes her work very seriously. She lives the life and it's very impressive. Thanks for introducing her to us.

lisa solomon said...

what a great interview [read it in bloglines before popping over].... thanks jan.

those little bunnies just get to me

Di Overton said...

What a fabulous interview. Such a talented lady. I clicked over to her Etsy store and saw a bunny called Sonny in an egg cup. My grandson Sonny is 3 in May and I think this may soon belong to him. Thanks Jan.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful interview!

Top bird said...

Oh wow, what beautifully crafted bunnies. Fabulous interview, well done! xx

sef said...

Sonja is my hero(ine). thank you

Anonymous said...

Wow! I have been following her for years too! I found her book Temper, Temper in a little shop in Halifax in 2000ish and have been hooked on this woman ever since. She doesn't mention this in her interview, or anywhere for that matter, but I have another handmade book by Sonja called Happy Ball. Hand stapled and everything! It's great.
Anyhow, great post. I'm glad to see that she's still working, as I haven't heard anything about her in years.
Buying bunnies now!

Daydream Lily said...

I love this interview. Thank you :-)

indigo said...

the little dolls are really cute!

Anonymous said...

Really rare things on this site

Amy G. said...

Hooray Sonja! xoxo

raquel raney said...

oh my. your blog is so resourceful for inspiration. Thank you for posting amazingness. .

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I love that picture with all the frames :D