In 2007, visual artist and poet Sonja Ahlers, experienced two major breakups, one with her boyfriend, and one with the city of Vancouver. She left both in search of a place to wipe the slate clean and grieve — and landed in Whitehorse.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made,” says Ahlers. Though she spent her first frigid winter alone and crying, Sonja soon realized she’d found somewhere she could further explore the language of her art, one that favours “heart over brain”, amongst people who were open to the experience.
Far away from what she found to be the overly conceptual and conservative art scene of Vancouver, where her will to create highly personal and emotionally driven art was barely surviving, Ahlers found peace, tranquility, a welcome repose from consumer culture, and perhaps best of all: creative freedom.
Having had no formal training, Sonja has relied on her intuition, instincts, and the advice of mentors to navigate a system in which she’s never felt accepted. This “outsider” status has led her to find unconventional ways of displaying her work. Her three published “books” are really their own unique galleries shrunken down to a size that not only fits in a backpack, but also surreptitiously into the art world. Each one displays cut-outs of evocative images, fragmented bits of text, poetry, and drawings, and represents years of contemplating, documenting, and careful editing of the artist’s lived experiences, and the materials she’s gathered along the way.
“I needed to have something to show for existing,” Ahlers explains. A versatile art maker, Ahlers is also known for her hand-sewn sweater bunnies, which she began making in the mid-‘90s when her ever-present need to produce caused her to find inspiration in an angora knit sweater. Turning the rabbit fur back into a bunny was a way for her to heal the material and give it new life, a motivation that continues to fuel her artwork today.
Despite her books, bunnies, and extensive installation work in both Canadian and international galleries, it wasn’t until Ahlers got to the Yukon that she was finally able to call herself an artist without smirking.
“One person is comprised of many different selves,” she explains. “This part that’s connected to childhood and mother makes a bunny, another part, my teenage self, does collage work and diaries. And then there’s an adult version of me that’s trying to make more formal work. That’s where I’m at right now.”
Ahlers has been creating since she was a small child, but only shows a portion of what she produces to the public. She sees the need for work being displayed to be more than an exercise in self-indulgence. “There has to be more of a dialogue. You have to edit yourself and actually present something worth sharing,” Ahlers explains.
Almost ready to leave the sweater bunnies behind, Ahlers has reached another turning point in her career and her life. And once again, it involves a great deal of pain.
In the fall, Ahlers was forced to leave Whitehorse to tend to her mother who is dying of cancer. At this stage, Ahlers’ only plans are to return for one week to the place that she escaped to at another painful moment in her history. She and her family agree — Ahlers needs to come back to the Yukon to work on and install her upcoming exhibit at the Yukon Art Centre Gallery.
Loosely connected to the Museum of Broken Relationships, the show was originally conceived as an exploration of the break up that lead her to the North, but now, in addition to all of the other changes Ahlers is currently experiencing, the show will also be heavily influenced by her most recent heartbreak — the loss of her mother. “It can only get better from here,” says Sonja, who assures me that the exhibit will not be “an explosion of agony” but rather a retrospective on her work and life so far and a reflection of the trust she’s always given to the process.
Audiences can expect to find “a space within the gallery space” as well as accumulated paintings, objects, and textiles gathered and produced during her time in the Yukon.
Sonja Ahlers show, War in Peace (Total Eclipse of the Heart) opens March 5 in the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery and will run until May 23.