In the basement of a Takhini home, artist Sonja Ahlers sews soft-sculpture bunnies that function as dolls, talismans or jewelry, depending on the buyer’s mood.
Ahlers calls the white-walled 10×12-foot room her “sweatshop” these days. Working solo, she’s making hundreds of bunnies for the One of a Kind show, Toronto’s largest craft fair, starting November 25.
They’re also for sale on Etsy, the online shop that allows craftspeople to trade their wares anywhere in the world, a real bonus for any Yukon artist.
We talked in Ahler’s studio in early October. Ceiling-high wooden shelves held dozens of bodies, delicate angora shapes waiting for hand-stitched ears and faces to bring them alive.
MW: You truly only use second-hand sweaters?
SA: Yes, I grew up in thrift stores. That’s my family, I come from a line of salvagers. So it’s all recycled material, and it’s getting really hard to find angora so I’m searching online. For colours, I do quite a bit of dyeing. Some are tea-coloured – Orange Pekoe works well.
MW: You mentioned making the hand-sized Fierce Bunnies since 1995, but the early ones you just showed me are skinnier and criss-crossed with wild stitches, almost like Frankenbunnies. What’s happened?
SA: I guess I’ve worked out a lot of emotions, because some of the early bunnies were really angry. Now they’re peaceful. A lot of people think they’re sleeping, and they’re starting to look like lambs. They’re becoming more of a keepsake.
And I know these bunnies help me make my books [of pop culture mash-up collages]. The books are darker, I have to investigate the disturbing parts of life and I do that there.
If I only did the bunnies – and there’s an innocence that’s retained in them – I would lose it. My art-making has to be dual, explore both sides.
MW: You have three sizes, the thumb-sized Peanuts, the medium-sized Peepers that fit into a teacup, and the hand-sized, spindly-legged Fierce Bunnies. How many more do you have to make?
SA: About 100 more of each. My roommate’s dad came up this summer and finished the studio. It was just drywall before, and I’m really particular about light so I was grateful.
MW: How do you keep sane with the repetition?
SA: I watch movies. I’m a pop culture junkie, and I like to critique it. Like Project Runway, it’s so inspiring when you see what they created in 24 hours. But also, the sewing is meditative.
MW: Are these bunnies for curio shelves? You have a lot of them sitting in egg cups here as you work.
SA: I grew up in a house where we all collect Steiff toys. That’s a German toy company, they make animals using mohair and I love them. I’ve always liked weird little objects. So some of the really special ones here I feel like I’ve channelled.
As for the egg cups, I sell a lot of the bunnies online, and I’m encouraging people to put them in their own vessels.
MW: And some have fur capes?
SA: I got a bag of fur scraps, at the Tutshi Tannery here in Whitehorse, to use. I’m basically paying homage to an animal. I’m going to try to give it a new life and make it more like a sacred object.
The accessories started because a friend wanted a bunny in a doll show she was doing for a place called CollageCollage in Vancouver. I made one for her, and then I couldn’t stop.
I made one with a lynx fur capelet. Then a friend told me that lynx basically survive off rabbits, so it’s gone really over the top. To me, it’s just become even more powerful, it’s become a talisman. It’s a total transformation.
Ahlers’ soft-sculptures turn narrative when she puts them into little scenarios, takes photos and sells the prints (see Etsy again). In one, a Fierce Bunny sits in a pile of sugar surrounded by birthday candles.
The channelling continues.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.