July 1, 2004
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painter Sonya Fe
by LINDA MITCHELL
I arrived at Piante in Old Town to interview Sonya
Fe about her upcoming exhibit just as the artist was unloading
her paintings from her van, and several pieces were already leaning
up against the walls on the gallery floorboards, filling the
space with lush, translucent color. Even though the room was
full, Sonya, dressed for warmer weather in petal pushers splashed
with a tropical print, sandals, and a spaghetti-strap blouse,
kept hauling in more work. "I didn't want you guys to have
to call me out in Hoopa to bring in more stuff," she told
Sue Natzler and Jo Cunningham, the gallery's owners. The oil
and wax paintings, as flamboyant as the painter herself, spilled
over into the other rooms.
I had been reading up on the
internationally recognized Mexican-American artist prior to our
visit and had discovered that at 52, Sonya has built an impressive
resume, with exhibition credits as far away as Japan. She has
also generated a lot of media coverage, much of it focusing on
her East Los Angeles "ghetto" background and crediting
Sonya's creative tenacity with her transformation from impoverished
child to renowned California artist.
Sonya laughed when I asked if
she was really raised in a ghetto. "I'm trying to get away
from that whole image," she said, insisting she loved growing
up in "Dogtown," the housing project resting in the
shadow of the L.A. County Jail. "Plus, `ghetto' is a term
that doesn't exactly fit L.A. -- that's more of a New York thing,
Sonya describes her childhood
as a very happy one in spite of her poor neighborhood, with strong
parental and community support for her art from an early age.
"I go back now and wish I could still live there. Sometimes
it was predominantly black, sometimes Hispanic, it took turns,
but I loved it -- the people were unique. That environment allowed
me to develop my art and a sense of humor."
I remembered from Sonya's resume
that she had been awarded a summer scholarship to Otis Art Institute
in Los Angeles when she was just 13 years old. "My teacher
was Alan Zaslove and I thought he was so daring because he said
the word `damn' in class," Sonya recalled. She went on to
get a first-rate education at the Art Center College of Design
in Pasadena, but says what was lacking in her formal training
was an exposure to Mexican artists.
"When I went to Otis and
the Art Center, the Mexican artists were never mentioned. And
then, back in 1976, I went to the Mexicana Art Center in L.A.
and they talked about all these artists -- Siqueiros, Orozco,
Diego and Frida -- and I had never even heard of them."
After receiving payment for a mural commissioned by Pacific Telephone,
Sonya took a trip to Mexico the see the art firsthand.
"It changed my whole perspective,"
she said. "The work was so raw and so lively, so spiritual,
and when I came back my work changed. They say paint what you
know, and here I was trying to paint like the New Yorkers."
She laughs, shaking her head. "In L.A. It was crazy."
A Mexican art influence remains
strong in Sonya's work today, with her use of bold designs, simplified
shapes, and flat, intense color, but she says she has had many
creative influences and sources of inspiration over the years.
"I get ideas when I least expect it. A while ago, when I
was driving over here, I was thinking of a woman having dinner
with a monkey and calling it Having Dinner with My Husband."
She laughs, thinking about it. "I get ideas from everywhere."
Sonya pointed out her most recent
painting, When She Calls, He Comes, a large piece featuring
male and female monkeys frolicking in a richly layered jungle
of green and blue. "I went to Costa Rica and saw this scene,
this was years ago, but I remembered it and I knew I'd get to
it someday." She added that this method of painting a place
long after she's left it behind is common for her.
"When I lived in the desert,
I didn't paint the desert -- I painted scenes from Ventura County,
where I lived before. When I moved to Sacramento, then
I painted the desert. Now that I'm in Hoopa, I'm not painting
Hoopa; I'm painting Sacramento and the desert. That always happens
to me. I have to work the place into my system first, I have
to live it, then think about it, then later I start painting
it. It takes time."
The work included in the Piante
show represents a retrospective look at Sonya's career, with
subject matter featuring women, children and animals in a wide
array of settings. "I paint women because that's what I
know, and I understand situations that happen to them -- and
when I paint children, I don't want to paint them too cutesy,
I want to paint them with respect, as little human beings. I
have to put human figures in my work. That's how I make contact."
Sonya Fe's show will continue
at Piante through July with an opening reception during Arts
Alive! on July 3.
- Three new exhibits
open at the Graves this weekend, including Rebecca Murtaugh's
multimedia installation, "The Termination of the Production
of Writing," a definite "must-see" show. There'll
be a presentation by the artist on July 2 at 7 pm.
- "Young Alumni,"
an exhibition featuring new works by 14 alumni art majors from
HSU, opens at the First Street Gallery in Old Town.
- In case you weren't
aware of it, Eureka's cultural sister city is Nelson, New Zealand,
and in July three local venues will feature the work of Nelson
artists: New Zealand mask-maker Kim Merry will exhibit in the
Annex Gallery at The Ink People; painter Sally Papps will show
her work at Gallery Dog; and the Graves will present "Native
Woods of New Zealand," featuring the work of master woodworkers
Ann & Bob Phillips and Tim Wraight (with an artist's presentation
on July 11, at 3 pm). A limited edition replica of The Ring used
in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, designed by Nelson jeweler
Jens Hansen, will also be on exhibit at the Graves.
Linda Mitchell can be reached
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