Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Conversation with Sonja Thomsen

© Sonja Thomsen

I'm not sure how I came across the work of Sonja Thomsen. The credit most likely goes to some brilliant blogger. Every time we get a 'yes' on an interview request, all of us at Nymphoto are psyched. We think of it like a gift from the artist and each time, without fail, we discover another outstanding person & artist. And this week is no different.

Sonja Thomsen has a passion for teaching and comes from an socially engaged & culturally aware family. Like many artist she cares about nature and people. Theology and biology interest her both. Her interest & curiosity manifests in her imagery. Sonja Thomsen's work is beautiful, complex and straightforward -- simultaneously, just like life.

© Sonja Thomsen

Nymphoto: Tell us about yourself:

Sonja Thomsen:About me -- Just turned 30 and I am currently living and teaching in Milwaukee Wisconsin my hometown. I was born in Chicago IL, grew up in Milwaukee WI. I studied at Kenyon College in small Gambier OH and received a BA in Biology and Studio Art. After about six months working post undergrad it was clear to me that I wanted to further my art education and I was applying to grad school. I spent three years at

the San Francisco Art Institute, completing a post baccalaureate certificate and my MFA. In grad school I began to pay more attention to water - at the oceans edge, in the dense San Francisco fog and in the small waters in the east bay - developing a fixation with it. Today, working with elements such as water and oil I am further exploring my fascination with natural phenomena. Convergence at the surface – my work is interested in the subtlety of perception. My new video and installation work explores the imperceptible/sacred in the commonplace.

I am an adjunct faculty at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design teaching photography to undergraduate students and in adult education, I am passionate about teaching, feeling fortunate to have the opportunity to talk about art making everyday.

The community that I was a part of in San Francisco and the conversation about art making were challenging things to leave. Upon returning to Milwaukee, in order to try and promote a sense of community and dialogue in my midwestern town I was pleased to help found the Coalition of Photographic Arts with a group of local photographers. I was the president of the new found organization for three years, in that time we were able to; bring artists, Alec Soth, David Goldes, Sally Gall, Brian Ulrich and Jen Davis to Milwaukee for lectures; create 5 regional photography exhibitions; develop programming for member education and networking. In those three years the organization grew from 45 founding members to the 180+ members, making an impact in the conversation about contemporary photography throughout the greater Milwaukee


© Sonja Thomsen

NP: What inspires you?

ST:Inspiration --My family – my grandmother would take me to the museum as often as possible, my aunt was the one who introduced me to photography in middle school, my parents who are unfailingly supportive, my grandfather the theologian, my husband who is passionate about justice and is an incredible humanitarian and the artists in my family.

My peers, I have had the opportunity of working with some very talented artists Lex Thompson, Daniel Cox, Cristina Sitja Rubio, Justine Reyes, Eirik Johnson, Heather

Hambrecht, Jason Nanna, Kristina Wong, and Jason Yi.

Reading: Ernesto Cardenal, Rebecca Solnit, Eckhart Tolle.

Listening to: Art Farmer, Cat Powers, Bon Iver, Angelique Kidjo, Bright Eyes, Sigor Ros.

Looking at: Roni Horn, Harry Callahan, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Masao Yamamoto, James Turrell and Jason Fulford.

Thinking about: World Religions and Biological Science, Charles and Ray Eames’ Power of Ten.

© Sonja Thomsen

NP: How did you find Photography?

It was in high school that I caught the photography bug. I fell in love with the film, the chemistry, the darkness and my 35mm Konica. Richard Zutz was the photography teacher, demanding, supportive and pushed you further. I spent as much

time as I could in the darkroom senior year.

At Kenyon, I studied with Greg Spaid and worked as his TA. Hours spent organizing his slide library began my love affair with images and the desire to learn more about the image-makers.

My time in San Francisco was incredible, I was immersed in the graduate experience as well as discovering a place that will always be a part of me. I realize that sounds

ridiculous but the landscape, the politics, the spiritual consciousness of that city

had an incredible impact on me. I was fortunate to study with incredible faculty such as Linda Connor, Jack Fulton, Henry Wessel, Regan Louie, J. John Priola, Ann Chamberlain and Lonnie Graham. Attending lectures at least once a week hearing from artists such as Emmit Gowin, Adam Fuss, Adrian Piper, and Rebecca Solnit.

© Sonja Thomsen

NP: How do projects come about?

ST: They start from somewhere personal – a recent incident, a loss, a fear, a curiosity – and that inevitably leads me to the land. Looking at elements like water and oil, natural substances that are elusive and whose form is ephemeral, to

reference the transitory, the unknown, and the personal is political.

The piece entitled surface began at the end of graduate school. I had just finished a piece inspired by recent research at the Monterey Aquarium resulting in the statement “a milliliter of water is more complex (genetically) than the human genome. The density of microorganisms living in a milliliter of water was mind blowing; the micro/macro relationship made me reconsidering the “Power of ten” and Zen Buddhist philosophy of nothingness. When creating the photographs I was interested in seeing

flatness and suggesting depth. I was interested in the metaphor of what lies beneath the surface. Shooting down at the water was an interesting way for me to obscure scale in my images so that the photographs themselves push the macro/micro. I have since continued to look at water and more recently oil. In the past two and half years I have been exploring oil through a variety of works: crude, petroleum, hole, and oil self-portrait. These pieces examine the oil most immediate in daily life,

used motor oil.

The current piece entitled lacuna is an installation of images I have collected over the past four year. Images of family and curious landscapes create an emotive

sequence. The word lacuna can refer to a gap in literature as well as a small cavity in bone. I was fascinated in the words reference to what is missing/empty in knowledge and the physical body. The groupings of photographs in lacuna reference physical gaps in the landscape as well as reference gaps in the personal narrative.

© Sonja Thomsen

NP: What is next?

ST:I am currently preparing for an exhibition at the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee in March. I will be showing oil works, the lacuna installation and a new video piece. The video piece is in four sections; pulse, oil, breath, water. The show, Current Tendencies; Ten Artists from Wisconsin will run March 12 – June 14, 2009.

I head back to Florida in December for another two weeks of my six-week residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood FL. The opportunity to live and work on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico has been fruitful for my process. Reading a lot and shooting along the ocean – I couldn't ask for more right now!

My lacuna work is featured in the multimedia project Pause to Begin, The exhibition of the 15 participating photographers will travel in 2009 starting with the exhibition in Rochester NY.

NP: Thank you so much!

To see more of Sonja's work please head to

1 comment:

Rona Chang said...

Sonja, thank you for being so candid with us. I hope to meet you in person soon!