Escaping Sonja Ahlers

Canada’s collage queen hides out in the Yukon and finds her selves

By Hal Niedzviecki

Sonja Ahlers is currently hiding out in the Yukon. Don’t worry — she hasn’t gone to seed. You won’t find grizzly bears, fishing expeditions or tributes to the territory’s official flower, the bright magenta Fireweed, in her work anytime soon. Whatever pulled her to the vast, sparsely populated 500,000 square kilometers of land sitting on top of her long-time home base of British Columbia, it wasn’t the call of the wild.

So what gives? I’ve been following the peripatetic wanderings of this talented but at times frustratingly insular zinester-turned-collage artist for over a decade. And now, with a startling new work of graphica poised to take her career to new levels, I’m struck by the nowhere and everywhere that underpins her work. Ahlers is an artist — and yes, it’s finally okay to use that word in connection with a perennial favourite of the indie culture scene — who has utterly rejected the typical Canadian idea of kitsch locality, even as she has defied the pressure of art-star instant reinvention. In other words, she’s refused to allow herself or her work to fall into the trap of being associated by proxy or theme with any particular geographical scene. And she hasn’t gone the other route either — cravenly twisting and turning in the winds of culture, letting herself be blown in whatever trendy direction seems to promise advantage. As a result, Ahlers is one of the most urban, contemporary and solitary creators I’ve ever encountered. Her creative landscape is a solipsistic pop culture zone in which Ahlers’ alter-egos endlessly work out the dilemmas of modern life — loneliness, soulless consumption, multiple identities. She creates in a vast subconscious terrain largely devoid of any other bothersome characters.

Ah. Okay. It’s starting to make sense to me. Ahlers in the Yukon, doing what she does best — isolating the girl in a swirl of her own devising; starving out the multiple selves that make up modern hyper-individual identity until, one by one, they stagger onto the snow white page blinking blindly and wondering — why am I here?

***

Every six years Sonja Ahlers puts out a book. It started in 1998 when she first coaxed her collage/drawing cut-and-paste aesthetic into some semblance of order — Temper, Temper, published by what was then the young upstart Insomniac Press. Hot purple on the outside, black and white on the inside, the book was resplendent with the signature waif bunny-girls that had populated her hand-stitched zines throughout the ’90s. Temper was a creative triumph for Ahlers. In it, she found a way, for the first time, to parse together the geographies of pop culture, memory and identity without overwhelming her own fragile personality. For the first time, Ahlers — not scratchily drawn starving bunny girls — was the star of the story.

It was a breakthrough book for Ahlers, and an eye-opening experience for readers. But she was up against a conformist culture that resisted the hybrid upstart even as those tropes loomed large in the slippery digital future indie artists were already imagining. Broken Pencil put her on the cover of our ’98 lit-themed issue (she is officially the first creator to ever appear on two covers of BP) but the mainstream struggled to understand that Ahlers was presaging the rise of the blog and the way we would increasingly communicate our life stories through collages of pop culture detritus. “The idea here is that this is, literally, a visual narrative, a story told in drawings and photographs with relatively little text…” wrote one Eva Tihanyi in the now defunct magazine Books in Canada. “Unfortunately, a work such as this can boast very little other than its ‘difference’ from the norm (i.e., mainstream fiction). And I can’t help but wonder who the readership might be, or who would be willing to pay twenty bucks for it.”

A critique crippled by convention, but, in its own way, telling. Ahlers, who has, since Temper, Temper, moved back and forth between Victoria, Toronto, Vancouver and now, the Yukon, had done remarkable things. But she hasn’t succeeded in fully inviting us in. The self taught illustrator, collager, knitter and sculptor has always worked in fragments — but we, trained by the relentlessness of linear columns and start-to-finish stories — expect the whole picture, even if — especially if — it doesn’t actually exist.

Ahlers turned to visual art. Unschooled but undaunted, she had her first solo gallery show two years later, a Victoria, BC gallery show entitled Everything I Own is in This Room. The show consisted of found objects, signature sketches turned three dimensional, mini-sculptures and dioramas. Still restless, still searching, she started a band called Kiki Bridges and, while working part time, began developing an odd but irresistible income stream consisting of supplying knitted variations of her character “Fierce Bunny” to random people around the world.

Then, six years later, another book — Fatal Distraction. Aptly named, the book features devastating trademark Ahlers’ combinations of thin-inked waify alter egos matched to text like “half a life on the phone, the other half all alone.” But the book was even less of a coherent whole than Temper, Temper. More than a sketch book, less than a novel, it contributed to Ahlers’ reputation as a hard-to-pin-down cult figure, but couldn’t break through the fog of ennui and angst hovering over her all-too-personal pages. Her fans, myself included, were left squinting at beautifully rendered but austerely cryptic references to failed relationships and lengthy bouts of self-loathing.

And then, another six years. Gallery shows, art installations, odd jobs, an ugly break up, a move to Toronto, a move online where ease of contact created even more demand for bunnies, bunnies and more bunnies. And, of course, a blog; the near perfect format for Ahlers to deliver short bursts of her whimsical, eye-candy take on the sadness and the glory of our collective pop culture past. I was worried when I first stumbled upon Ahlers’ blog — it seemed too easy for her, too tempting: hitch a penchant for catchy collages of old board games, cheesy hair-dos and ’70s TV shows to the instantaneousness of the Internet. Make bunnies, blog about ’73 Camaros set on rugged beaches under setting suns, and disappear.

But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the real disappearing act — the urban waif abandons Toronto for the rugged north — presaged a remarkable return.

***

Ahlers is back with a new book and a new-found confidence, a self assurance that allows the self pity in her previous works to become narrative momentum. With full colour collages capturing the ’80s in all its big hair resplendency and shop-tillyou-drop Reaganism, The Selves opens up Ahlers’ closed world and invites us in. Now, at last, we are inside the story, joining the artist in investigating a shared past, a coming of age in the era of young Prince Diana, young Drew Barrymore, and the young icons of Degrassi Junior High. The Selves tells a compelling tale about how we become who we think we are, and what happens when we can’t quite live up to our own billing. It’s an angry book. Juxtapositions of advertising, pop culture and celebrity tell the story of how things coalesce to repress and recreate femininity. And it’s also an artful book — the collages and drawings are more considered than in the past, images placed on the page are as much dictated by instinct as by the necessity of maximum impact.

The Selves tells a compelling tale about how we become who we think we are, and what happens when we can’t quite live up to our own billing.

The results are palpable, dramatic: A full page photo of an unsmiling Queen Elizabeth being ceremonially rowed to shore by a boatload of flower-ringed shirtless natives interposed with cartoony words announcing: “I Don’t Know Why I’m Here.” A ballet dancer on her toes, soft slippers digging into fragile birds nests, the image adorned with lines of text — “Her demeanor/far too forgiving/Gave it all away/We demean her no more.” Many pages have no writing at all — rock stars collide with innocent girls stroking bunnies under smiling moons and gathering wall paper rain clouds. The book picks up momentum. We propel past girls and women. Some we recognize from pop culture, some we remember from Sonja’s roster of a disappointed waifs, some are anonymously familiar — trapped icons, doomed creatures feigning an innocence they learned from Disney. Through it all, the specter of Princess Diana haunts The Selves, a pre-teen dream reading romance novels and watching TV, a nightmare evocation of the way a sick society brings out the best of the worst, infantilizing and reducing, turning women into girls and girls into women.

It’s been six years since the last book. And in that time, a time, as always, of relentless momentum, something has sharpened in Sonja Ahlers. It’s not anger, exactly, or bitterness. Rather it’s resolve. Ahlers is ready to fight back against fatal distractions, terrible tempers and the multiple selves that kept her on her own, ever refusing, until now, to invite us in to what must have been an awfully lonely party.

***

 

Sonja Ahlers has taken the long, hard route to recognition. She’s developed an idiosyncratic style and stuck with it no matter what. She’s moved from city to city to rural enclave, not searching for advantage, but seeking to assuage the restlessness that is at the heart of her work. She’s refined her technique through self-published zines, chapbooks, collaborations, tiny gallery shows, small press book publications and, most importantly, time. She’s been broke. She’s been tired. She’s been disgusted by what passes for artistic achievement on any given day. And she’s been relentless — never giving up, never failing to heed her own creative impulses. Even today, Ahlers is out there somewhere, refining a sensibility that conveys the fractured realities and infinite prisms of pop culture but refuses to privilege the kind of substance-less iconography that paves over real struggles, anxieties and disappointments.

Hovering around the benchmark age of 40, Ahlers is finally — or perhaps fully — coming into her own. An artist with nothing left to prove publishing a gorgeous work with the world’s most prestigious publisher of graphica, Drawn and Quarterly. An anti-artist artist ready to join the pantheon of Canuck pop-inspired scribblers — Marcel and Hollie Dzama, Marc Bell, Shary Boyle — who have made a career of taking not-taking-themselves-seriously very seriously indeed. I don’t know where she’s going or what she’s going to do. All I know is that somewhere up there in the Yukon, Sonja Ahlers is packing — or maybe unpacking — her bags. She’s getting ready for it. Whatever nowhere comes next.

Sonja Ahlers on The Selves

How did zines influence your work on The Selves?
My first thought is zero influence. I see it as a departure. On second thought, after working on this all winter at 16 hours a day, I was Anna Wintour slave driving myself on a feminist scrapbook. A magazine. Every single comma has been considered. All the pages are paired as twins. Some pages were re-designed 10 times and then scrapped. It was a difficult process. I’d say it took nine months of piecing together, 10 years of collecting gestating. In that department, it’s not very ‘zine.’ I pull off the material as I would with the immediacy of making a zine. I am slow and methodical and then quick. After this project, all I want to do is make zines. I’m sitting on a mountain of material and I want homes for it.

What made you choose collage as your main medium for The Selves?
I want to quote that Six Feet Under episode when art teacher Billy quotes Beaudrillard: “Every possible art form has been explored. All that’s left to do is de-construct and play with the pieces (sic)” I’m just playing with the pieces and filtering information that has been jammed down my throat and brainwashed me on subliminal levels. I’m working it out. I use these images combined with my occasional drawings and my writing and my elements of design and friend’s illustrations to tell stories and put out ideas. I think that combination equals something original. Another quote, this time from an Ikea catalogue: Choosing Is Also An Art. They had that in the framing section. Everyone is an editor and a curator.

Were there copyright issues you had to deal with in creating this collage work?
There is no copyright concern. Touch wood. This isn’t a capitalist venture. I would never take another artists’ original work. I’m using images that I’ve had to look at 9,000 times in this lifetime e.g. the cover of SYBIL. That image has terrified me since I was a kid and I’m not alone in this. The Selves is like a collective autobiography for a certain demographic and a specific generation (of ladies). When I was told ‘don’t worry about copyright,’ I went to town; a bat out of hell. I was happy to finally put to use those girls crawling up the rocks on Led Zep’s Houses of the Holy. I like to shine a flashlight on these things. I’m a feminist and I appropriate. (Lindsay Gibb)

 

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