Featuring an exclusive interview with Sonja Bunes, Oslo artist.
I first met Sonja Bunes in 1994. I was living in a log cabin in the woods north of Oslo, and I had recently begun to paint. One day I was in Oslo and stumbled upon an art gallery on the second floor of a shopping center. Intrigued, I went inside the gallery and found a young woman sitting on the floor, sorting out paintings that were to be shown at an upcoming exhibition.
I felt a strange connection, which grew stronger when she looked up, smiled and greeted me. After some minutes she asked me if I was interested in Art. I timidly told her that I had only just begun painting, and that I found it energizing as the ideas leaped out of my brain and soul, and literally painted themselves onto canvas after canvas. At that point my paintings were very naivistic. I had no formal art academy training, and painted out of intuition.
Sonja asked me if I had any photographs of my work, and coaxed me to show her what I had been working on. For some odd reason I did have several photos of my paintings in my knapsack. It was obvious that Sonja was interested in encouraging learning artists. She asked me about my paintings (which were very New Age/Spiritual), and I explained that I had recently been diagnosed as a person with AIDS. My paintings were an exposé of my journey of healing … in spite of the fact that the virus was (at that time) untreatable, and I had been told that I had but a few years to live (10 years maximum).
I was thus consumed with trying to find meaning, in all directions: alternative medicine, meditation, prayer, and connecting with my Spirit Guides. Sonja looked at my work with sincere interest, and asked me if I would like to meet her partner with whom she ran the art gallery. Shortly afterwards I stood face to face with him, a tall artist-shaman, and I again felt an intense connection. He seemed to gaze directly into my soul as he asked me: “Why are you here; and what are your plans?” I gathered my courage and said: “I would like to have an art exhibition in connection with World Aids Day, on December 1st. I explained my project ideas, which were written down on a large sheet of paper, and included many details about marketing, press coverage, catering, entertainment, and more. He meditated on the project for less than a few minutes, and then told me that the project would indeed take place on World Aids Day 1995.
I hurried back to my log cabin and got down to work. I would share the exhibition space with a Russian artist, Irina Movmyga. There were about 200 visitors at the exhibition opening, entertainment, refreshments, and no fewer than five local and national TV stations carried news footage from the exhibition and short interviews with me. That remarkable exhibition was the first of many World Aids Day Art Exhibitions that I held in the years that ensued.
I eventually reconnected with Sonja a few years ago, and visited her art studio in Oslo. Both her and my art has (of course) developed since that first meeting and cooperation. We have both had several art exhibitions since.
And then came the Pandemic.
I have asked Sonja to make a contribution to my blog, as I have been featuring professional artists, writers, and musicians from all around the world, and inviting them to talk about themselves, their Art and Literature, in the current COVID-19 pandemic Era.
Sonja Bunes — a personal statement:
“I experience my life as a continuum of transformations, from being a puppet in a pocket to a grown woman, heading towards the most authentic Self. The path is not straight, it is more of a long road spiraling around the axis of individuation. Pencil and paper, or similar tools, have been my means of coping with life and expressing parts of the journey. Being fortunate enough that I could pursue an education in art, I did. It has brought sufficient challenges and joys that have been very valuable. Due to making a living from other types of income, and managing to survive on very little at times, I have had the freedom to not commercialize my work. Neither have I showed much of it, though.
“At times it has been very confusing, going in all directions and seemingly in no direction at all — simultaneously, wanting to learn everything, to become skillful, to be better at visual and verbal communication. Such things take time. I don’t know if I have been beating around the bush out of fear of becoming visible, or if I have been preparing my competence in order to better express the discoveries along the path of getting to the bottom of Self. Finding that it is wonderfully bottomless, I can carry on creating and communicating along the way. I no longer fear the response, or the lack of it.
“Finding out that there isn’t anything wrong with me, I am just human, is the greatest gift. I guess growing up feeling that you ARE somehow faulty is a strong motivator for striving to become a better person, a truer Self. Not everybody seems to need, or to aspire towards, that.”
— Sonja Bunes, Oslo, 2021.
Sonja, I have always seen you as an intuitive painter, reaching into psychology and aesthetics — but with a classically-trained approach. Even your paintings of trees and landscapes exude an Inner Experience that tells about much more than the technical details and motives that you express so adeptly. It is like you are communing with your paintings and allowing them to tell their own story, rather than you merely interpreting as a Viewer. You seem to move quietly but rhythmically from one challenge to the next — starved for both understanding Life, yourself, and the vast myriad of possibilities that Art affords. It is about both reflection and renewal.
Can you tell the Readers about your academic background and training, and how and why you began painting?
You read my work well, Adam. Thank you. I am glad our paths crossed again. The opening of your exhibition on World AIDS Day is one of the most fun vernissages I have ever hosted or attended!
Ever since I was very young I have been drawing. The paper offered a space of freedom. I didn’t much mind being sent to my room all the time, because that’s where my pens and paper were.
At age fourteen I attended some drawing classes at a private art school established by Jan Cato Bøttger. I was amazed, and after the first class I was hooked. From the very basics I continued into drawing portraits and nudes. He showed us how to build the human body like organic architecture. I was thrilled when he let me spend my weeks of work practice there throughout high school. His lectures were far above my level of understanding, but I listened like an eager sponge to absorb it all. His thoughts on counterpoint and juxtaposition of counterpointing parts just made so much sense to me, and how I experienced life. His explanation of using 15 degree angles in a double axis when joining the main building blocks, the cubes, and the colors in order to create dynamic human figures in a monumental way helped simplify how I saw the figure, and other objects. At least until I realized how utterly complex it really is to actually draw, nonetheless paint, a nude based on these classical principles. My respect for Michelangelo has grown immensely, even when my admiration was very high even beforehand.
He had a sincere wish to teach his students what he understood to be the true classical principles of fine art. His approach was much more advanced than merely drawing what one might see. The very first figure drawing class was very exciting. A muscular man of perfect proportions stood there on the podium as I built his figure on paper using charcoal and kneading rubber. I was 15, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life! My mother was a bit shocked that I brought home a picture of a naked man that I had drawn, but my reply was something to the extent of “but, mum, it’s ART!”. As she was a woman of both artistic and musical talent that she had not pursued, she supported me all the way.
I had been through urges to become an architect like Gaudi, but realizing that most of the work would be in an office with detailed calculations I dropped that idea. Interior architecture perhaps? Mixing my love of color with constructing rooms. A pastry chef? No, I would eat up all the chocolate! A photographer for National Geographic sounded like fun too. Traveling and being amongst wild animals was a dream. I had experienced some of that in my earliest years growing up in Kenya. I knew it would have to be something creative, and constructive, both mind boggling and sensual. The inner struggle was that I also felt I should become a nurse or somehow help people. Becoming an artist felt like a very egocentric way to go, but I couldn’t imagine dealing with body fluids or pain in a very useful way.
Picking the lowest fruit led me to apply for admission to the Art Academy in Oslo. I got through the first part of it, and half-way through the week of testing for admission in the academy studios I received notice from The Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada that I had been accepted there. I leapt with joy and told my partner “we are moving to your city of birth!” Due to my previous training, I started in the second year. It was not an obvious choice of art studies when coming from a base of traditional European techniques, but I wanted to see more of the world and I already knew the language.
Off we went, and I truly enjoyed the three years of experimentation and the new conceptual direction. It was good for my creativity, but not so much for my skills in traditional drawing. Only two of us — one guy from Eastern Europe and myself — were really into figure drawing; although a few others showed up when we arranged for more such classes. I remember once showing one of my charcoal drawings of a pair of shoes. The response was that they were well done, but boring. What did I want to express and explore, they wondered? And so did I.
Emotionally, it was a whole lot easier to develop technical skills than to draw subject matters from my own life. I had a teacher, Kathleen McFall, who introduced me to a world of symbolism and mythologies from a woman’s perspective. That gave me a language to explore visually whilst looking into my own chambers of inspiration. The painter, David MacWilliam, commented that a piece I was doing was the most awful painting he had ever seen. I was thrilled. I had invoked a strong feeling in him. Disgust was a subject that interested me for a good while, perhaps because I feared being shallow, and making meaningless beautiful wallpaper pieces. Decorative art was not considered serious. I left most of my work behind, some hanging in an alleyway as an installation outside my last studio there.
Landon Mackenzie was another teacher who influenced me. I was so impressed that she was friends with Laurie Anderson, and she managed to be an intellectual exhibiting artist, a teacher and a mother all at once!
Technically, my focus was mostly on work that I could do in a studio without needing any other machinery than my own hands and various materials to create. I learned it, but did not really have the patience for printmaking. I was too accident prone for heavy machinery. I didn’t have the focus, nor the language, for intellectual writing. But I was curious, playful and experimental. The studios were open until midnight, so when I could I would work until the guard threw us out. It culminated in an installation containing 2D and 3D visual art and a couple of art books with the title Pre-Conception 1-8 based on a recurring dream (that felt like a memory) l had about being a sperm traveling through a pipe (penis) and entering the egg in my mothers womb. The title was of course a play on the words, “concept” and “conceptual”, which have always interested me, and the numbers 1-8, as from start to eternal. Still today, my inspiration comes from that which has not yet been conceived, and is being conceptualized in the process of making the pictures. It is as if the seeds have already been planted. By way of the paper I water them, shine light on them, and then they come into being, grow, and may bear fruit when experienced by the viewer.
Towards the end of my time at college my professor William Featherston asked me to come to the lounge of the Vancouver Hotel to meet a renowned gallery owner. I arrived, excited, and directly from the studio, wearing baggy jeans and rubber boots. It was raining. My teacher, Bill, left. I was interested in meeting someone who could show my work and further my career. The gallery man was interested in discussing it over a drink in his room. I got the point, and left. Teary-eyed and very downbeat, my ambitions went down the drain. I couldn’t see future success being built on sexual favors. I tried to get in touch with the The Diane Farris Gallery — with a female owner. I can’t remember ever hearing from her. The incident had made memories from my childhood clearer to me, and I was ridden with shame. My art work probably revealed more about me than I could understand myself. I remember admiring the few women who would speak out about childhood sexual abuse and make their work about, and against, that. I figured no one would believe me if I said anything. I was too ugly, I thought. They were brave.
My boyfriend and I split up before I graduated. I returned to Norway; intending to come back after 6 months, but I haven’t been back there since. After 25 years Glen and I met up, and we got married. We will visit Vancouver as soon as the end of the pandemic allows.
I have always appreciated learning new things. When I realized that I could draw on a computer, I really got into digital and graphic design. The Internet was of course an amazing source of material about mythology, philosophy, psychology, English, and everything interesting. Karelius de Leon, with whom I started the gallery GreenWitch Village, where you and I met, was a good tutor for me in these subjects and also meditation, and shamanistic techniques.
Through teaching art, art history, graphic design and multimedia at the local high school where I lived for a good while in Sweden, Årjäng Gymnasieskola, I learned other things. The first time I had to face a class of 16-year olds I was quite nervous, but now I quite enjoy teaching, and sharing information about a visual language I am very passionate about; something that may help unlock creative expression and inner communication.
When back in Oslo after 8-9 years in Sweden I started studying with previously mentioned Jan Cato Bøttger again. Soon afterwards, I started teaching some evening and weekend classes. I am a big fan of the simplicity of pen and paper, and all you can do with that when you have some basic knowledge, explore the possibilities and don’t fear making mistakes. Failing, observing, reflecting, trying again, trying something else, etc. – it is a never-ending story. That’s what makes it a great lifelong pursuit. I remember the portrait and figure drawing classes in the evening as being enormously frustrating, and at the same time very educational and fun. There was never a lack of challenge!
My time working and studying at Christiania Kunstakademi, as the name of the private school was changed into, ended right after I turned 50. The following years I taught classes in basic painting and drawing at Oslo Kunstakademi, established by Frode Lillesund. I enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with those who have something to gain from it. The sharing and caring together with studying and exploring equals the ebb and flow of breathing, giving and receiving.
Trees have always fascinated me, in nature and in art. They are of course a lot easier to work with than the human body. From the scary parts of the Disney movie when Snow White runs away through the forest, to colorful paintings by the Canadian artist Emily Carr, to the way they seem to be in a suave and very slow dance together in the woods, and the sense of safety I feel when leaning up against a solid trunk. My dog Fiona and I had so many wonderful walks between the trees of parks and forests in Oslo. Outside the windows in my studio in Myntgata there were some huge chestnut trees that seemed to change their appearance every day. Wonderful. When I travel I always visit parks to appreciate the variation of trees. I like sitting at a café observing people too, but that makes me feel more self-aware. Perhaps because then I am also in a position of being observed?
The paintings of trees that you saw at the exhibition at H12 in Hegdehaugsveien 12 are not so different from some of the composite personality drawings in the way that they are expressed. The impressionistic atmosphere with expressive application of paint on board with a palette knife, or colored pencils on paper both seem to dissolve in the air somehow. I would like to explore painting the human figure in the same manner at some time in the not too distant future.
My aim is to use my own raw expression together with some cornerstones of classical grammar and dynamic geometrical compositions, uniting heart and mind in a joint direction in the field of health, art and technology. I would like to be, and to see people immerse themselves into the work and be part of it. Discovering some Tilt Brush videos on YouTube, I realized that that could actually be possible! The pandemic led me towards 360-degree painting; and now I am really interested in continuing the artistic process, and the collage project I started before the periods of lock down … in virtual reality.
From what I can understand, youth today are more interested in content than technology. They are curious. They want personal stories and non-linear narrative, creativity, play, experience, variation and the possibility to interact. I remember when I was a kid, I’d sit down on my mother’s lap and ask her to tell me about her childhood. I was always sad when she drifted off into the painful past of the Second World War, and couldn’t share any more. Kids also need to learn about difficult parts of life in order to be prepared to handle them. In some form or fashion, they will inevitably appear. Fairytales have both trolls and fairies for a reason.
You frequently speak of finding “the Essence” in your Art. What do you mean by that, and how does that affect your process, work routines, decisionmaking, and choices regarding styles, genre, and techniques used?
I think perhaps that the essence of my experiencing, exploring and expressing, however hard, frustrating, or simply mundane, has to feel meaningful to me, and I can’t always tell why it does. Getting through the struggles of life makes it worth something. I love a challenge. I am not very competitive, but I am interested in “the game”. I always raise myself back up after I fall.
My routines follow the planets more so than the clock. For years I worked better at night. At full moon I’ll be up buzzing with energy. It is important for me to get enough sleep, otherwise I really do not function. Hence, the rhythm of the day is displaced, and not according to a day split into 24 equal parts. Sometimes I get anxious when the meditative state of the work draws me deeper into myself, and away from the intended composition. However, it seems to bring forth some valuable “fish to fry”. I have not been one who produces pictures specifically for exhibitions and sales as much as I have explored the possibilities by following my passion. Like you said in the beginning, I am an intuitive painter, and curious too. My body and mind need to do these things, and I let them. The images reflect what is going on in my mind. When I have figured out the “what, and why” of something, whether technical or psychological, I move on to the next task.
In the past couple of years you have painted an exhibition featuring classical paintings of trees, then you were concerned with recycling previous artworks into collages, and then you had a period where you focused on figurative drawings of faces. And now you are feverishly working on your long-time passion of finding new directions in Digital Art. Again, you are incorporating your paintings and sketches into this new and exciting artform.
Can you tell us about how your ideas and process in Digital Art has evolved, and how “the Essence” carries over from the two-dimensional and three-dimensional into this new and mysterious frontier?
Please describe your current and future project concepts.
The first collages also had big trees in them. I tend to prioritize tree trunks over foliage. That is where I find the animated human character. Cutting old drawings into pieces and glueing them back together, working some more, and seeing new narratives being created from different combinations makes a lot of sense after dealing with complex trauma, healing and simultaneously reading about fake memories, and trying to understand my life from all angles and levels. Changing perspective, being in the now rather that thinking about the past or the future is good. Colors do that for me, they really keep me in the here and now.
The Digesting Decades Collages were abandoned when the pandemic forced me to work from home for a while. Having color pencils and paper there I really enjoyed creating a series of anonymous portraits. They have a similar atmospheric openness to them as the tree paintings, and the same logic in terms of how I use color to create volume and space. They are non-symmetrical complex personalities. Very fascinating; as are people. They will also be part of the digital and immersive collages.
The collages have continued living inside my computer, and are turning into the concept of my latest project “The Beat Around The Bush”. I started seeing the connection between all my various types of imagery, my old notes, and my life’s journey. I understood better that there is a continuation in all the changes of direction in my art.
For years I would feel so much anger when painting, and calmer when drawing. The frustration of having a professor hanging over my shoulder was my first thought, but when it continued into my own studio I realized it might have to do with the descent into some “emotional rooms within” that were not sufficiently aired out. Working with art is a powerful tool, I tell you! I am not the first to say that it can be a life saver.
I am currently painting a memorial piece for our dear and newly-departed dog, Fiona. That is a different experience, there is no anger in that. Just love. She was one of the kindest souls I have ever met. The colors are naturally joyful in their combination, and every brush stroke feels like petting the fond memories of her.
You seem to be “loosening up” a bit from the classical approach, allowing for more abstraction and semi-naturalism. Has the pandemic and isolation affected your artistic choices this past year? Do you feel as if isolation may have influenced the ways in which your intuition expresses itself … perhaps with less boundaries and classical art expression than previously?
My work may not look very classical, but I am still taking advantage of the classical principles where I need them. Classical is not equal to figurative, it has more to do with the abstract visual grammar used to paint a picture. I use constructive naturalism for figurative work, never photorealism. I am becoming more true to myself and caring less about if it is good — or even if it is Art, as long as it is authentic. Nobody agrees on what art is anyway. Put it in a gallery with a price tag and it is Art. I have to do what I have to do.
My intention for learning about classical art was never to imitate the classical artists, but to understand the construct and to learn what the qualities are that make up the strong backbone of them. What is the difference between a masterpiece and a doodle? Da Vinci, and others spoke of looking to learn from nature. Not how nature looks on the surface, but what is the nature of …
The point being, the better you know a language the more freedom you have to express yourself. Compared to Michelangelo and Rembrandt, I speak with the pronunciation of a tourist, but I do claim that the understanding and the practice has made my work better than it was before I started studying. This makes for more interesting work, and it moves the playing with form and color to another level.
Your current project is much about storytelling, and the rigors of the Child Within. Can you tell us more about the themes of this project, and your intentions and hopes for how it can reach out to others? Digital Art can indeed reach more people than a painting exhibition at an art gallery. How do you feel about storytelling about such intimate themes in the digital network?
Does that entail a different kind of courage than showing your Art at a small exhibition? Are you gaining new insight and strength as an artist from that challenge?
Isolation, and no income from teaching, made me look at other possibilities for making a living. The laptop I can bring with me anywhere, and I can communicate with people everywhere. It was natural to dive back in there. Teaching on Zoom isn’t quite my thing as I can’t sense the presence and the students’ immediate need for guidance. I didn’t want to just make something to sell. I need what I do to have meaning.
With the pandemic, well first the death of my mother, and later my mother-in-law, and then my beloved dog Fiona, I guess it finally hit me that my time here on Earth is finite. Looking back at my own history, my past experiences, my history and my current skills, I found that making interactive immersive artwork, available worldwide, for the sake of creating awareness around childhood sexual abuse, and healing, would be both therapeutic and worthwhile. Hopefully I will also find a way to make a living doing what I do.
Hopefully it can be of value somehow; at least for the next generation. Not my work directly, but the attention it might bring the subject matter and the various institutions that can be of help. I don’t know. I heard someone mention in a podcast that “a gift is not a gift if you do not give it away”. That struck a chord in me. It is time to be real, to be strong in my vulnerability, and to understand that I have something unique to share with those who care. I’ve had a lighthearted approach long enough. It is time for my work to mature, and to actually “go to work”.
I have something to tell, but more so I have questions that I want to ask, or that I want people to ask themselves. It is not very clear. I am hoping to initiate some kind of curiosity in people. Encouraging them not to just take what they see for what it seems like, but to look beyond … and behind. I want to point to what needs to be see. I am a messenger. I am not the point, but rather the one who is pointing.
I have recently shared a few videos and a pitch deck. Some good people support the idea that it is important to create awareness around CSA, what might happen in the aftermath, and the healing process. I look forward to cooperating with them. A lot of people don’t know how to handle it. Sometimes I get nervous, because I don’t know what side they are on, if you know what I mean. But I think it is such a horrendous idea for many that they cannot imagine it happening anywhere near them. We must find a way to talk about it; a way that does not make people feel awkward, ashamed, or scared. Can we talk about the subject matter rather than the individuals involved? I mean, I couldn’t face it myself until I was 44 years of age, so I understand that is hard. However, our future, and our children’s health, depends on us dealing with it. Now.
Perhaps weaving the subject matter into other narratives and contexts is more effective, so that an audience is pulled into the story before having a chance to reject it? I don’t know. I will volunteer for The Norwegian Association Against Sexual Abuse, both to contribute and to learn more in order to excel the quality of my future projects.
Many artists and writers have expressed the view that each of his/her works are an expression of herself/himself. I share that perspective, and see that each of my artworks are a progression that is directly related to my own subjective (and objective) experience. Do you share those perspectives? Is there a natural progression in your movement from one genre and style to the next?
What I have to share comes from my perspective of existence, and my imagination based on my cultural tradition and lived experience, but my drawings are not me. My progressions must be natural as they are chosen by me, more or less consciously, however organized or chaotic it may seem.
And lastly, if you received a large grant, then what kind of project scope could you envision?
I was challenged by a mentor to unmask, to dare share my face, show my photo, and let my voice be heard in order to promote my interactive immersive art project. I had not yet decided upon the content, I was merely learning about, and falling in love with, the medium. The content of my current project was born out of my need to be totally honest, and the necessity to acknowledge the fact that I was sexually-abused as a child, by people who were supposed to take care of me, and that this has made an impact on who I have become. The time has come to stop procrastinating. I feel strong now, I am in a good place.
Once I finally asked for help, I received it. When I finally dared admit it in public it was as if my fibromyalgia pains just crawled out of my body as all the tension vanished. I understand the line from the Bible better now, “the truth shall set you free”. Shame and fear led to lies that held me back. It is truly a prison for the soul. And quite exhausting. After beating around the bush for so long, and finding it hard to get past my insecurities, I will now try to get to the point and to express something that can also help others. It is not about what was done to me, more about communicating and healing, and becoming an integrated authentic individual, with worth and value.
Society at large needs to understand what damage childhood sexual abuse can do, not only to the individual, but to families and communities. Violence against children has pernicious, lifelong effects that undermine the potential of individuals, and when aggregated across billions of people, may impede economic development.
My goal is in unison with that of The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal no. 16.2, which is to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children. No. 16 is to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and to build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
I can, of course, only do my own humble part in this, but it might make waves. I am really hoping and counting on this project (=believing?) “The Beat Around The Bush”, to attract the right people and the right resources in order to grow into a meaningful size and impact. I would really like to see it come to fruition with experts from every field in XR, sound, non-linear story telling, complex trauma psychology, copywriters, lawyers, politicians, artists, institutions, The Norwegian Association Against Sexual Abuse, and, last but not least, other survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This could be an alternative voice for those who have been silenced. We need many!
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international agreement on childhood. It’s become the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history and has helped transform children’s lives around the world. It is up to our generation to demand that leaders from government, business and communities fulfill their commitments and take action for children’s rights now, and once and for all. They must commit to making sure every child has every right.
My vision has been to create a chain of rooms in VR, actually based on an idea that got me accepted into a MFA program at Fri Konst at Konsthögskolan Valand in Gothenburg early in this century. For domestic reasons I could not attend.
As the work continues I would like to make it available on many platforms. My mind is on this 24/7, and surely the end product will look a lot more professional than my current pitch deck. In cooperation with other professionals, I will be open to other creative suggestions to make it work. I can see many solutions happening, and I am curious to see what will happen. Regardless, awareness will be created along the way. I cannot see a launch happening until November, or if I am lucky, April 2022. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the 19th of November is World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
While waiting for my VR-glasses to arrive, I will continue drawing, getting to know my characters, and figuring out the color schemes, while applying for grants and doing other pragmatic chores related to this.
Link to Sonja’s online shop:
Thank you, Sonja … for your time, and for your personal, candid, insightful and inspirational answers to many very difficult questions!