The level of drive and discipline behind the work of Sondra N. Arkin is apparent as soon as you meet her and engage in conversation. After two very informative studio visits, I can attest to her incredibly prolific talent as well as to her dedication as a professional artist.
This process driven, abstract work focuses on exploration, experimentation, observation and layering organic elements. In addition to being an artist, Sondra is also active in the Washington D.C. art community as an art leader. Her impact is huge and as with many artists working today, it is a large part of who she is as an artist. (She talks about specifics in the Q & A below).
I first became curious about Sondra’s drawings and paintings when we first met at a gallery art opening. During my studio visit with her, I was drawn to her field studies of simple observations and how they came together in her studio.
Sondra explained she had always wanted to arrange her studio with different work stations, which as far as I could tell, was successfully done in an organized yet free-form way. This method of working seemed appropriate as much of her work is heavily layered with varying mediums and textures. Creating solutions towards challenging and labor intensive work was apparent and necessary.
Sondra demonstrated several techniques that she used for both two and three dimensional series. One using steel wire and others using hot wax manipulated using a variety of small torches. She also showed me a device her husband concocted for straightening and wrapping wire.
Below are some follow up questions after my two studio visits with her.
JW: Your work looks as if it might be inspired by nature. Is there a relationship between earthly subject matter and the cosmos? What are some themes that remain constant throughout your work?
SA: There are so many things that inspire me, I am often tripped up by that question. As my work has gotten more nuanced and layered, in my head it has moved further away from subject matter, but at the same time, viewers seem to see more natural or microscopic or cosmological references in the paintings. That suits me just fine. For me, looking closely at sidewalk cracks, or tree bark, or cloud layers, or Hubble imagery are all part and parcel of the same compositional interest where I am looking for juxtaposition of textures. My work is about potentiality – permutations – and how that is woven into our lives. Pretty abstract, huh? I treasure, more than anything, the times in my life when moments of stillness or darkness are so complete that the universe presents itself expansively – when I am far from manmade sites and sounds, so that I, for a moment at least, comprehend the vastness of our world. So I guess I am inspired by nature.
How do your three dimensional, hanging sculptures relate to your two dimensional paintings?
I started working on the 3D forms as part of a collaborative exhibition with Ellyn Weiss and Susan Finsen at the same time I was beginning the linear, web paintings. I saw the wire sculptures as an animation of the paintings, a way to create an atmosphere, or maybe create mass out of what I was painting. My paintings are about what we do not see – the spaces in between – and the sculptures became these open molecular forms. Like the paintings, the wire sculptures are also modular with nearly infinite permutations. The wire sculptures can sit, hang, cluster, suspend. I have and do exhibit them side by side.
Tell me a little bit about the materials that you work with in your studio and why you chose to work in these mediums to convey your subject matter.
I’m reluctant to be defined by a medium but I’ve found for painting that beeswax and shellac and damar resin provide both the flexibility and transparencies I desire while also coming from natural sources. I see the studio as a lab, and I pair that natural aspect with all sorts of experimental bondings. In addition, I am drawn to manmade industrial materials. The supports I use of dibond, which is an industrial sign-making material, and the wire I use in the sculpture, which is the humblest steel tie-wire found hidden in every building, are part of an intellectual juxtaposition of nature and manmade. With potentiality as a subject, every pairing highlights another permutation.
How long have you worked in this space? How does living and working in the same building affect your practice?
I feel as if we slid in right under some wire getting a place in Dupont Circle in the late 1990s. We found a rundown building which needed gutting, and we eventually moved in 2002. Our apartment and the studio are separate units. I changed careers at that time, so this is the studio I’ve maintained for most of my art career. Before that, I always had a studio in a dining or family room, but my day job took priority and while I see threads of my vision from that work, I don’t see the cohesion that’s come since. I spend way more time in my studio than in our apartment, and a few years ago I had to make a concerted effort to “get to know” my home better. I know that sounds silly, but the studio is my primary residence.
How and when did you decide to be an artist and how did you pursue a career in the arts?
I decided that I was an artist early on but, except for an undergraduate internship at a museum, didn’t consider a career in the arts. I went to college for science, because I had an aptitude for math, not science, but eventually graduated in the subject in which I had the most credits, which ended up being writing. While I earned nearly all the credits for an art degree, I wasn’t in a financial position to take the semester needed to earn a BFA. I am somewhat jealous of artists who went to college to study art and to be an artist – and wish I had the guidance they did – although I think I learned something different, going through an entire studio art curriculum as a non-degree seeking student. I got it into my head that I should earn money and make art passionately, so I went on to get an MA, focusing on, of all things, Maritime Literature. I did a few years of adjunct teaching so that I could make art and write in the summers, but I couldn’t make ends meet that way with enough energy leftover. In my late-20s, I took a temporary summer job in the nascent computer industry and found my aptitude for that was a pretty awesome fit. Luckily, I really understood how important art was to my life, and I never stopped making art. Eventually it sunk in that people did art as a career, and I started to lay the groundwork to change careers around my 40th birthday.
How has your work evolved over time? What mediums have you added or discontinued during the course of your career?
Most of my early work was watercolor and collage, because it was pretty immediate. I started doing these large wet soaked paper watercolors that were pretty vividly colored and when we moved to D.C., I was paired right up with the color school. To help myself focus and learn to handle oil paint, I decided to strip all colors but blue from my work for several years. Eventually I did add color back, and there is a lot of color field still in that early oil painting work. I think it took me seven to eight years of full time studio practice to find my voice, away from color, especially after I recognized that experimenting with all sorts of materials was part of my passion. I fell into encaustic sort of by accident really – I was looking for a way to repair an oil painting that had become unstable – and, like many people, was pretty thrilled by its versatility. It is the same with printmaking. I feel that there is so much to explore, and the trick is to keep your voice intact. When I started working with the wire forms about five years ago, I was looking for a way to scale up and expand my work off the walls. I don’t think that I will ever discontinue using a medium if the medium serves my vision.
How do you envision your future as an artist? Are there things that you would change or do differently going forward?
It is really easy to worry about relevance and to want to be everywhere and to do everything. It is easy to want to do too much. For example, even though I am personally very concerned with social justice issues and, like everyone, keeping one eye on the news, that isn’t really the theme of my art. My future as an artist has to include as much time for thinking and looking and recharging as I allot for making work and preparing for exhibition. It has taken me my whole art life to figure out the rhythm, and I’m still trying to pace myself.
You have been actively involved in helping to develop and support the D.C. art community in so many ways over the years. Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you have done with various organizations?
Like many D.C. artists, I found my community going to exhibitions. Galleries were intimidating at first, but I kept at it to learn who was who in town. Of course, when I was first exhibiting, I dove into a lot of DIY, especially Artomatic. Through my volunteering there, I met many artists. Eventually I was on the founding board and its first president (though I think we drew straws for that) and helped develop its organizational structure. Concurrently I was one of the founders of the Mid City Artists group, a loose consortium dedicated to promoting a twice-yearly open studios in the city center. Then, when the city decided to purchase art for the six public floors of the Wilson Building, I was hired by the Arts Commission to be the project curator. Over a three year period, we purchased and installed over 200 works by area artists, created catalogs and materials, and developed a tour program. It is still one of my favorite projects. I met so many artists and really grew to understand the wealth of our artists and the support our city gives its artist citizens. Currently, I serve on the board of Art Enables, a studio and gallery for artists with disabilities. We have about 30 artists making really compelling work, and we take the business of art seriously, running a professional studio and developing art careers through an exhibition program. We purchased our building on Rhode Island Avenue in Ward 5 and are embarking on a renovation project to make the building work best for our artists.
Are there any important lessons that you have learned as a professional, practicing artist?
I’ve never wanted my life to be a ‘9-5’ one – so it is often a ‘9-9’ one – and that is likely because I live what I love. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you have to show up. Everyday. I know people say that all the time, but it is really true. The other thing is that the art-making is probably only half the time. You have to budget for the other aspects: administration, research, looking at art, and talking to other artists. When I stress that I came to my art career late, I like to remind myself that I had some awesome training in other things that make my art life hum.
What suggestions might you have for an emerging artist in today’s competitive, art world?
Just do it. Don’t make it secondary. Find whatever opportunities you need to make the rent, but make every moment part of your art life. Look at as much art as you can, figure out what you like and why! Talk about art with as many people as you can. Explore all disciplines. Go to the theater. Listen to music. Read novels. Make as much art as you can to become more skilled – and don’t forget that it takes some practice. I don’t know if I am one to give suggestions, but I’d say ignore the other people and just compete with yourself.
Do you have any upcoming events that you might have on the horizon.
Fall 2017 has become pretty ambitious with a large installation of the wire sculpture at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in a three-person exhibition opening September 5, called Twist, Layer, Pour with Joan Belmar (who was previously featured on TSV in 2015) and Mary Early. That show is followed immediately by a solo of new paintings at Long View Gallery in October. Working on these concurrently has been just the kind of challenge I love, and it is interesting to see how each body of work influences the other.