Photo by Sonja Ahlers

Sonja Ahlers, award winning visual artist and poet currently based in Victoria, BC, spent 7 years living in the Yukon and developing her artistic practice. Without formal training, Ahlers utilizes the artist book in unconventional ways to present a large volume of work, exploring themes of feminism and contemporary social analysis. Ahlers has exhibited her work in galleries across Canada and internationally, and was long listed for the Sobey Art Award in 2011. We asked Ahlers a few questions about her practice, and the preparation of her current exhibition on display at the Yukon Arts Centre ‘War in Peace’.


Installation view of ‘War in Peace’ Exhibition. Photo by Allainah Whachell. 



It is a very time-based process. It’s like I have to live with materials for years before I can see its worth. It is near-endless sorting. But the collecting, editing, processing and archiving is a huge part [of] the process – it helps me process emotions attached to the materials and objects and the work itself. What survives in print or in the gallery has stood a difficult test of time. I end up handling materials over and over til it makes me tired – even small things like a swatch of angora. It’s exhausting. I end up destroying a lot of it.  And now that I’ve typed that out I think I may need to change my process.

Installation Process before the opening of ‘War In Peace’ Exhibition


I’ve been making installation work since I was about 3 or 4 years old. I’d make up little scenes or dioramas in my bedroom. I remember overturning an old 1940s suitcase and pushing it up against the wall to create a shelf surface and then arranging a display of carefully chosen objects. My parents had a lot of stuff in the house - antiques and junk. I recall the pride I felt when I showed my mother what I had done. Because there was always so much stuff the house it was a way for me to make sense out chaos in a tactile way that made sense to me. It wasn’t my chaos it was their chaos and I found a way to survive in it. The handling of objects also helps in processing thoughts in general. And again, it is a form of archiving. So since that time I’ve just been honing this process. I’m still way off from where I would like to be but fortunately I get to be an artist for the rest of my life so there is still some time to figure it out.

Installation detail of ‘War in Peace’ Exhibition


A break up naturally. I was very tired of being in Vancouver and dealing with that particular arts scene at that time. My work wasn’t fitting in and I got tired of bending myself into a pretzel to make things work so I left. In hindsight, I see that I was able to clear the slate and build my work back up again – see what stuck.  I can’t seem to escape art as much as I try. I think I started working on my “break up book” the third day I got to the Yukon but since then most of that work has been destroyed or edited down til it barely exists.

Installation view of ‘War in Peace’ Exhibition. Photo by Allainah Whachell.


Everything?  I used to say it’s like equal parts joke, blessing and curse. I honestly don’t know but like I said – It is something I get to do and I’ve figured out a way to make it work for me so that’s like a miracle in itself. I am relentless. A part of me doesn’t care which is probably why I’m still doing this at all. I make a lot of different kinds of work some of which is to entertain myself and some of which is to share with others. It is a job in itself deciding on what goes where.

Installation detail of ‘War in Peace’ Exhibition


I don’t feel particularly influenced by other art (because I just do my own thing) but there are many artists whose work I like and am inspired by! I really love Jason de Haan’s work. I think he is my favourite Canadian artist. I am very fortunate to have friends whose work I love – I guess that is another perk about being an artist – being friends with other artists. I get a lot of inspiration from writers – Lindy West is one of my favourites. She’s like a warrior of the internet. But my favourite piece of art work right now is Broken Obelisk  by Barnett Newman. It’s a staggering piece of sculpture.  


Making (something like) a broken obelisk ?  To make some kind of epic god head sculpture and then call it a day? Yeah right. Actually my dream project is to make a horror movie using my ex-boyfriend to score it (the one from the break-up). It’s about an artist who moves to the north after a break-up and things start to go sideways. It’s a giant preposterous pipedream but I live to dream and just the idea alone has kept me going for at least two years now.  I’m only thinking of it right now because there was a bit of movement in the last 24 hours on the project. Mostly the ideas sit on shelves and gather dust. Some ideas gather speed and others just die. I don’t have a lot of control over these things so I can’t care too much (otherwise I’ll self-destruct).


I am considering starting the moodboard for the horror movie but I’m scared because it all feels so farfetched. I have to finish a bunny for a sixteen year old (wearing a Frida Kahlo-inspired flower crown). It might be my last bunny ever. I don’t know! Things are changing in my life. I’m trying to finish up some leftover collages and I can’t seem to put these wooden coffee stir sticks down. They’re so stupid (like the aluminum foil ball) but I get a lot of weird pleasure painting them and gluing them together in stacks (plus it’s an easy thing to do while I research movies). I’ve been working on a book for several years now. It’s currently sitting on a shelf. I might make a little zine for something/anything immediate. I also have to finish my design work for the fourth and final Rookie Yearbook. It is a bittersweet time.  I kind of doubt the film project will ever happen – I am very realistic and I know disappointment like the back of my hand - but it would be like my broken obelisk. Or not.

Installation detail of ‘War in Peace’ Exhibition

‘War in Peace’ by Sonja Ahlers brings the style of the artist zine into a full gallery installation, exploring the break-up which brought Ahlers to the Yukon, and the emotional trauma of starting over. Influences are taken from the 1970s book The Joy of Sex, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and the work of fellow artist Allainah Whachell. The installation will be open to the public until May 16, 2015.

Installation view of ‘War in Peace’ Exhibition. Photo by Allainah Whachell.