Going to Print With Sonja Ahlers
Going to Print with Sonja Ahlers
Artist Sonja Ahlers has spent decades hunting and gathering the perfect images for the trailblazing body of cut-and-paste work that she began with Temper, Temper and followed up with Fatal Distraction. Ahlers’ work is difficult to categorize, but has sometimes been referred to as “graphic poetry” for its ability to strike at the heart of every subject she turns her eye (and her scissors) to.
In October, Conundrum Press will release Ahlers’ latest work, Swan Song. Part art book, part zine collection, part diary, part graphic novel, but all Sonja Ahlers, Swan Song is a defining work from an artist who pushes the boundaries of what a book can be.
5 Questions with Sonja Ahlers
1. The world has changed a lot since you first published Temper, Temper in the 90’s. How has your work evolved over the years? What do you see as the core elements that will never change?
Looking back, the difference in the work is like night and day but you can still see the threads. I have patterns of losing my voice. It was louder in the 90s at certain points – mainly when I was alone working in a vacuum until that got disrupted. The voice comes and goes and things change and the voice changes. I spent most of Swan Song trying to find my voice again. It’s why one of the last pages is about speaking. ‘How to speak up and not start a war’. It felt good to get back to my black and white work. I felt like I was digging through rubble and picking up the broken pieces and putting everything back together. The folklore of the swan song is that the swan is silent or mute for their lifetime but just before dying, the swan sings a perfect song. As for core elements, I tend to revisit all that is existential but maybe I’ll move on after this.
2. Your work has been described as “graphic poetry.” How would you describe it?
It’s like a film or a record album but in book form. Some of the text is collected lyrics or could be read as script. Now that I’ve completed the book, I can see that I was taking mediums that I consume – music, film, etc – and I made it my own thing. Everyone sees something different in the work and what they see helps me see the work. Half the time I have no idea what I’m doing but I had more control over this material than I have in the past. I had everything on a tight rope. Some parts are loose. I was writing, illustrating, designing and editing myself all at once til the very end.
3. What do you look for in an image? Can you share a bit of your process?
I assembled the book from my archives. I keep binders full of text and images that I collect intuitively over time. It was suggested that I just scan the binder sleeves but I couldn’t do that. I had to push myself as hard as I could to find the book. In the beginning, I was paralyzed, so I dragged my binders to Staples and just started photocopying. I made hundreds of copies. It was one of the only things available to do during quarantine. I just hung out there in a total zone. That’s how I started the editing process. In the end, I barely used any of the photocopies in the book but I knew that by manually handling images, the book pages would present themselves.
I wouldn’t suggest my process to anyone. It can take years off of a life. Some of the pages are really messy but I wanted to share my hand scribble from when I write stuff down really quickly. Then other pages were painstakingly rewritten over and over. There’s one page “It doesn’t take much but you take everything” that I wrote out probably twenty times. I’m still not 100% satisfied with it but it had to end. Every time I wrote out ‘everything’, I was dissatisfied so I ended up using Helvetica typeface on one word and adding an image of a rope and then prayed it would balance out with the facing page which has this beautiful birthday cake from this ancient Fannie Farmer cookbook and my favourite piece of Latin: Disce Mori/learn to die. Of course the original hand script I wrote from the 2010 sketchbook is probably the best version of that line of text, but I was trying to get away from using brush pen. All the different hand scripts are like different voices or moods. They’re like characters made from words instead of drawings.
4. Who inspires you?
I’m more inspired by an artist’s process or a finished product. I consume a lot of pop culture, so I’ll get into a movie or a doc or a series and feel inspired. At the time of writing this, everyone just watched The White Lotus. I find Mike White inspiring. I was inspired by Fiona Apple’s process of writing her last album. I know she spent years working on it and mined her teenage diaries for lyrics. I believe she used her beloved dead dog’s bones to make percussive sounds. If you were to ask me this question in a week, it would be a completely different answer.
5. What do you hope folks take away from Swan Song?
I hope the reader will take the time to let the work speak to them. It’s very layered and nuanced and there are many messages in the layers. The book can be read out of order – you can flip through it however you like. There’s a freedom in that like listening to music. I wanted the images and the text to be super tight and simple because I know how little time we have to ingest data these days. I wanted to go easy on the reader while working with dark matter. I try to make dark matter light. I also hope it’ll inspire others to do their own work.