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Feminist blogger recommends Sonja Ahlers' "The Selves"

Updated June 13, 2012


RECOMMENDED READING: THE SELVES BY SONJA AHLERS
The Fear Girls, thefeargirls.com
"Nusha"
Feb 27 2012

Iím not entirely sure how to refer to this book. Drawn & Quarterly published The Selves back in 2010, making me wanting to call it a comic book. However, itís not a narrative in any traditional sense, and Sonja Ahlers isnít a cartoonist. Sheís a poet and visual artist known for her DIY style, collecting and rearranging found images to create provocative and feminist collages. This book is no different from those installation pieces.

The Selves is an examination of the role of women in pop culture. Collaging clippings of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, a young Angelina Jolie, babies, children, fashion of the Ď70s and Ď80s, hamsters, kittens, and quotes from Sylvia Plath and Kate Bush, Ahlers attempts to create a portrait of the woman based on how they are portrayed in the media. As the title suggests, that single portrait is put together by many different versions of the self, creating a schizophrenic identity of the woman today. This book is the diary of the young girl; a portrait emulating the feeling of anxiety between her public and private self.
Visually, it is stunning. I would describe the artwork of The Selves as leather and lace. Ahlers uses the underground, punk-rock style of the zine and brings a sense of delicacy to it with overtly feminine clippings and photographs as well as including her own handwritten cursive and watercolors. The combination of these forms brings a sense of witticism on its own, but Ahlers has a knack for creating humorous compositions that carry a lingering sense of vulnerability and heartbreak.

Living in the midst of social networks and blogs where we are all consciously constructing our public personas, The Selves is a smart, funny, and intriguing look on how the external feminine self is put together and the tension it creates with the internal self.
 
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Sonja Ahlers

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The Selves




  Sonja Ahlers shares her favourite holiday music with the Drake Hotel

Updated January 11, 2012


December 21, 2011

Artist and bunny queen Sonja Ahlers is one of our favourite home-grown talents! She took time away from her busy schedule of illustrating, crafting, writing poetry and starring in art shows to guest blog for us! Did we mention she lives in the Yukon? Her unique designs are available at the Drake General Store just for you!


I often have that Band Aid song from 1984 stuck in my head, "Do They Know It's Christmas?". Of all the celebrity-band-group-sing-a-long tributes, the Band Aid one is probably the coolest. Everyone is either slightly depressed/hung over looking or totally goofing off but still ALL COOL. I have to admit that Bananarama look especially low and less than enthused. In contrast, Boy George totally has it together, Simon Le Bon looks very good and who could miss Phil Collins getting it done on the drum kit. Plus, the song is catchy.


Then we have a group of American artists in 1985 singing the song "We Are The World". During my re-watch, it isn't as bad as I thought it was. It's so crazy to see all those bold egos in one room. After my second re-watch, it feels like a "who is better than who competition." Was I the only one who noticed that Paul Simon and Tina Turner sang one line each, but Bruce Springsteen gets a full verse? They do, however, give Cyndi Lauper some space and a brief scat. The strength of the song largely lies in the fact that it's Jackson-heavy, Michael kills it. The camera pans him from toe to head with major soft focus. He's the angel on the tree!


Last but not least we have the Canadian pose in 1985, Northern Lights, singing " Tears Are Not Enough". I think it's so awesome (maybe I'm being a little too patriotic)! This maple syrup-fueld super group effort is the most convincing of the three. It launches into the stars: Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bryan Adams, and more. Apparently Joni Mitchell was ill and couldn't eat during the recording session and her tummy grumblings were messing with the sound levels. Pretty ironic! Neil Young sang the word 'innocence' flat and was told to re-sing it. He said, "That's my style, man."

All the very, very best to you for 2012 + beyond, xo Sonja

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Sonja Ahlers

          



The Advent Book Blog loves THE SELVES

Updated December 21, 2010


The Selves by Sonja Ahlers. Recommended by Sean Cranbury

The Recommend:

Elegant, inspired, poetic and innovative, The Selves is the best book published by a Canadian press in 2010.

A very personal book of poetry that bears its influences proudly. Drawing from zine-culture, celebrity culture, rock n roll and dime store spinner rack paperbacks, Ahlers takes her already excellent collage work to new levels of maturity and vision.

She mixes and remixes words and images from across media invoking repeated themes and rhyming visuals torn from original contexts in the pop culture universe of magazines, daytime tv, old vinyl records, trashy teen novels and other disparate scraps of seeming ephemera then combines them with hand drawings, hand written poetry and a deep sense of mystery and playfulness.

Great gift for anyone interested in personal journeys, creativity, poetry and collage.

A work of immense talent and vision. Destined to be a classic.
 
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Sonja Ahlers

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The Selves




  SONJA AHLERS in Canadian Art

Updated December 21, 2010


Vanessa Nicholasí Top 3: Of Solos and Selfhood
VARIOUS LOCATIONS JAN TO DEC 2010

1. Sonja Ahlers: The Selves published by Drawn & Quarterly
In the spring, Drawn & Quarterly released the latest book project by artist Sonja Ahlers, who is based partly in the Yukon. Described as ďa feminist scrapbookĒ by Ahlers, The Selves is a heartbreakingly beautiful, rambling collage of girlhood ephemera. Found images of pop icons like Princess Diana, Stevie Nicks and the Olsen twins are combined with watercolour drawings and text to create the experience of peeking inside an adolescentís journal or bedroom. Ahlersí compositions are at once delicate, familiar, strange and painful. They delve deep into the interior lives of women and consider the relationship between female fantasy and identity. My top pick for 2010 may not be an exhibition, but flipping through The Selves is as experiential as walking through an installation; and the artistís mix of soft-focus, vintage aesthetic and hard-edged critique is utterly of the moment.

...
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Sonja Ahlers

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The Selves




SONJA AHLERS featured in Burner Magazine

Updated December 9, 2010


Issue 2
December

 
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Sonja Ahlers

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The Selves




  Democracy Guest List interviews SONJA AHLERS

Updated November 30, 2010


Sonja Ahlers: of Bunnies and Bandwives

Sonja Ahlers is obsessed with tragic white women of her youth. Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di, and the sad, endless blondes suffering horrible fates at the hands of authoróthe brilliant! And inspired!óV. C. Andrews. Not, however Courtney Love. Ahlerís latest book, The Selves, is out now from Drawn & Quarterly. Itís a graphic novel, but not a comic: silly, clever, and deeply pretty collaged images, quotations, and found, reworked, or entirely original poetry. Ahlers combines them into an imagined pop culture where women have real, but still feminine, power. In fact, The Selves explores what femininity is, and what it is wrongly thought to be. And it shows us, in a language embedded in our very gender identity, a quiet and charming place where women have an elusive but palpable power. (Weíre doing an event together Thursday night at Quimbyísócome by if you can.)

Your work can be considered graphic novels but not comics. Can you describe what you do, and how you do it?

I work as a filter system: I write things down all the time and I collect images. I have a complex filing system. Over time it all comes together like a massive puzzle. Fatal Distraction is like a deconstruction of the comic panel. Each page is its own panel. The narrative is nontraditional. When I was young I copied Peanuts characters. I drew all the time. I taught myself calligraphy at a young age. I was extra encouraged because my art got me attention. I remember groups of kids standing around watching me draw. Iím telling you this because a lot of people think I canít draw and have no right being lumped in with comics. I see the ridiculousness in that itís almost insulting to cartoon artists because that is what they doóthey draw and they tell stories and itís a gift. Iím not linear. Iím trying to create another language that is a visual language and one that speaks to the emotional intelligence of the reader. There are a lot of subliminal messages in the work. Iím into ideas and concepts. I have my own set of rules and philosophies but there is no way Iím going to smack someone over the head with didacticism. I like to present my ideas in a subtle, gentle way, leaving a wide berth for interpretation. My work is highly organic and intuitive and this is what I consider to be feminine.

How did you end up working with D&Q on this project?

This is an amazing thing. I moved to Montreal in 1991. It was there that I was introduced to the autobiographical comics Drawn & Quarterly were publishing, notably Julie Doucetís Dirty Plotte. These pre-dated reality TV. I felt a comfort in knowing about someone elseís life. I started making art again. Itís kind of a miracle that 18 years later that my work is being published by D&Q. Again, this isnít luck. This is unflailing perserverance. Because D&Q started an imprint called Petits Livres, it opened up space for them to publish the work of artists whose work wasnít comics. Peggy Burns contacted me via email. I get tons of requests for books and I sell them direct to the buyer. Her email said, ďWhere can I get a copy of Fatal Distraction?Ē when I saw she was coming from D&Q I had a little freak out. I tried not to hold my breath. I was in Mexico at the time heading back to Toronto. I was pretty much on the next train to Montreal (D&Q headquarters). I knew this book needed to happen quickly. I donít often take the bull by the horns like that. Iím fairly gentle in my approach especially now but sometimes there is that voice inside that says: GO THERE. And you trust that. Itís intuition.

Who are your feminist heroes?

My friends, Camille Claudel, Marilyn Monroe (a very complex person), Frida Kahlo. PJ Harvey, Lynda Barry, Amy Sedaris/Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball.

What about your Canadian heroes? And your literary heroes?

Literary/Canadian: Alice Munro. Canadian: Shary Boyle, all my friends.

Who is your worst enemy?

I donít want enemies. I try to keep it good blood and not bad blood. I guess I consider Courtney Love an ďenemy.Ē Talk about betrayal! I could go on about her for great lengths.

Probably my worst enemy is one of my childhood friends. At age nine, we drew comics together. We each had our own comic. We choreographed a dance sequence to the SCTV theme song. We made up a million things. We were born three days apart. We got caught shoplifting. It was a group of us. One girl was stealing a big-ticket item: black jeans. I was just taking little things, like scented erasers in the shape of a cloud. The store security let me go not knowing I had a Duran Duran magazine wrapped up in my sweater (my big-ticket item). She ratted me out. I felt totally betrayed. I was a good kid. I went to church with my grandpa every Sunday and catechism every Wednesday. I had a paper route. I did well in school. This was a bad time. A weird phase. My grades were slipping. Iíve been an excellent student for the first part of the year. I had an excellent teacher that year, Mr. Moore. He really pushed me. However, my obsession with Duran Duran was obviously out of control. I learned my lesson after that. Iím sure I took down all my posters that day. It was a wake-up call.

She and I reconnected in our early 20s. Strangely. I bumped into her at a party in Montreal. We became roommates. This was a major mistake. She did, however, introduce me to the autobiographical comics of the early Ď90s and encouraged me to do my own comics. I did not. Rebelliously I started making my own version of comics: free-form poetry, drawings and collage work. Totally intuitive. She deeply inspired me with her comic that she was making at the time. She is an amazing storyteller and drawer. Her comics were the most beautiful and poetic Iíve ever seen. We had another falling outóthere were threats made and extortion . . . Iím not kidding. I never get involved in stuff like this. Iím usually very careful about who I interact with and the less drama the better. No drama. But I was so young and I made a bad choice. I got out immediately. She and I are karmically linked. Whatever that means. We re-connected AGAIN a few years later and organized an art show, and made up a fake art society called the ďThe Group of Seven Eleven.Ē I thought it was hilarious.

Describe your ideal work environment.

Zero distractions. I mean none. Not even a pet in my zone. Honestly, when Iím ďin the zoneĒ any noise or sound out of my control spooks me like nobodyís business. This is just lately. It will change. Iíve been moving around a lot for years and the last three years itís been full-on gypsy and itís wearing a bit thin even though itís fun and freeing. Sort of. Iím doing the best I can. Basically Iím a homebody and I need lots of space.

No computer. Perfect daylight. Airy. High ceilings. Maybe somewhere in rural California. Surrounded by nature. Listening to music or enjoying the silence or making my own music.

In what way is your work gendered? How do you feel about that? What sorts of conversations about feminism, gender, and sex have arisen from your work?

Iíd say there has been more feminist conversation about The Selves than any of my other work, even though all my work is super feminine. Maybe Iím more aware of this conversation because Iím on the computer all the time. I think I fully embraced feminism this time around. Ever since I got out of my last relationship it was like a bucket of ice water was dumped on my head. Everything looked different.

Iím tired of the masculine expression. I like it when men make feminine work. I know a lot of women making masculine art and that is also tiresome because it is just the same tiresome work. I want to see feminine art. I made up a song with the lyric: He likes her art/when it looks like his art. I think a lot of women feel forced to make masculine work so that it will be looked at. Itís interesting that Iíve gravitated to the three most undervalued and denigrated art forms: poetry, collage and craft.

I got into making zines because I wanted to connect with other people. Beyond that, it was an incredible outlet for me. I worked through so much of my shit in my early work. It spilled out of me uncontrollably. Iíve been working on it for so long now that I have gained control over the material. Iíve learned a lot. The Selves is very tight compared to early work and because of this, people are able to get a handle on it. It was hard to get behind my work before. Mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. It was difficult to describe my early work to others. I think largely because it was so random and it speaks that emotional intelligence that I described earlier. It operates on many levels.

Where do the fierce bunnies fit into the more literary work?

The bunnies are my craft item. They are absolutely separate from my literary work. Itís like a different self makes them. I started making them in the mid Ď90s. My grandpa had just died. He had a full life. He died of old age. I spent a lot of time with him when I was a kid. He was a positive influence. I spent a lot of time with both grandfathers growing up. I consider them to be more parental figures than my parents. It took me a long time to realize that I started making the bunnies after I had an abortion. And my grandfather died that same week. I had to speak at his funeral in all black and punk rock/raver hair. We were Roman Catholic. So you can imagine the guilt going on. During that time I stayed inside a lot and made things. I had this amazing writing system and Iíd make objects and images out of anything I could get my hands on. It was a crazy time of productivity. I remember sitting down on my bed with a pink sweater. I started hacking it up and the bunny literally materialized out of nowhere. I do believe this was directly linked to the abortion. The rabbit represents fertility after all. Reproduction. This animal has been a huge symbol for my demographic for well over a decade. A creature that lives in total fear.

I still make the bunnies. Their evolution has been fascinating. They support my art making practice which includes writing/bookmaking and installation work. They also ground me. Iím into repetition.

And how does the music fit in?

I listen to a lot of ridiculous stuff. I like to make my own ďspeshul mixezĒ which I play over and over again. Iíll hear something at the grocery store and hunt it down . . . weird obscure hits. I like to sing along. Ya. I sing a lot while Iím working. Itís pretty funny to overhear. I like rock, psych and otherwise. A lot of masculine music . . . rock. That must be why I want to see more feminine work. I need to balance it out. Ultimately the goal is BALANCE. I just feel that the teeter totter is tipped too far in the male realm. I guess over the past year there has been a lot of PJ Harvey revisiting, Liíl Wayne junk, early Roxy Music and Buckingham Nicks. Iím very picky.

I make my own music, too. I had a band for all of the Ď90s. Kiki Bridges. That was my outlet. I didnít care if we had any success. We recorded an album that was never released. I refused to play it for anyone. I just needed as a memento. I dissolved the band shortly thereafter. I sold my guitar. I regret that. I almost chased the man who bought it down the street. I stood in the window and watched him take it away. It was a turning point. I gave away my power in that moment. I met a musician not long after that and we stayed together for 7 years. It got to the point where I could barely sing in front of him without going out tune. I was so self-conscious. I could feel him cringe. Iím another one of those ďextremely sensitive peopleĒ with ESP. When we broke up, I was like a shadow of my former self. I gave up a lot in order to make the relationship work. I think a lot of women do this. When I started to put my foot down and speak up, everything fell to shit. I had to move away to get over it and start again. Miraculously, I started playing the guitar again. I hadnít touched an instrument in 7 years. I have a music project right now with a friend, Body Double. I wrote a song about not being able to sing in front of my ex-boyfriend. ďI knew it was a bad sign/when I couldnít sing in front of you/I could feel you cringe/and then I sang out of tuneĒ . . . I like to play with words like ďsignĒ and ďsing.Ē But that is more of a written-down thing.

So Body Double has been working on some new material. We had a session today. There was a lot of arguing. Our theme song is: feminist/bandwife/emo/jokeband/psych rock/white rap/pink floyd/deep purple/back in black.

That pretty much sums it up. Bandwife can apply to anyone. It worked with ďjoke band.Ē Hopefully weíll get over our ďjoke bandĒ because this isnít a joke band. I think we feel vulnerable which saddens me because weíre kind of tough but of course not at all. You know how that goes.

I made a big deal about: I DO NOT WANT TO SOUND INDIE ROCK. Which is ridiculous because that is all we are. I took a toilet paper roll and wrote ďindieĒ in white glue and then covered it in gold glitter. Iíve been thinking a lot about Ď90s indie rock. Thereís this kind of phrasing that I donít like. My old boyfriend pointed it out once and it stuck. Itís like people had so much to say back then and were trying to cram their words into these songs and they come out wooden and unnatural.

It seems like your career has emerged organically over the last chunk of years to suit your interests, personality, and ability. How much of this comes back to doing what you love despite the naysayers, how much is luck, and how much is sheer hustle?

Blood, sweat, tears, blessing, curse, joke. This career has happened organically. I made it all up. Iím used to things being difficult so I made this trip difficult. I resisted so much. I went against the grain. I didnít follow the flow. If I had, my life would be completely different (obviously). I know I missed out on a thousand opportunities. I never sold out. Not once. And I had that opportunity. Iíve been very protective of myself and my art. Iíve hid out and stayed put. I did this because I couldnít handle the pressure and the attention. You have to be so strong and solid to handle it. ďSuccess at an early age exacts a high psychic toll.Ē I donít know who said that but I found it in conjunction with a huge gallery show with this young art star who has haunted me over the years. I kept that quote. My career has been a slow burn. Although I have missed opportunities, they never stopped presenting themselves. I canít believe my good fortune sometimes but anyone who knows me knows my struggle. There has been no model for me to follow and if there had been, I wouldnít follow it. Iím rebellious by nature. After Temper, Temper came out 1998, I was working at my friendís store. These people were my family and I needed that comfort and stability but at the same time I knew I was wasting my talent/wasting away. I grew depressed. I was in a difficult relationship with an artist. I went through a period of not being able to get out of bed. Iíd work four days and spend the next three days in bed. It was the strangest time. During one of those bouts the phone rang. It was my old penpal friend who I found via Sassy magazine. His zine Drew was zine of the month. It was the first time I saw real art and a design sense in a zine. It was kind of a psychic conversation. He somehow knew I was in bed in the middle of the day. He told me to make another book. I was lying in bed kind of hanging off it like, say, Jan Brady talking on the phone like a lazy teenager sorta upside down. I saw that the baseboard on my heater read: ďPioneer.Ē It hit me then. There were a lot of messages that I received during that time that kept me going. I didnít feel a lot of support for my work. There was no Etsy. I wasnít emailing incessantly at that point. I wanted to pack it in. I felt a lot of pressure from my grandfather about my career. I felt like a loser slacker but somehow I worked through it. You just have to reach a point where you donít care anymore what anyone thinks. You canít listen to anybody so you have to find that voice in yourself. I still lose it all the time. I still struggle to hear that voice. It fades away often. My life is radically different from that time period.

As for hustle, it can get hard because I am intrinsically shy and humble. I basically come from peasant stock. I am sensitive to the point of ESP. This combination can sometimes be lethal. It is good for making work but it makes it near impossible to sell yourself and shove your face into the faces of others. Iím not a careerist nor a climber either. Itís easy to sell other peopleís stuff but to sell your own stuff is almost impossible for people like me. I wasnít born with the entitlement that most successful artists have innately. It frustrates me because those are the dorks making the stupid art. Of course it isnít fair. I donít think I have luck. I know hard work. My father had me doing manual labor when I was four years old. That was my schooling. I wasnít born with horseshoes shoved up my ass.

Whatís your connection to what is now being called ďthe Riot Grrrl movementĒ?

I believe I was introduced to Riot Grrrl via Sassy magazine. The details are hazy. All I remember is sending some money folded up in a sheet of loose leaf to K Records in Olympia for a Huggy Bear Her Jazz/Shaved Pussy Poetry 10í album and a Riot Grrrl zine. I remember perusing them and listening to the record. I thought it was all cool stuff but I was on my own trip. I was checking out other things . . . and I was very into electronic music at the time. My friends and I were throwing parties . . . dance parties/happenings. We were trying to push an art movement through dance parties. I was building installations . . . these obviously became better known as raves. We made up our own thing. I was really into dancing. Itís one of my favorite things. After the ďrave movementĒ got gross, I backed out of that and got back into punk music and was listening to a lot of super obscure emo music at that time. I loved it. I started playing music as well and my zine material grew and grew. I had an amazing network of penpals.

I was aware of Riot Grrrl but I wasnít a part of it. Iíd go down to Olympia for Yo-Yo-A-Go-Go which was a really fun music festival. However, any time I went to a music festival, I always felt out of it and not a part of it. Ladyfest in 1999, was a whole other monster. I saw things there that I wish I hadnít seen. A lot of money passing hands, women screaming at each other in the street. It was kind of a Gong Show behind the scenes. Iím critical and I do have a gift of seeing things for as they are. And back then I was very negative. Iím not going to sugarcoat it. It was an incredible movement but there was a lot of horrible shit going on which may have been part of its demise. The music of that time changed my life. Sleater-Kinney for one. I really liked Calamity Jane. Lots of boy bands with female members, which is a good balance. Unwound.

I wasnít aligning myself with the feminist movement at that time. Not consciously. My work has always been overtly feminine. I realize I go through phases in my life where Iíll only hang out with boys or only girls. Of course Iím a humanist but in the last few years Iíve gone way in the other direction, almost militant feminism. I think itís because of my relationship with a musician and listening to too much rock music (Led Zep, Uriah Heap etc). I had to temper that. Sometimes I think Iím too feminine and I need to balance it out which I why Iíve been in the Yukon. It makes women stronger, toughens them up. It certainly feeds a pioneer spirit.

A couple of years ago I rented that Riot Grrrl documentary Donít Need You: The History Of Riot Grrrl (2006). At that time, I hadnít thought about Riot Grrrl in awhile. I know a lot of people felt embarrassed by it when the media swooped in and attempted to frame it. Iíll never forget the day my dad asked me, ďAre you a Riot Grrrl?Ē was like: what the FUCK??? I guess he heard it on the CBC. Heís very smart. He was kind of mocking me when he said it.

I think a lot of people were embarrassed of the movement. Like, living through the lifespan of the words ďzineĒ and ďgrungeĒ was just horrible. I hated being called a ďzine queenĒ and a ďzinester.Ē I hated being labeled, especially because I was on my own trip, making it up as I went along. That didnít seem fair to me. It was hard for me to align myself with things that I still felt alienated by. I never felt a part of the Riot Grrrl movement. Mind you, I lived on Vancouver Island and was isolated. I exchanged a few penpal-type letters with Kathleen Hanna around the time she was starting Julie Ruin. She wrote in one of the letters that her band broke up. I could feel the sadness. She really liked my book Temper, Temper. That kept me going. I received a lot of flack around that book.

I feel a lot of sadness around Riot Grrrl. That it was SO short-lived. Of course looking back we only see the good parts and thatís all that matters. It was like watching a beautiful firecracker going up full force and dissipating into nothingness . . . however, here we are 18 years later embracing it. I canít believe how long this sh*t takes to come around again. I shake my head. When I watched that documentary, I cried. Maybe I even wept. It was like five steps forward, ten steps back. I think the Spice Girls really fucked stuff up. The mass public wanted the Spice Girls. That was sad and embarrassing. I was disgusted by them at the time. And then Sex And The City came along and sealed the deal. Not only was it every nail in the coffin, it was like cryogenically sealing the whole movement for us. But fortunately it was preserved somehow because here we are romanticizing it and maybe this time it will stick a bit longer. I can only pray.

How relevant do you think feminism is today?

As usual a lot of women are denouncing their feminism and replacing it with the word ďhumanism.Ē Thatís fine. Courtney Love (donít get me started) recently referred to herself a ďfemmenist.Ē Iím not entirely sure what she meant by that but I know she was denouncing whatever the f**k she thinks feminism is. I still canít get over how embroiled people get over the word. Thatís enough for me to say the word on repeat every chance I get. Is this the fourth wave? What wave is this? A hello wave or a goodbye wave? It better be relevant. All I want is all women to be expressing themselves. I read this Lady Gaga quote the other day . . . she says sheís not doing it for money, for fame, for this for that for the otherófor her it is about IDENTITY. My theory is that everyone is a snowflake and no two are the same, so technically every single individual should be completely unique and expressing their identity. Wouldnít we all be happier? Wouldnít it be nice if it was as easy as that?
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Sonja Ahlers

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The Selves




Fashion Magazine on SONJA AHLERS and the return of the 90s zine

Updated November 30, 2010


Zine dreams tonight in Toronto

Everything í90s is new again, and zines arenít breaking the rule. To wit: theyíre back. Thereís a zine-ness to Torontoís own Worn Journal, the indie fashion magazine favoured by Tavi. Thereís the new, must-order First Kiss zine, by New York writers Marisa Meltzer and Elizabeth Spiridakis (aka White Lightning). And tonight, thereís an interactive zine workshop at Magic Pony in Toronto, headed by the arguably over-talented Sonja Ahlers.

Ahlers is an artist, craftswoman and writer whose third charming publicationóThe Selves (Drawn & Quarterly)óis out now. Part scrapbook, part book-book, The Selves tells the tales of females born mostly in the í70s, growing up with fashion, Princess Diana, chick flicks and other fairy tales. Their expectations are so romantic, theyíre comedic. The book is bildungsroman as bedroom wall collage, with pictures so pretty you can hardly see how scary-smart the words are.

ďItís a collective biography,Ē says Ahlers. ďAll the Princess Diana imagery speaks to a group of people. We grew up with herÖ Itís about a specific demographic and generation of women that I feel needs a platform and a voice.Ē

If you are of this generation, or kindred with it, youíll hear yourself quiet and clear from page one. The book begins with two quotes: one from Sylvia Plath, one from Kate Bush. Need you know more?

Among Ahlersí current idols and inspirations, she counts not only Kathleen Hanna (who ringingly endorses the book) and the artist Shary Boyle, but also the many alternative health-care practitioners she counts as friends. Her work, too, is alt-therapy: ďIíve joked that my books are a form of social work.Ē
 
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Sonja Ahlers

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The Selves




  Toronto Craft Alert reviews SONJA AHLER's THE SELVES exhibition at the Magic Pony Gallery

Updated November 30, 2010


CRAFTIBITIONISM: Review of The Selves, by Sonja Ahlers

by Tara Bursey

What did your bedroom look like when you were 7 years old? What did it look like when you were 12? What sorts of things were on your bookshelves and walls? The altars of our youth reflected our lives and experiences at the time, as well as the era we grew up in. When I was 7, I was a scrappy kid that was dragged to Canadian Tire and hot, dusty industrial parks by my father on Saturday mornings, and I watched my mother chain-smoke from our fourth-floor balcony on Saturday afternoons. I was not quite a tomboy, and not quite a girly-girl. I was chubby. My bedroom was yellow, and I had an eyelet lace bedspred and a big yellow blow-up Crayola crayon propped in one corner of the room. I watched Much Music non-stop, and had posters of Axl Rose, Bono and Madonna on my closet door. My babysitter Tracy had a feathered haircut, a Whitesnake t-shirt, and a tough-looking headbanger boyfriendÖI wanted to be just like her.

Judging by Sonia Ahlersí exhibition The Selves, she is probably about five years older than me. Despite this, I suspect our childhood experiences were pretty similarĖ fever dreams of melting freezies, nosebleeds, girl hero crushes, dusty pink nail polish and loose change. The Selves, the name of both Ahlersí exhibition now up at Magic Pony and her new book published by Drawn & Quarterly explores how sensory experiences from childhood are not only processed, retained and remembered, but also find their way into our lives as adults.

Ahlerís exhibition at Magic Pony consists of one large wall installation of found images, objects, drawings and ephemera as well as a few large digital prints of effortless-looking collages. One such print placed at the entry point to Magic Ponyís back room gallery space was a striking and appropriate image to lead off withĖ a blonde girl child creating a wall with her arms around a spooked-looking hamster, crowned with a head-and-shoulders portrait of a heavenward-looking Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac. Stevieís likeness creates the shape of a conehead-cum-sorcererís hat-cum-thought bubble on the girlís head, and hints at the idea of media images from childhood fashioned into a private, internal alternate reality.

The wall installation itself is a smorgasbord of images that reads like a gigantic tween altar circa 1984. Drawings of wide-eyed girls appear with cut outs of Holly Hobbie, Spike and Liz from Degrassi High and Princess Di; kittens and birds, ice cream and cosmetic ads coexist with Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart, the Sweet Valley Twins and the witchy lady from the cover of Black Sabbathís debut album. Both angelic and malevolent female archetypes are embraced and celebrated. Interspersed among the images and scraps are fragments of Ahlersí distinctive and beautiful handwriting. Tying the installation together (almost literally) is a veil of cheesecloth hanging over the length of the wall, casting a soft haze over the collection of images not unlike the haze that obscures a fading memory.

Part of what makes Sonja Ahlerís The Selves exhibition so evocative is the fact that it presents us with familiar faces and media images through the use of a cutínípaste, collage/scrapbook aesthetic one could associate with anything from humble and lo-tech zines to crude religious altars to the altars of our girlhood past. In this uber-digital age, what do the girl altars of today look like? Are they limited to image collections on Tumblr and Facebook, or has the tactile nature of the pre-teen bedroom shrine survived the wrath of Web 2.0, where building an identity is as easy as a few button clicks? The beauty of this physical practice of collecting images and fragments to put on a bedroom wall, locker, or scrapbook is it could be considered an early example of creative self- expression, and even art making. In Ahlerís case, she has managed to translate the ďselvesĒ of her youth into not only a representation of a unified adult self, but also a unique and poignant visual vocabulary.
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Zink Magazine reviews THE SELVES

Updated November 30, 2010


The Selves: Sensible Scrapbook

by Anastasia Kudrashova

As you open the pretty cover of Sonja Ahlers' The Selves, you enter an artfully constructed, recognizable world.

In her scrapbook-meets-highbrow-zine, The Selves, Sonja Ahlers takes us through an enlightened journey in self-awareness. With stickers, greeting cards, magazine photos and blurbs that she artfully arranges in collage form, she constructs a magical, intimate feminine world. Revisiting childhood and maturation, Ahlers explores the development of identity ó social vs. private. The visually engaging petit livre is at once a humorous, enchanting and thought provoking study of pop culture and the secret diary of womankind. "Sonja Ahlers' meditations on childhood, pop culture and feminine power are beyond entertaining. Entering the alternate reality she has created in The Selves, I found myself standing somewhere seductive, familiar and very funny," says Kathleen Hannah, Le Tigre frontwoman and star of the Riot Grrrrl movement.
 
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  Worn Fashion Journal interviews SONJA AHLERS

Updated November 30, 2010


Crushing on Sonja Ahlers

Canadian artist Sonja Ahlers is no stranger to WORN: we loved her when she jazzed up a pair of Keds for us that appeared in issue 8. Recently, she came out with a new book entitled The Selves. Part zine, part scrapbook, the Selves is the result of what happens when Kate Bush lyrics and images from Degrassi collide, creating a visual presentation of feminityís role in pop culture.

How did you dress in high school?
I made art as a child but once I rolled into high school, all my Ďartí went into my clothing. Grade 8 was my favourite year. I planned out my outfits every night after I did my homework. I would iron everything and lay it all out the night before. I was excited to wake up just to wear my new outfit. My mother was my inspiration. We shopped in thrift stores which were goldmines then because it was the eighties and nobody shopped in them. She had a divining rod and could find the most beautiful clothing you can imagine. She could cruise a row of sweaters with her eyes alone and the vintage Pringle cashmere sweaters would cry out to her.

We had a room off the kitchen which was ALL CLOTHES piled high. I would go in there and dig through the piles and see what I came up with. I wore a combination of Laura Ashley/La Cache/80s Esprit sportswear/new wave/victorian. I had this pink jean vest that I lived in. Iíd also sneak clothes out because some of them were off limits (too precious). I have a strong memory of this gold metallic tote bag I carried around. It was a preppy time so this bag was out of control. I had a few jobs (babysitting/paper route) and I spent all my money on Ďdesignerí clothes. I remember spending $25 on a pair of pastel-coloured Christian Dior socks. I combined this with the vintage and used pieces.

Do you ever base your first impressions of people on what they wear?
I donít think so. I like what my friends wear. They are all individuals.

What were the main sources you used to find images for your book?
From my personal library that Iíve been amassing for years. Iím not a hoarder and I move around a lot so I edit my stuff constantly. My friend Brooke Nechvatel is my main source. She is a truly gifted illustrator. I have a lot of her work in The Selves. She did the Olsen Twins watercolour, the 80s Heart pencil drawing, the banger girl holding her pet boa constrictor (from a newspaper clipping I found), Jerri Blank/Amy Sedaris in sick yellow pajamas and the Madonna leg with the beautiful turquoise shoe that Iím obsessesed with (sidenote: I joked to myself that I was Anna Wintour art directing myself in The Selves.).



What role do you think clothing plays in the performance of femininity?
Fashion and femininity go hand in hand. Women seem to need an armour to protect their sensitivity. I think it is important to take pride in oneís appearance but it isnít the be all end all. Iíve gone through long periods in my life where I didnít give a ratís ass about what I looked like. I was too busy making art. That fulfilled me. I was more interior than exterior. But I do think I am happier and more comfortable in myself when I like my clothes. Sometimes I get sad that I canít afford the clothes I really want. I have expensive tastes when it comes down to it and I want quality*. So if you donít have a good budget to buy what you would like, you need a lot of time to locate vintage or used. I donít have a lot of time to do this. So what is the answer? I try my best.

*I only like natural fibres. Acrylic was invented by a demon. I have ONE polyester dress and I wear it because itís a vintage Diane Von Furstenberg that has hot air balloons on it. I want wellmade garments that will last decades. I hate throwaway fashion (landfill).

Do you see fashion as an art form? Why or why not?
Yes. I put a lot of energy into my wardrobe in high school and certain phases in my twenties and thirties. When I was younger it bothered me that people copied my style. It bothered me a lot because I put so much time and energy into it and for someone to take a glance at you and rip off your style, that is not cool. I donít like copy-catters. Thatís when I started making art again. I seemed to make a deliberate choice to do so. I was so into my art that I didnít care about what I wore.

Lady Gaga is art/fashion. She doesnít inspire me per se but I am inspired by her strong identity and being true to herself. She has incredible nerve.

Do you ever try to reinvent yourself through personal style?
It happens naturally, not consciously. Iíd liken my current style to holliehobbiestevienicks which makes me a living, breathing version of a page from The Selves. In that sense I have come full circle in that Iíve married my art and my personal style. I do have to be careful because I get stuck in past decades (especially the 70s) and I neeeeed to think forward. I do intend to purchase a pair of sneakers that I saw today in Montreal: 4 tones of metallic (pearlized leather) Adidas high tops. Itíll balance out my prairie look. Iíll wear them with sundresses. Dresses are the easiest thing to wear. You just throw it on. I donít want to waste time thinking about outfits. I have to be able to ride my bike in my clothes. I also need to be comfortable.



Ten artists who inspire Sonja (in no particlar order):
Rita Ackermann
Christian Marclay
Martin Margiela
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Camille Claudel
Anne Sexton
Kate Bush
Badfinger
Daniel Clowes
Lynda Barry
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Torontoist reviews THE SELVES

Updated November 30, 2010


Sonja Ahlers, A Look at Our Selves

Veteran underground artist Sonja Ahlers has been profiled many timesóyou can read excellent pieces about her in Taddle Creek and Broken Pencil. You can also join the thousands who have purchased the craft bunnies that she creates from reclaimed angora or her other collage artworks.

Her early books, Temper Temper (1998) and Fatal Distraction (2004), consist of inventive collages constructed from found-and-drawn, cut-and-paste images that form into slowly emerging narratives. This year she is releasing a full colour work, The Selves, a coming-of-age narrative using the same technique blended with original drawings and writings. The book, published by Drawn & Quarterly, reads like a diary from our collective subconsciousóimages of Princess Diana, Strawberry Shortcake, a young Angelina Jolie, and found art from story books tell a dark tale about growing up as a girl in the shadow of countless mass-media representations of femininity. The bookís nontraditional low-fi look will challenge some readers, but the work builds with a kind of slow burn from which emerges a richly rewarding commentary delivered with unusually dark immediacy.
 
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  Western Front on SONJA AHLER's THE SELVES book launch

Updated November 30, 2010


Every year, when youíre a child, you become a different person
ó Alice Munro

And Iím a million different people from one day to the next / I canít change my mold
ó The Verve

From these two quotes emerges a unifying motif of Sonja Ahlersí new book *The Selves*óthe negotiation the multiple ďselvesĒ we inhabit over the course of a lifetime. Inspired by a range of sources, including the 1976 made-for-TV movie Sybil, about multiple personality disorder sufferer, Ahlers sees The Selves ďas a collective biography and a time capsuleĒ for a particular generation of women. Raised by second-wave feminists yet still enthralled by fantasies of celebrity and royalty, this generation, of which Ahlersí is a member, has learned to negotiate politics of gender, sexuality and identity via a dizzying range of female representations.

Part collage, poetry volume, feminist treatise, art publication, diary and scrapbook The Selves investigates this second-wave legacy with a sense of hope and inevitability. Often hilarious and heartwarming, yet also deeply heartbreaking, Ahlers juxtaposes her own drawing and writing with images and excerpts from a range of feminine archetypes assembled from the artistís collection of fragments, accumulated since her early teens. Lady Diana, Degrassi teens (the first generation), the Olsen twins, Angelina Jolie, Alice Munro, Sylvia Plath, Gloria Steinem, Queen Elizabeth II, Jerri Blank and Madonna combine to create a self portrait of generationís subconscious influences.

Ahlers has published two books, Temper Temper (1998) and Fatal Distraction (2004). This third book The Selves has been published by Drawn and Quarterly. She divides her time between Vancouver, Toronto and Whitehorse.
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Fieldguided collaborates with SONJA AHLERS on The Mini Meow totebag

Updated November 30, 2010


Here is a peek at our collaboration with Sonja Ahlers! We call it "The Mini Meow." Learn how to say "meow" in Japan and Iceland, France and Denmark, and more. This tote is slightly smaller than our other totes (13" x 13"), or kid-sized! It will be in the shop soon (and don't forget to use the code THANKYOU for 20% off your order this weekend, from now until Monday).

We're happy to finally offer something for the under 12 crowd and we're jokingly calling it our "Fieldguided Mini" line.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone, and thank you for your support this week (and always!). xoxo
 
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  SONJA AHLERS on Bitch Radio Podcast

Updated November 9, 2010


Bitch Radio: The Make-Believe Podcast

by Kjerstin Johnson, October 28, 2010

Fresh off the harddrive, this episode of Bitch Radio features women from the Make-Believe issue of Bitch! If youíre into women who make pop-culture collage art (say, Sonja Ahlers, author/artist of The Selves), who make it in Hollywood sans plastic surgery or selling out (I'm talking about the hilarious Jamie Denbo of Ronna and Beverly, Weeds, and Best Buds), who document the riot grrl movement (maybe Sara Marcus, author of Girls to the Front), or who use what most people consider a nerdy pastime for social change (like LARPing expert and player Sarah Bowman), then you should not miss this podcast! Plus it features music from Twin Sister, whose latest EP, Color Your Life is available from Infinite Beat records and they are currently on tour with the Morning Benders.
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Torontoist interviews SONJA AHLERS

Updated September 1, 2010


Sonja Ahlers: A Look at Our Selves

by Dave Howard

Veteran underground artist Sonja Ahlers has been profiled many timesóyou can read excellent pieces about her in Taddle Creek and Broken Pencil. You can also join the thousands who have purchased the craft bunnies that she creates from reclaimed angora or her other collage artworks.

Her early books, Temper Temper (1998) and Fatal Distraction (2004), consist of inventive collages constructed from found-and-drawn, cut-and-paste images that form into slowly emerging narratives. This year she is releasing a full colour work, The Selves, a coming-of-age narrative using the same technique blended with original drawings and writings. The book, published by Drawn & Quarterly, reads like a diary from our collective subconsciousóimages of Princess Diana, Strawberry Shortcake, a young Angelina Jolie, and found art from story books tell a dark tale about growing up as a girl in the shadow of countless mass-media representations of femininity. The bookís non-traditional low-fi look will challenge some readers, but the work builds with a kind of slow burn from which emerges a richly rewarding commentary delivered with unusually dark immediacy.

I spoke with Ahlers last week about the difference between art and craft, about media, and about The Selves.

Dave Howard: Youíve been on the arts scene for a fairly long time. When did you start your style of cut-and-paste associative narrative?

Sonja Ahlers: Well I started doing them in the zines, in the early 1990s, way back then. Temper Temper is an amalgamation of earlier work, about five years of work, so I had been doing it for a while, though very obscurely.

Howard: Youíve been able to get by, as far as I understand, on the bunnies that you hand sew from angora?

Ahlers: Well, I stopped resisting them. I didnít want that, I never wanted the bunnies to take over my life. Itís just taken me years toÖfigure this out, to just stop resisting. [laughs] I mean craft does support my artóif I let it. Itís like a day job, basically. People do kind of go crazy for the bunnies, itís a whole other monster I have to deal with.

Howard: Is it sort of like another identity you have, another online identity?

Ahlers: Yeah, itís sort of like a split personality or something.

Howard: Are people who are buying your bunnies aware of your other work?

Ahlers: Some of them are. Iím afraid some people who love the bunnies would be disturbed by my art. Especially earlier work. I donít know, Iíve tried to keep them separate for a long time, but itís okay now. Itís under control.

Howard: Do you make a distinction between art and craft in that way? What kind of distinction would you make between the two?

Ahlers: Thereís definitely a distinction. Itís interesting because in North American culture there is a definite distinction between craft and art, while I find in Japan, for instance, thereís not such a disconnect. I identify more with that culture than with North American culture. Craft is accepted as an art form in Japan and I feel Iíve had more success with the work that I do in Japan than I have had in North America. The work I do is coming more from a place of emotional intelligenceóitís hard to explain. Itís sort of an intuitive response that the viewer has. I feel a strong connection with Japan.

Howard: Are you talking about the angora bunnies or your work in general?

Ahlers: In general. The Japanese donít see such a disconnect between all of the stuff I do; they can see it as a package, whereas here itís like I have two identities. I think, here, Iíve tried to hide the fact that I craft items because itís so looked down upon, and that frustrates me. Because itís feminine work, and feminine work isnít heralded in the art community. So Iím frustrated by that. Things are changing, I know, but Iíve been doing this for a long while. Just persevere.

Howard: Iíve seen before you mention the distinction between masculine work and feminine work, masculine art and feminine art.

Ahlers: Yes.

Howard: Would you characterize any of the work that youíve done as ďmasculine artĒ or is masculine art strictly applied to men?

Ahlers: No, when I say masculine/feminine, I donít mean male/female or men/women. I like to think of it as a yin/yang model, which is comprised of male and female characteristics that operate as a whole. I think everyone is part male, part female, and the goal is to balance that out in the individual. Iím just more interested in seeing feminine work. For me, thatís more organic, more intuitive, thereís less structure.

Howard: Itís associative?

Ahlers: [pause] Yes. I just think that thereís a real imbalance, on a global scale. I think of it as a teeter-totter, between the masculine and the feminine. And I think a lot about the ying/yang model for sure. I just would like to see it balanced out sometimes.

Howard: Where would you place the mediaís role in that? Your book, The Selves, includes occasional magazine ads within the meat of the work, images from other print media. Iím interested in how you would characterize advertising: is it more of a masculine or feminine kind of art?

Ahlers: Advertising? Advertising in general?

Howard: Yes. Iím thinking that advertising is an associative, non-linear, kind of interface with society. Iím wondering, because your book seems like itís made of intersecting media, with media images rearranged to give them different meanings, new associations, how you would place those images in your masculine/feminine view?

Ahlers: Itís funny, sometimes I joke to myself, ďWhy do I make art, I should have gone into advertising?Ē Itís funny, a friend and I were walking down the street the other day and we saw a poster for a record store, and I said, ďOh, look, theyíve copied Christian Marclay,Ē a visual artist I love. I donít know if you know his work, heís been copied over and over; he did a lot of cassette work, with cassette tapes in the early í90s, heís amazing. He also did a series where he worked with album covers. From a Tina Turner album he took her legs and then he took a Blind Faith album with a pre-pubescent girl holding a model plane and he pieced the album parts together to make a body. Itís really amazing, itís collage work with album art. But I saw an ad in a record store, they had completely copied that idea, and my friend and I joked that basically artists are kept around as sort of think tank that advertisers can dip into. Because thatís what theyíre doing, theyíre out looking for ideas all the time, ideas to copy or steal in order to sell product. Itís such a crazy form, itís all about consumerism. Itís almost the evil version of being an artist: thereís the artist and then thereís the advertiser. The artist always has the original idea.

Itís interesting what youíre telling me about how much advertising youíre seeing in my book, because that was subconscious. I deeply considered every single image in this book, and I spent a really long time on it. But I do feel I worked on the material for so long that I created subliminal messages of my ownómy own form of advertising. [laughs] But itís advertising for issues that are near and dear to me.

Howard: Your own personal mythology?

Ahlers: Yes. Again, for this collective biography, which is how I see it. And a lot of the images in the bookólike the images of the book cover for Sybil, or the girls from the Led Zeppelin [Houses of the Holy] albumóthatís stuff that Iíve looked at my whole life. I honestly feel like Iíve stared at it forever, and that itís been shoved down myÖ. A lot of advertising is shoving something down your throat, and the only way you can take control is to appropriate it, filter it, and just kind of get it out of your psycheóyou know what I mean? Like a filter system. I know a lot other people who have been disturbed by these same images, like the Sybil book cover.

Howard: I liked what you did with it in your work, how youíve cut out the shattered images of the original book art and pieced them together to make the face whole again while the text now looks disjointed.

Ahlers: Yeah, I took the actual cover and cut each strip again and tried to piece her back together. You totally got it, thank you, not many people pick that up. Some people are ďIíve never heard of that bookĒ or ďIíve never seen that cover beforeĒ and Iíve been, like, terrified or terrorized by that image my whole life, itís so disturbing.

Howard: Your work feels like an extended collage that has a narrative. There is a narrative there, right? Iím not making that up am I?


Book cover art for 1973 release of 'Sybil'
Ahlers: The character actually grows up throughout the book, so, yes, there is a narrative. Itís like ďThe SelvesĒ [in the movie version of Sybil], thereís a cast of characters [who make up the main character].

Also like the movie Palindromes, a Todd Solondz movie that came out in 2004. He used six or seven different actors to play one character throughout the movie, each of a different race, age, and gender, all playing a 13-year-old girl. I was sort of rifting on that idea, using different characters to play the same person, whoís literally growing up throughout the book. And Iím sort of touching on snippets and fragments of things that might happen along the way. Like listening to rock music and using Princess Diana meeting Loverboy at Expo 86 to illustrate that. And then thereís the Degrassi references.

Howard: When I first read it, I read it pretty quickly, and I found I had a very strong emotional reaction.

Ahlers: You know, I do this work and I feel like Iím doing voodoo, especially when Iím ďin the zone.Ē Sometimes I donít know what Iím doing but I also exercise control-freak tendencies over the material (masculine) while leaving an element up to chance (feminine).

Howard: Your process is intuitive? Itís trusting yourself?

Ahlers: I make work for the viewer, itís for an audience, itís not personal indulgence. Thatís what art should be, it should have a purpose and people should have an emotional response to it. Thatís the only reason Iím doing this, swear to god. Itís social work. I do make other work for myself, but I donít show that work. With The Selves, this was something I pounded out. I spent a very long time on this.

Howard: Listening to yourself while you were putting these associated images together?

Ahlers: Yes, forcing me to trust myself which is sometimes impossible. Itís an exercise for living in the world and trusting the process of life. That is another face of what art making is to me.
 
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  Robin McConnell chats with SONJA AHLERS on Inkstuds

Updated September 1, 2010


Sonja Ahlers

by Robin McConnell

I really enjoyed this chat with Sonja Ahlers about her books, The Selves and Fatal Distraction which both really blew me away in regards to the level of personal work that has gone into them. I really like her work quite a lot of find the process of it equally fascinating. Be sure to check out her blog tooooo.
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CBC interviews SONJA AHLERS and thinks that you should read THE SELVES over and over again

Updated April 27, 2010


What is she all about?

Sonja Ahlers' graphic novel The Selves looks at womanhood and celebrity

by Kevin Chong

Writer and visual artist Sonja Ahlers says the title for her new book, The Selves, came to her while she was watching Sybil, a 1976 made-for-TV movie starring Sally Field as a woman with multiple personalities.

Each celebrity or icon of womanhood in the book represents a different self. It stands for the female experience as well as the disconnect between public image and private torment.

"I always watch the end credits of movies," recalls Ahlers from her home in Whitehorse. "And the personalities in the credits were billed as 'the Selves.' And I was sitting with my then-boyfriend, and we both looked at each other and said, 'That should be the book title.'"

It's fitting that a TV movie some might dismiss as trashy would inspire Ahlers's book. The Selves uses words and imagery, assembled in a scrapbook-diary style, from both low and high culture to create a composite portrait of the generation of white, North American women born in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, a quote by the late poet Anne Sexton ("A woman is her mother. That's the main thing") is followed by a cut-and-paste collage made of photos of Princess Diana and Drew Barrymore as children.

Each celebrity or icon of womanhood in the book represents a different self that, in combination, stands for not only the female experience, but also the underlying disjunction between public image and private torment.

Exploring this uniquely conceived book is like viewing a slideshow for an anthropological talk on a group of prehistoric ancestors who've only left traces of their existence. Except instead of cave drawings and arrowheads, we get pithy snippets, for example, from a Gloria Steinem essay on Marilyn Monroe or a watercolour portrait of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The Selves is webbed together by handwritten poetic fragments and evocative line drawings by Ahlers herself. She describes The Selves as a "collective biography that appeals to a demographic, or a certain generation."

The author of two earlier books, Temper, Temper and Fatal Distraction, Ahlers grew up drawing and making zines on Vancouver Island. After moving to Montreal in her early 20s, she became a fan of graphic novels by Daniel Clowes and Julie Doucet. (Their works were put out by Drawn & Quarterly, the esteemed Montreal publisher of graphic novels that is also releasing The Selves.)

"I tried to do a sequential comic, but found [the medium] to be too masculine," recalls Ahlers, a self-taught artist. "My approach is more intuitive and organic, which I find to be a feminine process."

Ahlers has always blurred the boundaries between visual art and writing. In Passing Fancies, a 2002 installation piece in Vancouver's Helen Pitt Gallery, she presented a large-scale collage of letters from a zine-making pen pal that she befriended after reading about him in Sassy magazine. The Selves adopts the same approach, but works in the opposite direction, turning a text-based medium into more of a visual artifact.

"I treat the book like a gallery," Ahlers says. "It's a physical object. I think of it as a sculpture. The placement of the image on the page is all considered. It's like being in a gallery, but you're opening it, instead of stepping inside."

While The Selves doesn't have a narrative, per se, it does have a structure. The book starts with images of a foetus in the womb and examines depictions of children and motherhood. As the book follows its composite character into adolescence, Ahlers explores her own childhood fascination with romance novels.

"I read them as a kid," Ahlers says about the Sweet Dreams series of young-adult books. "I was basically brainwashed by them."

In one strangely poignant collage, a series of Sweet Dreams covers is grouped on one page with a magazine image of Princess Diana, who recurs throughout The Selves as a female archetype. Lady Di is reading the romance novels of her real-life stepmother, Barbara Cartland. The juxtaposition between the magazine and the princess who didn't get the fairy-tale ending suggests the consequences of this "brainwashing" taken to sinister extremes.

The Selves also addresses a woman's relationship with men. "I've always heard that in your twenties you deal with issues with your father," Ahlers says. "In your thirties, you deal with issues with your mother."

In the next section of the book, Ahlers plays around with a potent image of a teenage Angelina Jolie at a red-carpet premiere with her father, Jon Voight.

"The image of [Jolie] as her father's date ó there's something eerie about it," says Ahlers. Jolie is alarmingly young, and looks precociously sexual in a lacy outfit that resembles a wedding gown. "The dress is so demented," Ahlers adds. "She obviously has issues with her father."

Ahlers, who divides her time between Whitehorse and Toronto, currently makes her living by selling handmade bunnies ó a recurring theme in work that was originally inspired by the film Fatal Attraction ó on an online Etsy store. She says the use of pop-culture iconography isn't so much a nod to conceptual artists like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, but comes instead from a desire to produce accessible work.

"In North America, it's more of a cerebral experience with conceptual art," says Ahlers, who performed in the band Kiki Bridges in the '90s, and is currently working on a book about a break-up. "What I do is completely different. My work is visceral and emotional; I want it to appeal to a larger group."

You can flip through The Selves in under an hour ó the experience is less like reading a novel or staring at a gallery installation and more like listening to an album. While it has an immediate impact, the book's power and the extent of its creator's skill only come through in the repeated readings it invites.




 
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  Bust reviews THE SELVES

Updated April 20, 2010


Sonja Ahlers: The Selves

by Sarah J.

Drawn and Quarterly is a comics publisher, but Sonja Ahlers' The Selves isn't a comic. You could call it sequential art, I suppose, though it's mainly collages of beautiful and slightly disturbing things, its text chosen for aesthetic value rather than to tell a story.
Babies, children and mothers; cute animals and Sylvia Plath quotations; 70s and 80s fashion, Holly Hobby and Princess Di all blend together--or rather, are layered on top of one another to create dreamscapes that create a portrait of a woman. Really, of many women, of all the women Ahlers has been in her life and all the women she will be.
"Before blogs, there were zines. Before zines, there were scrapbooks," notes the D&Q website in describing Ahlers' work, but it also feels very present-tense, as the scrapbook has recently taken 21st-century form with the advent of Tumblr (and even Facebook with its madcap cataloguing of things you "like" and images, updates, minute life changes). We are back to defining ourselves with images from someone else's life or art, lines from something someone else wrote and scattering in between those bits our own thoughts and feelings, needs and loves.
Ahlers' art is a tribute to that tendency, a need to have some collective cultural touchpoints as well as things all our own, and to share them on paper as well as online, to create something lasting, to pull together already-existing meaning and change it into something for us.
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Featured artist

Sonja Ahlers

           Featured product

The Selves





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