Interview – Sonya Berg Menges
Artist and All Saints member Sonya Berg Menges recently sat down with us to talk about art and life. Her work will be on display at Champion Contemporary Gallery until November 27th.
Sonya grew up in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and traveled often to visit family in upstate New York (Niagara Falls), New Hampshire and southern Maine. Much of the inspiration for her artwork stems from her experiences growing up in the Northeast. She graduated in 2005 with a BA in Studio Art from Messiah College, and earned her MFA in Studio Art at UT this May. She currently teaches beginning design and drawing at St. Edwards University.
In her own words, "Moving to Texas was one of the greatest tests of my faith, but has proved to be the richest blessing. Here I met my husband Austen, joined an incredible church, and embarked on an art career, for which I am truly humbled." When she's not making art in her home studio, Sonya enjoys cycling, cooking, and gardening.
Champion Contemporary Gallery in downtown Austin represents Sonya, so much of her work is available for purchase through them, even after her show ends. You can also see more of her work at www.sonyaberg.com.
Tell us about your current installation, Deep End.
My current show at Champion, Deep End, is my first solo show. It is a display of my most recent work from the past two years, and includes drawings and paintings of both waterfalls and empty swimming pools. I started making works about waterfalls after collecting my grandfather’s and dad’s slides of Niagara Falls.
I’m interested in how the grandeur and the danger of a waterfall can be contained within the rectangular edges of a painting or drawing. The waterfall is beautiful, treacherous and yet safe in my painting.
As a counterpoint, the empty swimming pools are anxious and morose. The perspective of the empty pool is from the inside, standing on the bottom looking up from the deep end, or across the lane lines seeing the deep end looming ahead. They are landscapes that become metaphors for cultural decay and can be apocalyptic. There is also a tension between the man-made structure and the prevalence of nature.
Some of the pool images are based on photographs I took this spring of empty municipal pools in Austin – Dittmar, Bartholomew, and Shipe.
What are some of the greatest influences and inspirations for your art?
I am very influenced by my surroundings, and my interaction with the landscape around me. Besides my studio, outside in nature is where I feel closest to the Lord. How can I not create when this is what He has made? I am also influenced by the work of 19th Century landscape painters, such as Caspar David Friedrich, and artists from the Hudson River School such as Thomas Cole. Peter Doig is a contemporary painter whose work I admire.
Can you talk a little bit about how and why you chose to become an artist?
I sense a gift and calling to be an artist. My mom says I was pegged as an artist from age 3. I know it gives me joy to express myself through my hands and eyes. It is a way I relate to God, the world, and to others.
What is the most challenging part of being an artist for you?
Working as an artist sounds glamorous, but truly it is a daily spiritual and emotional battle. Sometimes it is difficult to spend so much time alone in the studio. There is also a considerable investment upfront of time and money.
Part of All Saints' mission is to be a community "extended through cultural engagement", and art is arguably a significant element of culture. In what ways do you see your work as a means of cultural engagement? How has your faith influenced your art and vice versa?
With my work, I hope to speak to universal emotions – feelings of comfort, anxiety, loneliness, and redemption – and therefore engage with others. I also must be involved in the art community, both locally and beyond Austin. These actions of course include sharing the Gospel, often within relationships.
I have a hard time using the title “Christian artist.” Really I am a Christian who makes art, and I should be prepared to fully participate in the (secular) art community. However, the truth is I create because God created me, and I must glorify God with my work. I also have to trust and believe this is what God is calling me to do, despite criticism, discouragement, and seemingly little reward.
For years now there has been a rich conversation in the church in general about the need to encourage, support, and participate in the arts. Do you have ideas as to how those of us who are not artists by profession can live this out? In other words, what does it look like for us to really value arts and culture, and not just say we do?
Well, for me in particular, the most direct way to encourage, support and participate in the arts is to purchase my work. I know my drawings and paintings are not in everyone’s taste, but everyone knows someone who likes to hang art in his or her home. Plus, this is my employment, and purchasing work helps pay the bills.
Secondly, in order to engage the art community I display my work in shows. Coming to an opening is a huge way for church members to participate in the visual arts, beyond what happens on Sunday morning.
Lastly, some artists are willing to do commissions, creative projects, or small works if they are specifically requested. For example, I am willing to do portrait commissions, as I can establish a personal connection and have my work in someone’s life.
What's next for you?
Between working in my studio and teaching, I am going to a month-long residency in August in northern California where I’ll work on a new body of work. I am also illustrating a children’s book titled Deep End, written by a friend and edited by my husband Austen.