Spotlight on: Sonya Fe, Contemporary Artist
Thanks to the efforts of Museum Director Shonna McDaniels, contemporary artist Sonya Fe is the featured artist this month at the Sojourner Truth Multicultural Arts Museum located at 2251 Florin Rd. in Sacramento.
Fe is an award-winning, internationally recognized fine artist. She found her calling in childhood and developed into the renowned artist that she is today upon coming of age during Chicano Arts Movement of the 1970s as a painter and muralist.
During her lengthy career, Fe’s art has been exhibited throughout the United States, and internationally in Mexico and Tokyo.
The list of grants, awards and commissions Fe has earned is far too long to list. Her client list includes well known celebrities and organizations and corporations such as Coca-Cola, the California Department of Education and Pacific Bell.
Fe’s original paintings sell from $4,000 to upwards of $25,000. Limited edition prints may be acquired for as little as $300 and posters are available for as little as $10.
Fe was raised in the William Mead Housing Project in Downtown Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by her parents to draw using chalk on the cement floors of their home.
Fe has spent most of her career based in Southern California. After spending a few years in Humboldt County, including a stint on the Hoopa Indian Reservation, she settled in Elk Grove in 2008.
Fe earned her Bachelor’s Degree from the Art Center College of Design in 1976. Thereafter, she worked with the Mechicano Arts Center in Highland Park, directing screening printing workshops and painting murals. Although she has been lauded for her work as a muralist, her primary reputation is as a studio painter.
Fe’s technique combines oil on canvas with the use of wax along with copal medium to speed up the drying of the paint. The intended effect is to create transparency, movement and vibration through the layers of paint, ultimately leaving translucent and opaque images. Fe uses various shades of a color while painting a figure in a fashion that draws in the viewer’s eyes.
Fe’s art is influenced by Latin American art and iconography, which was greatly stimulated during a trip to Mexico in her youth.
Recurrent themes in Fe’s art include the celebration of the female form, uplifting women from their traditionally subordinate roles versus men, and advocacy for victims of domestic violence and child abuse. Fe has a long standing affiliation with the Chicana and Chicano arts movement and Latina empowerment. She is also a staunch supporter of creating a more progressive visibility of Chicanas in art.
Fe is married to Arturo Vasquez, an educator and gifted storyteller. Vasquez is the author of a number of children’s books including, “A Storyteller’s Nightmare,” and “Running Deer Plays Hookey,” both of which were illustrated by Fe. Fe is also the proud mother of her 33 year old son, Dante Cervantes, a graphic designer and graduate of her alma mater.
Fe is holding workshops to teach her unique style of painting at the Sojourner Truth Museum. Her workshops, available for both youth and adults, began on June 6 and are held from 6 to 8 p.m. every Wednesday night for six weeks. Space is limited but there are a few slots are still available. If interested, please reserve a space by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain details.
Fe is a well-established artist whose comfort with her station in life is easily recognizable. She is an easygoing individual with a keen sense of humor. She is not one to mince words. Her approach is open and she is candid with regard to her opinions, many of which reflect her brash nature developed from struggling and paying dues in a tough business that can overwhelm those who are less than fully committed to fulfilling their vision as an artist.
The Sacramento Press sat down with Fe following an artist reception on June 9 for the following wide ranging interview focused on her career as an artist and her character as a person.
Sacramento Press: I’m here at the Sojourner Truth Museum with Sonya Fe, Contemporary Artist… My first question is, who is Sonya Fe?
SF: Sonya Fe, ooh, that’s a hard question. Sonya Fe has many personalities, so I’m told (laughing). Sonya Fe is basically a woman who is an artist and who loves life. When people ask, why do I paint, I tell them it’s because I don’t have a tail to wag, so it’s a form of self-expression which I enjoy doing- not all of the time, since sometimes the paintings can be really tough and really confront your problem solving. That’s basically what painting is, problem solving.
Overall, I am an artist. If I’m painting in the studio and I stop, I’m still an artist, whether I’m painting or not. It’s my make-up.
SP: When did you first come to understand that you have a love for art in general and/or painting-drawing in specific?
SF: I came from an artistic family. My father was an artist and I’ve just got his DNA, I suppose. Being a child growing up in a housing project, we would sit around the living room floor which was cement. We used to draw with chalk and just color and color, and every night, my mom would mop it up. The next day, we’d start drawing again.
I really enjoyed it. I guess I was a little bit competitive and with eight brothers and sisters, I wanted to stand out in something, so I guess I made art my thing. I guess that’s when it happened, drawing as a child with my sisters and brothers.
SP: What impact has family had on your art or upon your career?
SF: My father used to take me sketching as a young girl. He saw that I had talent and he wanted to cultivate it, so we used to go sketching a lot. He would egg me on.
The thing about my father – until this day, my father died in 1990, one of the things he said to me as I growing up was, “When you draw pictures or when you paint, you can make pretty paintings, but they can be empty, so you be aware of that. Don’t just make pretty paintings because they can be empty.”
I didn’t know what he meant until I got a lot older, and I would see these furniture paintings, you know, the kind that you hang over a couch. Let’s say, a beautiful Spanish lady with a fan. I would think, “Oh, that’s a pretty painting.” But I knew what he meant. It was like a cartoon. It was a beautiful painting of a woman, but it was empty, it was a cartoon. It was technique. My father taught me to go beyond that, and to see beyond the pretty surface.
To this day I thank him for that. Though I didn’t get along with him all of the time, I thank him for that.
SP: What or who has been the biggest influence on your art?
SF: What I would say it is, I would say it is life in general.
The challenges – I had a lot of people help me. I had school teachers, Thomas Neilson from Nightingale Jr. High School, he was my art teacher. He guided me a ways for art. There were tons and tons of other people. My mother, she sacrificed a lot for me. She would take me here and there to museums and galleries, and so would my father. My parents did a lot to encourage my growth in art, and so did a lot of teachers.
But the main thing, I think, that made me grow as an artist, as with practically anybody who’s in the field, is life itself – the challenges and the problems that are thrown at you and how to overcome them.
A lot of times when I had problems, I would go to my art and resolve it through that. Whether it’s pain or happiness, the art helps. That was like my – I hate to say this word, but for lack of a better word, that was my drug. (laughing softly)
SP: I’m going to read you a quote I read about your art.
“While one can trace the sophisticated influence of cubism throughout her work, she has created her own distinctive style.”
What do you call your style of painting?
SF: Well, to be honest with you, I can’t say. I can’t name my style of painting because it’s still happening. It’s just as when there’s certain arts that are beginning to happen, you can’t put a name on it until it stops. So I guess when I drop dead, that’s when they’ll come up with a proper style, a name for it. Right now, I just call it “Sonyaism.” (laughing), because it’s my technique.
Even though I went to art school, I did not learn to paint in art school. I went to a commercial art school, I learned to draw, I learned to see, and I learned to crack the whip so to speak. It was discipline, discipline.
But what I used to do when I had homework, was to go home and do my homework, really quick, and get it out of the way. Then I would study the old masters on my own and learn how to use this paint. I wanted to know if I put this paint with this, what would happen. If I mix it with this, what would happen, so I was mainly teaching myself how to paint.
So I hope that answers the question about how do I characterize my art, I just call it “Sonyaism,” and I hope that sticks. (laughing)
SP: I’m going to read another quote to you.
“Her work reflects social and cultural issues with themes centering around child abuse/neglect and women’s place in society.”
Where does the inspiration come from?
SF: Okay. Now, if someone were to read that they would say, she must be a miserable person. No, I’m a very happy person, but as a child, and a young woman, and as an older woman, I’ve seen things in life that I felt were not right. Being an artist, that was my way of speaking out. Women’s injustices as you mentioned, we all know that happens with women and minorities.
It always blew me away because I always saw myself as a human being first… I painted things that affected my life. Things that I saw that were happening to people.
SP: How has your art evolved over time?
SF: Sometimes I go through a red period. Like, I just came back from Oaxaca, Mexico. I say just came back like it was yesterday. I came back from Oaxaca last November.
I found that the Triqui Indian people wear red. There was just red everywhere. I came home all excited. I did like 18-20 paintings of the Triqui people, all in red.
The red is a challenge for me. I just don’t want to put red-red everywhere. I have to make it interesting so that you can see vibrations and movements within the red, not just a solid red shape.
SP: What makes you different from any other painter/artist who’s out there today?
Because, I’m me. (laughing). I can’t speak about other artists. As an artist, I know this is going to sound awful, you have to be in tune to yourself. Yeah, sometimes you’re probably called egomaniac, but I can’t allow myself to open up too much to everything that’s out there because I’ll be affected. That’s not putting anyone down. I’m trying to keep true to my art.
For instance, when Sylvester Stallone was writing “Rocky,” in order to concentrate, he said he painted his windows all black, and he started typing. He couldn’t hang out with anybody.
You have to concentrate on your work and you don’t want to be influenced by anybody. Of course we’re all influenced… You can’t help but be influenced, but when you’re trying to create, really from your spirit and your heart, and from that dark place, you have to close the door and your mind to other people. That’s what makes me different, because I know.
Like I said, I really can’t speak for other artists. I spend a lot of time by myself, and many artists want to be artists, but they don’t want to pay the dues. And just like a writer, many times you have to be totally alone. It’s a lonely profession. You don’t go into it unless you really need it or really want it and have a burning desire to create, because it’s not a game for sissies.
SP: What is your experience in the “business” of art?
SF: On Lord! (emphatically) I could write a nightmare book.
The art scene-you get morons in here sometimes. They have a studio space or a gallery space and they think they know about art, and they want certain things that they want the public to see. They control it, and there’s certain works that the public should see that some of the galleries will say no to, that’s happened to me before.
I’ve had good experiences with some galleries and good experiences with some agents, but I’ve also had times where I couldn’t believe I was in this business.
Should I tell you, that some of them lie? Some of them lie straight-faced to you and you don’t know because you’re just starting off.
“Yeah, we’ll give you a spot.” You’re just so happy, “Goody-goody, I’ll tell my mama,” because who else are you going to tell?
Then they sell your work…. let’s just say for peanuts. “I got peanuts for this. Oh, that’s good, ‘cause last week I got walnuts.”
They give you things and they throw peanuts at you and you’re grateful. And then you find out how much they really get for the work, and what they’re giving you, and you go like, oh, that’s not right, because they told me they were going to sell it for this or for that.
It’s like any other business. You better do your homework and don’t go in there all naïve and green. A lot of times when you’re real young as an artist, when people give you attention… you’re happy, and you’ll more or less go along with the plan. Until you find out you were a big fool, and got burnt.
SP: What does the future hold for Sonya Fe? Or I’ll put it this way, what has Sonya Fe have left to do that she hasn’t yet accomplished?
SF: The next great painting! (in a low gravelly voice, then laughing)
SP: What is Sonya Fe’s proudest achievement?
SF: Some of my achievements that I’m proud of… are that I came from a housing project; I’m a little brown woman, I had everything against me, but I managed to make a nice career and a good living and a good life.
I never sold out… When the “in” thing was to paint pink lollipops, I didn’t do it. And when the next art fad, was to, let’s just say, paint pictures for your couch, I didn’t do it.
I stuck to what I knew, and I just kept plugging away. We’d have earthquakes, floods, and I just kept saying, “just keep painting, just keep painting,” and no matter what happened to me, I just keep telling myself, “just keep painting, just keep painting.”
The proudest thing I would say is that I did it my way.
SP: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to make a career as a fine artist?
SF: As a fine artist? Okay. There’s two things I would tell them.
Get a good job. But don’t get a job that’s going to drain you. Get a job to support your habit. That’s what I did.
I was trained in a very good art school in advertising, commercial art, and I couldn’t do it. Not because I thought I was better… My temperament wasn’t made out for that. I got a job that wouldn’t tax me. I got jobs working at night so that in the morning when I woke up, I had the energy to create.
So what I would tell young people is this. Don’t face reality. You have to listen to yourself, paint what you want. People are going to tell you all of the negative stuff. Surround yourself with positive people, and just keep working at your craft. But be realistic. You have to make things happen. It’s just not going to happen.
My suggestion to anyone who wants to be a fine artist is that you’ve got to have guts, and you’ve got to have persistence. It’s not a game for sissies, as I stated. It’s an uncertain life. You don’t know if you’re ever going to make it, but you do your art because you have to.
SP: Here’s the last question. Do you have anything you’d like to say to the people of Sacramento?
SF: To the people of Sacramento, let me show at the Crocker Museum. (laughing)
For more information about Sonya Fe’s Artwork, including items for purchase or general questions, she may be contacted through via email at Vasquetzal@aol.com or through her website at www.sonyafe.com.