Though we’ve never met before, it’s easy to spot Sonja Ahlers walking into a Vancouver café—all dark-mascara-fringed eyes, caramel-streaked hair, printed cotton skirt, and funky boots. She’s shorter than expected, and the café at which she’d asked me to meet her has mismatched seats. When she sits down, the table comes up to her chin.
“I have this weird thing about seating,” she laughs, looking across for a better fit.
“Would you like to sit here? ” I ask. “Or I can get a chair from over there.”
“No, then you’ll be far away,” she says. She pushes the table back, and pulls herself up slightly on a cushion. “I’ll just do this for now.”
Somehow, the awkward moment breaks the ice. Then again, that’s Sonja Ahlers’ stock in trade—awkward moments, elegantly repurposed. Moments most people would rather forget, like an enraged father ripping the ears off his daughter’s stuffed rabbit, or the inevitably tragic fallout of an obsessive love affair gone sour. Ahlers snips, cuts, and pastes up her responses to such moments, putting the bizarrely beautiful results on display.
Ahlers’ work to date spans two graphic novels—Temper, Temper and Fatal Distraction—installations of bedroom furniture turned inside out, a collection of stern-looking knit bunnies, and diaries painted on gallery walls. Her art is, at a glance, very simple. Yet look again and it’s loaded with darker meaning. An ink drawing of underwear, for example, accompanies the line, “Should have kept these on.” It’s all uneasily familiar, as if Ahlers stole her ideas from a carefully suppressed place inside your own head.
Reviewed everywhere from Bitch magazine to the National Post, Ahlers has been praised for, among other things, bringing new depth to zine culture, and inventing a new genre: poetry spliced with art. She’s been described as everything from the Kathy Acker of the zine aesthetic to Beatrix Potter on Paxil. This fall, she took her bunnies and screen printing on a six-week tour of Australia and Japan. At thirty-five years old, she feels she hasn’t even started to reach her full potential.
Ahlers began life on a characteristically awkward note. “My parents had me when they were both practically teenagers,” she says. “We were moving constantly—up Vancouver Island and down again, between Victoria and Lake Cowichan, which is a logging town. It was a place that was very hard to live in if you are at all unusual.”
Ahlers’ father worked as a logger to support the family, but really wanted to be an artist. Her mother took ballet. “We just didn’t fit in.”
As a child, Ahlers found herself frequently parked with her Scottish grandparents, whom she says were “heavy drinkers—very unhappy.” Her father was physically abusive, and her environment, as she describes it, a picturesque yet oppressive forest valley. By her telling, it was a childhood laced with fear that occasionally exploded into violence: her father would lose something, decide Sonja had stolen it from him, and tear her bedroom apart. Ahlers also has a strong memory of her family arriving home to find the rabbits they kept in their backyard mutilated by one of the neighbourhood dogs.
“There was blood everywhere,” Ahlers recalls with a grimace. “My mother was screaming. I’d never seen her so devastated.”
The moving stopped when Ahlers was about ten, and the family finally settled in Victoria. But the strangeness persisted.
“In high school I was in the gifted program, but also in the learning disability class for math—which was crazy.” Ahlers eventually found her feet in her new school, and her niche, in drama class. “I realized that it is crazy how much your environment can affect your life.”
Ahlers says she did well in school, but describes the years after graduation as a mix of the occasional course taken at Camosun College, raving all night, and frittering away energy on clothes and boys. But her desire to retain her individuality persisted.
“People would start to copy the way I dressed, and I’d do an extreme left turn,” she says. “I’d shave my head, even. I had to wear a wig for a month after I did that.”
The artist Lisa Smolkin, who met Ahlers in a women’s studies class at Camosun, clearly remembers her shiny white nail polish, big black boots, dismissive attitude toward “dumb assignments, like memorizing poems,” and the way every surface in her bedroom was decorated.
Ahlers also developed an obsessive fascination with dark thoughts and suicide: “I was listening to maudlin music—Dead Can Dance—and wandering through graveyards,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I just felt desperately alone. I eventually got so obsessed with this one boy, I had to move to Montreal just to get away from him.”
Ahlers stayed in Montreal over the winter of 1992. Feeling isolated in a city she didn’t know, she became fascinated by a friend’s collection of Drawn and Quarterly, a magazine publishing groundbreaking, semi-autobiographical comic-book work by Julie Doucet, Seth, and Daniel Clowes, among others. “My friend was really into it, and she encouraged me to do comic-book art, but I felt like I was copying her, and I didn’t want to copy her. I started cutting up books instead.” Ahlers began making word-image collages, and cultivated new obsessions, this time with Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe—female icons whose lives and careers were enabled, distorted, and ultimately undermined by male adulation and rejection.
Back in Victoria, nine months later, Ahlers decided to channel her energy in new ways. It was 1993. Youth unemployment was endemic, grunge was the rage, and whatever race, colour, gender, or sexual orientation you were, if you were a part of Generation X and even vaguely arty, you were finding creative ways to express your anger and frustration. Ahlers chose to start a punk band, which she named Kiki Bridges, after a character in Martin Scorsese’s film After Hours, a dominatrix sculptress who sold paperweights by day and sculpted statues of men screaming in agony at night.
“I was the singer,” she says. “There was lots of screaming.”
Many have linked Ahlers with the riot grrrl phenomenon—women giving full vent to their anger through poetry, song, and spoken word. Surveying Ahlers’ music and graphic art, with its jarring juxtapositions of pretty bunny images, dainty body parts, scowling faces, and hints at sexual violence, it’s not hard to make the connection, though Ahlers now says she wasn’t really ever a part of that movement. “I got tired of yelling,” she says. “I invited a friend—a doctor, one of the first people who ever bought my art publicly without being a friend beforehand—and I was screaming onstage, and I saw him getting up to leave, and I realized that performing can be kind of gross.”
By 1995, Ahlers had started to work seriously on sewing and making her series of Fierce Bunnies—rabbit figurines knit from angora, their aggression stifled by a sewn X for a mouth. She found that by selling her bunnies on-line, she could start to make something of an income from her art. Ahlers was also working on A Wandering Eye, a zine of accumulated words typed out as poems, with illustrations to match. Ahlers only mailed Wandering Eye to people she knew about and admired, but did not directly know, to avoid dealing with her friends’ reactions to her work.
“I sent one to [the poet and critic] Lynn Crosbie,” she says. “She was the first poet I’d read who used contemporary imagery—she wrote about Farrah Fawcett! And she wrote back.” Crosbie asked to publish one of Ahlers’ pieces in Click, an anthology of feminist writing she was editing.
After the publication of Click, Crosbie asked Ahlers to send her her accumulated work to date, which consisted of a collection of Wandering Eyes, and a number of unpublished pieces. “I didn’t have a lot of control over what I was doing at that time,” Ahlers remembers. “I was just looking for someone who understood, someone with whom I had a connection.” Crosbie edited the collection, along with Michael Holmes, an editor at Insomniac Press. “They laid it all out and found themes and pieced them together.” Ahlers received it back in the mail as a finished work. “They saw it as an expression of riot grrrl culture,” she says, “and [Insomniac] wanted to put it out right away.”
The completed version of Temper, Temper is a compendium of sparsely arranged words and images, with a cover image of a scowling young woman in bunny ears on a jacket of shocking pink. It starts, somewhat ominously, with the words, “Don’t worry—you won’t feel a thing.” Ahlers’ short poems and fragments of text, accompanied by images of scowling animals, scratchily photocopied babies, and blackened, crossed-out type, touch on everything from drugs (“He told me he goes where the needle is. / I am so naive / I thought he meant / record player”) to obsessive anger over lost love (“After you left / I burned the sheets”).
The book clearly hit the right postmodern note. Ahlers hadn’t so much crafted a narrative as obliterated it completely, then tried to make sense of the pieces. Hilary Clark, writing in Broken Pencil, hailed her originality as the voice of a new generation. “Language is just another hint in Ahlers’s work,” Clark wrote. “The ephemeral and the visceral, the real and the surreal, the past and the present, all these things are merged into one communicative mass of symbolic pop culture hieroglyphics. Temper, Temper stands as a manifesto, the harbinger of a new literature as relevant and meaningful to this generation as Beat writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg were to a generation equally in need of voices to recognize as their own.”
Despite the high praise, Ahlers felt as though she’d let her work get repackaged into something quite different from what she intended. (Crosbie and Holmes both declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“Temper, Temper had become an object, something outside of me,” she recalls. “But it was the late nineties, and I was into punk rock, and I was obsessed with not selling out.” Ahlers says she designed a second cover, “softer and more fragile—the bunny wasn’t so mean-looking,” but the choice was made to go with the angrier look. When the book was published, Ahlers says she felt she had to detach from it: “I was in shock.”
Ahlers recalls attending the annual Canzine festival, in 1998, and seeing nearly everyone present clutching the recently published issue of Broken Pencil, featuring her picture on the cover. “I wasn’t prepared for that,” she recalls. “I had to go on autopilot.” Misgivings aside, Ahlers enjoyed the adulation, though, perhaps characteristically, she frames it as a negative: “I only realized how popular that book had been once I stopped getting attention for it.” She also noticed attention did not necessarily translate into riches. “The book was going through circles and being lent to friends and all that, but it didn’t really pay the bills.”
What Temper, Temper did do was pave the way for a unique artist to develop her work in a wide variety of genres. In 2003, the editor and writer Emily Pohl-Weary asked Ahlers to contribute to a new feminist anthology she was editing, Girls Who Bite Back. Ahlers’ contribution, “…And the Myth That Things Have Progressed,” is a critique of women who keep each other back to get ahead in a man’s world. When it was published the following year, Ahlers and Pohl-Weary—joined by the writer Tamara Faith Berger, who was promoting a book of her own—embarked on a reading tour of the West Coast, organized by the indie publishing guru and author Jim Munroe. “The tour was fun, but it was also a nightmare,” Ahlers laughs. “Imagine driving nine hours to read to three people.”
Pohl-Weary recalls a scene at a bookstore in San Francisco. Ahlers was giving a slide presentation when an audience member began to scream at her. “She totally misunderstood Sonja,” Pohl-Weary says. “She thought Sonja was being anti-feminist. It was very upsetting—and it was too bad, because out of the three of us, I felt the person least equipped to deal with a reaction like that was Sonja.”
Another mini-crisis struck during the tour when Vogue magazine took a liking to Ahlers’ Fierce Bunnies. “I got this call from this woman who’d seen the bunny in a shop in L.A. and wanted to include it in the magazine as a toy,” she says. Ahlers explained that the bunnies were handmade, and couldn’t be mass-manufactured; that it wasn’t really a toy; and that she was in the middle of a reading tour and unable to provide the magazine with information on where the bunnies could be bought.
“I had so many people saying to me afterward, ‘You should get the bunnies made in China, then you could produce and sell so much more,’” she says. “I kept wondering, do these people know what goes on when something is made in China? ”
On a softer note, Ahlers would often end her slide shows with what Pohl-Weary calls her “potato chip heart.” “She found a ketchup potato chip shaped like a heart and she put it in a frame,” says Pohl-Weary. “That summed up Sonja for me. Often if you actually eat ketchup potato chips you don’t want to tell anybody, but here’s Sonja turning it into art. You’d be embarrassed; she’d be like, no, this is cool.”
The title of Ahlers’ second book, Fatal Distraction, was a riff on Fatal Attraction—the 1987 movie starring Glenn Close as an obsessed adulteress stalking her married former lover, played by Michael Douglas. Ahlers says she has watched the film enough times to have considered making an installation piece based on the story. (The film’s most famous moment involves Close’s character boiling a child’s pet rabbit to death.) Playing on the movie’s title was Ahlers’ chance to destroy its take on obsessive female behaviour in favour of a more positive read. “I found my obsessions actually helped me get through stuff,” she says. “I could use my obsessions to make art.”
But, in retrospect, Ahlers seems mildly disappointed with Fatal Distraction. Certainly it is aesthetically daintier, more polished, less raw than Temper, Temper—from the ethereal cover drawing, featuring a bunny-costume-clad girl-woman floating through lacy foliage, to the thinner, more refined lines Ahlers uses to create her drawings. But the message, the impulse to connect, to cut through the superficialities of a world obsessed with image, seems less clear.
“[Fatal Distraction] feels contradictory to me,” she says, “like I am stifling myself. It felt like there was a lack of response [from the press]…and yet I’ve gotten so many E-mails from young women saying, ‘You are inside my head or something—I have felt exactly the same way.’ And that’s incredible to me,” Ahlers says, “because I don’t even consider myself an artist.”
For a non-artist, Ahlers has shown her work in several galleries, both solo and as part of a group. One of her more significant shows featured herself and two other female artists at Open Space, in Victoria, in the spring of 2005. “It was more political and conceptual than some of my other work, and appealed to a different audience—other artists,” she says. “Normally, I make art for people, not artists.” Ahlers spent nine days building a room with a Heart logo mural and four different “moods” of her work on each wall. There was dismembered furniture, pieces of fabric and a wall collage “representing chaos,” and display cases featuring a museum of objects under Plexiglas “to show perfection.” These included a book on Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy model born in Vancouver, whose husband murdered her in a jealous rage.
“My friend, the director of the gallery, had a heart attack while we were putting the show together,” she says. “But it was only later on I realized the connection to [the show’s heart mural].”
Magic Pony, a concept store and gallery on Queen Street West, in Toronto, included Ahlers as part of Touch My Bunny, a rabbit-themed show that ran in 2005. The store’s co-curator and co-owner, Steve Cober, said he picked the bunnies up because he found them “languid, naïve, gentle—yet unsettling at the same time.”
Some may find Ahlers’ work veers too much toward art therapy: one woman working through her angst, loudly, angrily, on paper but always in your face. But Ahlers’ capacity to nail pretensions with a spiky sense of humour takes her work beyond mere adolescent angst. It shows us our darker, sadder thoughts and motivations, yet sends them up at the same time.
Pohl-Weary says Ahlers work is compelling precisely because she absorbs and rethinks pain in a way other people cannot. “At its most elemental, her art is about survival—getting through life’s crap. It resonates because she’s taking something you do or think every day and spitting it back at you in this stark, no-punches-pulled way. A lot of people will stop, see crap, and go in another direction. Sonja just keeps right on going. But she’s also having fun with it.”
Ahlers’ itinerary for Australia included Melbourne and Tasmania. While in Japan, she was slated to do a residency for ten days to make art in front of and with groups of high-school students.
“Sounds freaky, but I think it will be fine,” she says prior to leaving. “It’s easier to do that kind of work in a different culture from your own. Anyway,” Ahlers laughs, “I’m getting better at taking feedback. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been O.K. with feedback, I was too volatile. Now I can do this, and be with other people. That to me feels better, to have it this way.”
For the angry woman who only ever wanted to connect, getting to this point might be more of a personal achievement than anything she’s done to date.