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A unique journey: meet Sonya Thoms

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Drawing in the red desert sand as a toddler, there was no doubt Sonya Thoms would have a destiny in the arts.

As a young girl, she already had the passion, inspired by the artists found among the remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory mainland and Groote Eylandt, where she grew up.

Moving to Canberra with her family, Sonya followed this passion to the Canberra School of Arts where she received a BA in Textiles and Printmaking. Even when she wasn’t creating, Sonya has worked in the arts sphere, running her small picture framing business Frame by Frame and working part time at the National Film and Sound Archive.

Now, after shelving her artistic pursuits for 20 years to raise a family, she’s finally reconnecting with her creative roots.

“It was time, now my children are older. I felt I could redirect my focus back into the arts, and reconnect with my creative self, which had been building in me” says Sonya.

Sonya’s first foray back into the art world was through sketching. But the decision to take some classes in painting proved a turning point. Before long Sonya painted her first portrait and was encouraged to start entering her work in competitions and after some early success Sonya knew she’d found her creative home again.

“Although discovering a new medium is exhilarating, it is also daunting. There is still so much to learn,” she explains.

After a competitive application processes, Sonya was awarded the inaugural Canberra Art Workshop (CAW) Mavis Hall Arts Trust Grant in October 2021, an incredible accomplishment for someone who only picked up a paintbrush a few years ago.

Sonya credits CAW with really helping build skills and confidence. Based at Griffith, CAW and M16 gallery provide a space and the support of a strong community of local art enthusiasts.

With the Grant, Sonya proposes to explore and refine her painting techniques in portraiture and produce a body of work over the next 12 months.

“I’m incredibly proud, but also surprised to win the Grant,” says Sonya. ”I feel I’ve stumbled into portraiture almost by accident, after being dared into entering a competition by a work colleague.”

“Once I’d started, though, I fell in love with painting. It’s a really exciting way to express your thoughts, tell stories and communicate what I see deep down in the character of my subjects.”

For Sonya, she says it’s not about ‘resolving’ her paintings but pushing the boundaries of what she can do, while finding special connections with her subjects. After babysitting his two daughters Hope and Krystal when she was younger, that connection is reflected in her oil painting of Arrernte man, Neville Perkins OAM, leading her to be an SBS Portrait finalist.

“The exposure to Aboriginal story-telling, spending time with the Indigenous women while they practiced their art and craft, and hearing stories that were both simultaneously sad and beautiful had a profound effect on me,” explains Sonya.

“It definitely sparked my interest in the human story. The marks people make, our shared experiences, celebrating our strengths, our wisdom, and our journey, are all things I wish to convey through my portraits.”

With the support of CAW and a mentor, Sonya is excited to move into a different creative space and embrace her new passion, encouraging other artists to “get out there and do that”.

Every time she picks up the paintbrush, Sonya admits she doesn’t know what will appear on the canvas; and as she begins her artistic journey, she still thinks of the little girl in the desert exploring, discovering, and making mistakes along the way.

“When I painted my first portrait subject, I was very up front about my lack of experience with him, honestly neither of us knew what it would look like.” says Sonya.

“There was pressure, but it was low pressure, I wasn’t trying to create something that looked like someone else’s painting. I was trying to create something bold and make new discoveries…So yes, it’s going to be a year of living curiously as I explore painting and the stories of my subjects through the portraiture genre. I plan on making loads of mistakes, more discoveries, and hopefully some serendipitous learnings along the way!”

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