I’m pretending to study the delicate hem of the dress, hanging on the Godfrey Dean Gallery walls, at Sonja Pawliw’s opening. My interest is feigned, not because the work isn’t incredible, but because I’ve already looked at the clothing. I’ve come back to this corner of the gallery only after spotting Pawliw; I want to get close to find out more about her.
Moments earlier I had surveyed the room wondering who, or where, she might be. I scanned attendees gathering around the high-heeled shoes covered in ceramic mosaic, the felted landscapes, alcohol and ink paintings, acrylics and photography and guessed she was the short, silver-haired woman surrounded by a crowd of older ladies fussing over her.
As soon as I move close and start eaves-dropping my suspicion is confirmed. Now that I’ve found her I have more questions. Where did she learn to work with different media? And who inspired her to become such a prolific artist? I can’t help but interrupt her conversation.
“Where do you work?” I ask when she glances my way. “Where’s your studio?”
“Studio?” she says laughing, then grabs my forearm. “My studio? It’s my dining room table! Oh, you should see the mess. Every inch is covered in broken glass, tile and grout. The floor, too! It’s been that way for years.”
I look at the skin around her lips, her eyes and thinning hair and figure she must be close to eighty. “Are you still making things?” I ask cautiously, hoping she’s not offended by my question.
“Of course!” she shoots back before she is steered away for another photo.
I came to the show today because I wanted to meet the woman described on the gallery’s website as a “maker long before the term became popular” and view her diverse body of work. Now I’m more curious than ever and decide I need to see her kitchen table for myself.
A couple months later the gallery director, Don Stein, agrees to introduce me to her. It’s a frosty December morning and I take a picture of her hand-crafted mailbox, covered in a mosaic of broken dishes and drifting snow, before knocking on her door. We step inside the small bungalow and I immediately see her table. It’s right beside the front entry and just like she had described, clearly with a project on the go.
Christmas carols play in the living room while Ukrainian music comes from the back of the house. She puts a tiny kettle on her stove and I wander around, trying to take in the paintings, macrame, mosaics, paper tole, knitting and art covering every available surface. I pull a stool up to her kitchen counter and ask, “How did you become an artist? How did all of this happen?” They’re loaded questions, ones that will take hours to answer, but Sonja loves telling stories. She talks quickly and takes big breaths so she can carry on with the next phrase.
She tells me about gardening with her grandma (who she refers to as an angel), beekeeping with her grandpa, catching sparrows, snaring rabbits and harvesting wild honey. It reminds me of the exuberant curiosity I sense in her art work. Everything from from her hand-dyed silk scarves to her embroidery to her writing and illustrations embodies her quest—even personal challenge—to curate beauty.
I’m trying to imagine how she did it all while she hustles me toward some rocking chairs covered in sheepskins. How did she have time for creativity, as the mother of eight children, while working on the farm and holding a job at the hospital? And what did other folks think when her sprawling art projects took over the home?
“Oh,” she says, grinning, “they thought I was crazy!” She chuckles. “Down right crazy.”
During our visit I’ve been trying to peg her age. Finally, she tells me she is 91.
“Ninety-one?” I echo, not sure I heard correctly. She is, after all, still producing more pieces for an upcoming gallery show in Saskatoon. In fact, she’d just told me she doesn’t have time to relax these days because there is always something she needs to make or do.
Suddenly she gets quiet. She looks down at her hands on her lap, the hands that have sculpted, molded, painted, sewed, gardened and shaped her work for nearly a century. When she looks up I see tears in her eyes.
“You know,” she says, her voice soft with emotion, “I’ve always prayed, Lord, if there are people who aren’t using the energies and talents you gave them, can you pass them on to me?” She pauses and looks at her snowy apricot tree on the other side of the window. My rocker creaks while I finger the knitted scarf she just gifted me. It’s apparent that Sonja Pawliw got what she asked for.
Note: I wrote this article for the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in December 2018. Many thanks to Don Stein for the invitation and Sonja Pawliw for the visit. It is an honour to write about such a remarkable woman… 800 words barely scratches the surface!