After a divorce at a young age, Sonia Gill, now 72, changed careers to go to art school and has been creating original works ever since. She has taught art and French for many years, in places as widespread as Baltimore and Berkeley. Here, she discusses the inspiration for her landscapes, how a New Jersey suburb has changed over the decades, and why the medium of collage matters to her.
“I’m a painter, that’s my perspective. Lately, I’ve been doing collage—that started last November. I had done it a long time ago at various phases of my career. I did it very tight for a while, and then I went totally abstract and did huge ones, like three feet by four feet. Now I’ve gotten tight again, but there’s looseness in a different way. I use my scissors like a brush and the cut-up photographs like my paint. The process of collage reflects the way I live; I create my life piece by piece, discarding what doesn’t work, trimming or enlarging to fit. I enjoy using the humble materials of printed magazines and making something beautiful from them. Fine art can be made from anything.
I started with landscape—it’s kind of a funny story. My husband’s family is from New Jersey, and we live in California, so we go out there once a year. His parents have not changed their home since I’ve been going there in the 1970s. There’s no Wi-Fi, there’s no computer, there’s nothing. And his parents have Fox News on 24/7, so it’s hard for me because I’m pretty liberal. When I was going out there, I bought a Vogue magazine at the airport, which is rare because I never read that stuff. I started reading it and thought, ‘There’s nothing in this magazine for me to read, I’d much rather cut it up.’ So I got scissors and a glue stick at Walgreens, and started making collages. Where my husband’s house is located is now a Gucci suburb, but his father built the house by hand. All around them, the suburb has turned into mega-mansions. But when I first started going out there, the end of the road was dirt. There were a lot of woods. Have you ever seen The Sopranos? It was filmed six blocks away; if you see it, you’ll understand. Now, there are huge houses with six-car garages and five bedrooms. I remember the little houses that were there first: two bedrooms, maybe a one-car garage. It’s really sad.
I’m taken with the autumn landscape in New Jersey. My work, New Jersey Afternoon, was the third or fourth one in a series. I ended up constructing the scene from a photo I had taken while my husband was driving, and I was hanging out the car window. I’m very into light—it has to hit me right. This particular one, I was struck by the light coming through the trees, and how the sun was low in the sky and fall was going into winter. There’s a specific feeling: it’s warm, but there’s something coming, an anticipation of the changing of the seasons. The light is coming through, but the shadows are different. Using the pattern from the magazines, I have the opportunity to make cuts in an interesting way. I got into folding the paper and doing snowflake cuts, like you used to do in school. It was experimental. The great thing about collage is that if it doesn’t work, you paste over it. It really is like painting. I wanted to get my heart in there, my interpretation, and my feeling.
I would love to just scream in letters and say, ‘Save our environment!’—that’s what this is about. But I can’t do that, so I’m trying to say, ‘Look at how lovely this is. Look how wonderful. Look at what we have and what we’re losing.’ I hope that this comes through by focusing so intensely on the positive that it makes you aware that ‘Wow. We’re in danger.’ At the same time, I want to be hopeful—we have to be. If we don’t have a planet we can live on, nothing else is worth discussing.”