Interview with Sonja Nilsson
Updated: Mar 18
Sunday walk in Görlitzer park on a cold day in February.
Photo by Iryna Kalamurza
Sonja Nilsson Online presence/website
www.sonjanilsson.se What is your story on becoming a parent, and your family dynamic
When I met my girlfriend Jenny, some kind of clock had started ticking in me. Everything felt right, and I was madly in love. So almost immediately, I dropped the idea of how amazing it would be to create a family together. After that it quickly became a serious idea. Our first son Julian was born in 2007 with an extremely unusual birth complication. When the water broke, the uterine wall ruptured in a way that blood vessels attached to the umbilical cord also ruptured. This happened while we still were at home. We came to hospital by ambulance, after which an emergency caesarean section was performed. He had resurrection attempts for 9 minutes before his heart unexpectedly started. Due to the blood lost and the lack of oxygen, he had suffered severe brain damage. He managed to live for five months. The first two and a half months at hospital, and the last two and a half months we got with him at home. One and a half years later Kaspar was born, and three years later Henry was born. The way things started with Julian took away something innocent in the idea of having children. Maybe that's why I have a hard time with how people often change when they get children, as if everything revolves around their child. I actually do not think that it is good for either themselves or the child. Today, I think Julian has a role in our family like Pippi Longstocking's mother, who is always there, peeping down on us through a hole in the sky. He will always be a mystery. And that we never will know who he would have been has opened up a lot of fantasy in me. Every year we have a small cake party for Julian on his birthday, he has a special role in our family. Sometimes it is very good to have a person who is not physically present in the contact with children. And to add in the family dynamic, I should also mention that we recently got a cat named Honey!
Julian 3 weeks old
What advice would you give to emerging artists entering parenthood?
Being creative and finding visions erupting inside yourself needs space, and is certainly not a good idea to combine with being a mother. That is something I understood later. I also realised later how exhausted and how much I lost myself during the years with small
children. I wish I could travel back in time and say to myself: take it easy, you will get time for yourself again, the years go faster than you think. And of course I have become much more structured. The time when the kids started school became holy time for myself to make art. And for the past year, I’ve been trying to be wise, telling myself: Covid will be over faster than you think, you’ll soon have your own time back. Has your approach changed since you became a parent?
A lot has changed for me on an emotional level since having children. This has, definitely enriched and renewed my creative interest. Jenny and I grew up with completely different types of mothers. Jenny's mother was a very strong character, an original. She left family and everything behind in what was, at the time, the closed communist Czechoslovakia. She gave birth to Jenny in Germany as a single mother.
My mother went against the flow of her generation, she was against the idea of kindergarten and voluntarily went to a course where you learn how to become a housewife. She was home with me and my sister until I started school. She baked bread almost every day and sewed clothes for us. When I became a teenager, her choice became something that was completely incomprehensible to me. Funny enough, I am now the mother who thinks it is important that we have common meals and that the smell of cinnamon buns is planted in childhood memories. Fortunately, my artist's ego has not changed by having children. And, after all, I want to thank my mother for this. I do have to say, I am very grateful for all the time in my childhood that I had for myself and which made me who I am today. Having children has also made me think about how much relations are based on where we come from. In my art, a psychoanalytic interest has often served as an engine for my ideas. In recent years, the content of my work has more involved thoughts around relationships, and that is probably a consequence in the journey of having children.
How much time did you spend on work?
I would say that somehow I am almost always busy, sometimes even when I sleep I continue to work in the dreams. It is both for better and for worse to have difficulty taking a break from work. There have been periods when I felt frustrated and thought that I didn't progress, such as when the kids were small.
Later, after I had the opportunity to work again, I realised that much of the thinking for that work had been done during the time I thought I had not managed anything.
3Sometimes, I think it's sad not to be able to take a break and have a holiday and just enjoy swimming and nice food, without having your mind in that book you have taken with you to the beach.
I have had two depressions in my life, during which I lost myself and did not know what I wanted anymore. These are the only times I have completely stopped thinking about my own work. And that was no good for me.
What were your future plans regarding your
I need a lot of time when I do things and still have my future plans ahead of me. I hope to go in bloom in old days.
You’re based in Berlin, how has that affected you, your art practise, perspective and network?
Berlin has many sides, both high and low, that go on completely independently of each other. With my art practice, I mostly just work, and when I meet friends it's usually outside the art context. There are very many who come to Berlin for a couple of years because they want to make new contacts and get involved in creative projects. While working on my latest project, I searched for people with specific looks and voices to portray famous characters used in my work. I posted descriptions of what I was looking for on Craigslist, and explained that I had no budget, but promised to offer pizza and drinks when we were done. Despite that, I had up to ten people audition for some roles! That kind of bubbling activity is a cool side of Berlin that would probably be difficult to make possible in most other big cities.
Can you describe one artwork or moment that you feel was a turning point in your career?
I would not say I have a specific work or occasion as a turning point in my career. But on a personal level, working on my latest series of works it has been the most enjoyable work process, and it still is! These works were based on a certain type of story that I had been collecting for several years, almost like an obsession.
Every time I came across a new story, I thought: I have to use this for a work of art.
I collected more and more but could not bring myself to do any of it, until I reached a point when ideas for how to put together the material into works of art literally just flowed out of me.
Without any real budget, I cast 10 people to act the voices, and 10 to perform the character roles. The costumes were made from flea market finds.
Filming, cutting and building the pieces all happened in the space of a year. After the work had its premiere, I continued to work on a book belonging to the works, with personal introductions to all the characters.
Perhaps the most touching moments happened after I contacted those who had become part of my artwork. I got to meet Sandy Stone who, at 83 years old, traveled from Santa Monica, US to Norrtälje Konsthall to participate in a seminar.
The people my pieces were based on had been like fantasy characters for me: it became surreal to find answers from them in my mailbox. They had suddenly become real, and I existed in their lives! That response meant a lot, and is one of the cooler experience I ever had in a work’s progress. How is your experience with the representation on women combining parenthood within your community?
Luckily, it has changed that it has now become more common with female artists who also have children. From how it was when I was young, a lot has changed.
It was unusual to see a man with a pram, and I actually can not remember anyone, from where I came from, who had two mothers. Sometimes I realise my mind is still stuck in this time, and thinking that it could be an issue for the kids to have two mothers.
When my oldest son was going to start school, I thought he would get questions and comments about it. Now he is in sixth grade and not a single incident like that has occurred. A few times I have asked the children questions to see if they nevertheless thought it could be an issue, then I get a look back as if I would be from another planet!
And they say: so what? It may be that they are super good at hiding, but it seems more like that it is no longer a charged topic for the new generation.
It would probably be a little different in a small town. And the situation of course looks completely different if you are, for example, in Russia.
But above all, I think that if you want to avoid being affected by the old norms, the best thing you can do is get young friends.
What are you working on, any future project?
I have not really put words on this yet, but I can just say that my up coming project is tip-toeing around some theme about Thanatophilia*, a love project, that looks at the beauty of that which continues to live on after death. *description from urbandictionary.com Obsessive fascination with corpses and/or death. Sometimes used in place of necrophilia but not necessarily with sexual meaning.
Upcoming shows or openings?
Yes, a show at Konstepidemin, Gothenburg on the 21st of May until the 13th of June. And I have a show in Cologne at Gallery Zarinbal Khoshbakht this spring. (Depending on Angela Merkel when they decide to open up the lock down we are in).
Sonja in her studio
Photo by Iryna Kalamurza
Video clip from upcoming show at Zarinbal Khoshbakht in Cologne