Meet the Maker: Sonya Yong James

Sonya Yong James

Sonya Yong James of Modern Fiber Lab, friend and super talented fiber artist, was recently featured in Martha Stewart’s Living Blog:

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I recently had the pleasure of talking to Sonya Yong James about wool sculptures and home decor. Check out my interview with the genius behind Modern Fiber Lab.

What is your fascination with wool?

I have been working almost primarily with wool for about ten years. I love how an attraction to a particular medium can be almost instinctual and even emotional. I’ve always been drawn to natural fibers. Years ago I did very large sculptures and installations using plant fibers, which then led me to the idea of exploring different animal fibers for their potential sculptural qualities. My fascination with wool is its natural ability to felt and make a solid piece of fabric and different natural forms using only water and friction. But I also love the sheep that they come from, the shepherds that care for them, and simply the way the fiber feels and smells.

When did art become part of daily life?

From as early as I can remember. I began painting when I was three. I actually trained to be a classical pianist and thought I might pursue this but I realized I enjoyed making things rather than playing music. It suits my temperament as well. As a young child, I would always spend a lot of time by myself doing obsessive things like carve bark or sew little forms for hours at a time. I am still doing that decades later.

Can you tell us about your process?

Intuition. I usually initially know or sense an idea by imagining a form or texture. This can happen for the sculpture work and the textile design work. It usually just appears visually and emotionally when I am working with my fiber materials.

Assemble. This part of the process is very organic. I begin to work out ideas and structure by prototyping and sketching. This often brings ideas that lead to unexpected places and solutions that I did not initially plan for. I then gather the materials and process the wool from the sheep to the finished piece.

Repetition. I then set out to work. My work is very labor intensive and some pieces can take months to complete. Because of this method of working, it is very therapeutic and meditative.

Do you ever work with any other medium?

I still use linen frequently, and I also use silk, in particular silk organza. I love the poetry of silk, the larvae weaving cocoons, the undergoing of complete metamorphosis, and just the beauty of it. I also am an avid dyer, using both acid dyes and natural dyes, and wool and silk dye very well.

Who inspires you and what artists have affected you most?

There are so many amazing people in my life, including friends and family that inspire me. Their tremendous talent, support, and generosity affect me creatively. This immediate community of people is very encouraging and important to me.

Many artists have influenced me over the years in many different ways. I have always adored the work of Petah Coyne. She is unlike many contemporary artists who focus on social or political issues. Her work has always attracted me through its very personal qualities. Her sculptural work is so magical, seductive, and excessive. Her work embodies all of the qualities that I love the most in art: mysterious themes and work that touches on life and death. I also love the meticulous and labor-intensive qualities of her work. Some of her pieces take years to complete.

The obsessive and repetitive work of Eva Hesse and Yayoi Kusama have influenced me since I was young, along with the sculptural work of Louise Bourgeois. Louise Bourgeois worked every day in her studio until the age of 98.

Other fiber artists that have informed my work include Magdalena Abakanowicz, Claire Zeisler, Sheila Hicks, and Joan Livingstone. By listing all of these artists, I can see the common thread that runs through all of their work. This is certainly apparent in my work, including my textile design and sculpture.

Do you work from home or in your studio?

My whole entire home is my studio. I’ve always lived in a work/live space. I have an extremely understanding husband. There isn’t a spot in our house that isn’t occupied with tools, wool, books, and even more wool! The wool and the work even migrates outside. I have five different drying lines for when production is in full swing.

See more of Sonya’s work here.
Photographs courtesy of Sonya Yong James