CBC | Kevin Chong | April 23, 2010
CBC interviews SONJA AHLERS and thinks that you should read THE SELVES over and over again
Writer and visual artist Sonja Ahlers says the title for her new book, The Selves, came to her while she was watching Sybil, a 1976 made-for-TV movie starring Sally Field as a woman with multiple personalities.
Each celebrity or icon of womanhood in the book represents a different self. It stands for the female experience as well as the disconnect between public image and private torment.
"I always watch the end credits of movies," recalls Ahlers from her home in Whitehorse. "And the personalities in the credits were billed as 'the Selves.' And I was sitting with my then-boyfriend, and we both looked at each other and said, 'That should be the book title.'"
It's fitting that a TV movie some might dismiss as trashy would inspire Ahlers's book. The Selves uses words and imagery, assembled in a scrapbook-diary style, from both low and high culture to create a composite portrait of the generation of white, North American women born in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, a quote by the late poet Anne Sexton ("A woman is her mother. That's the main thing") is followed by a cut-and-paste collage made of photos of Princess Diana and Drew Barrymore as children.
Each celebrity or icon of womanhood in the book represents a different self that, in combination, stands for not only the female experience, but also the underlying disjunction between public image and private torment.
Exploring this uniquely conceived book is like viewing a slideshow for an anthropological talk on a group of prehistoric ancestors who've only left traces of their existence. Except instead of cave drawings and arrowheads, we get pithy snippets, for example, from a Gloria Steinem essay on Marilyn Monroe or a watercolour portrait of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The Selves is webbed together by handwritten poetic fragments and evocative line drawings by Ahlers herself. She describes The Selves as a "collective biography that appeals to a demographic, or a certain generation."
The author of two earlier books, Temper, Temper and Fatal Distraction, Ahlers grew up drawing and making zines on Vancouver Island. After moving to Montreal in her early 20s, she became a fan of graphic novels by Daniel Clowes and Julie Doucet. (Their works were put out by Drawn & Quarterly, the esteemed Montreal publisher of graphic novels that is also releasing The Selves.)
"I tried to do a sequential comic, but found [the medium] to be too masculine," recalls Ahlers, a self-taught artist. "My approach is more intuitive and organic, which I find to be a feminine process."
Ahlers has always blurred the boundaries between visual art and writing. In Passing Fancies, a 2002 installation piece in Vancouver's Helen Pitt Gallery, she presented a large-scale collage of letters from a zine-making pen pal that she befriended after reading about him in Sassy magazine. The Selves adopts the same approach, but works in the opposite direction, turning a text-based medium into more of a visual artifact.
"I treat the book like a gallery," Ahlers says. "It's a physical object. I think of it as a sculpture. The placement of the image on the page is all considered. It's like being in a gallery, but you're opening it, instead of stepping inside."
While The Selves doesn't have a narrative, per se, it does have a structure. The book starts with images of a foetus in the womb and examines depictions of children and motherhood. As the book follows its composite character into adolescence, Ahlers explores her own childhood fascination with romance novels.
"I read them as a kid," Ahlers says about the Sweet Dreams series of young-adult books. "I was basically brainwashed by them."
In one strangely poignant collage, a series of Sweet Dreams covers is grouped on one page with a magazine image of Princess Diana, who recurs throughout The Selves as a female archetype. Lady Di is reading the romance novels of her real-life stepmother, Barbara Cartland. The juxtaposition between the magazine and the princess who didn't get the fairy-tale ending suggests the consequences of this "brainwashing" taken to sinister extremes.
The Selves also addresses a woman's relationship with men. "I've always heard that in your twenties you deal with issues with your father," Ahlers says. "In your thirties, you deal with issues with your mother."
In the next section of the book, Ahlers plays around with a potent image of a teenage Angelina Jolie at a red-carpet premiere with her father, Jon Voight.
"The image of [Jolie] as her father's date — there's something eerie about it," says Ahlers. Jolie is alarmingly young, and looks precociously sexual in a lacy outfit that resembles a wedding gown. "The dress is so demented," Ahlers adds. "She obviously has issues with her father."
Ahlers, who divides her time between Whitehorse and Toronto, currently makes her living by selling handmade bunnies — a recurring theme in work that was originally inspired by the film Fatal Attraction — on an online Etsy store. She says the use of pop-culture iconography isn't so much a nod to conceptual artists like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, but comes instead from a desire to produce accessible work.
"In North America, it's more of a cerebral experience with conceptual art," says Ahlers, who performed in the band Kiki Bridges in the '90s, and is currently working on a book about a break-up. "What I do is completely different. My work is visceral and emotional; I want it to appeal to a larger group."
You can flip through The Selves in under an hour — the experience is less like reading a novel or staring at a gallery installation and more like listening to an album. While it has an immediate impact, the book's power and the extent of its creator's skill only come through in the repeated readings it invites.