Impossible Things - an art exhibition by Sonja Howard

Autistic Wellington artist Sonja Howard has a solo exhibition - Impossible Things - opening soon at Thistle Hall. We had a chat with Sonja to find out about her work.

Sonja, a young woman, holds one of her creatures with a skull and wings

How did you get into doing art? 

I grew up surrounded by a creative community who encouraged my curiosity from a young age. They supported me to experiment with a variety of mediums, and inspired me push my limits. This support often came in the form of donating found bones and teaching me the importance of the environment and its continued preservation.  

Tell me about the theme of your exhibition – and how did you start using skeletons? 

An important part of my artistic journey growing up involved studying animals. I wanted to be a zoologist, and enjoyed learning from local scientists, teachers, and vets about how the body works. I collected bones and other curiosities; using them in my art was a way to honour and celebrate the creatures they came from. It was only a matter of time before I grew curious about how fantasy creatures could theoretically evolve, and how they would work beneath the surface. In 2019 I attended a mouse skeletal articulation workshop with the wonderful Gerard Geer, who taught the technical side of articulating small skeletons. This led to a rejuvenation of passion, and my first colony of dermestids.  

Through this exhibition, I wanted to highlight the preciousness of ordinary creatures, and inspire people to look closer at what they deem “Impossible”. I also hope that my exhibition is a message to those who are different, and those who face challenges that others may not understand. You are capable of anything you set your mind to – even if others assume it’s impossible.  

A fantastical creature with a skeleton body and wings

Can you explain a little more about how synesthesia and autism influences your work?

My synesthesia translates noise, letters, and numbers into colours in my mind’s eye. It, along with my Autism, help me see things in a slightly different way, encouraging exploration into things that may otherwise be overlooked.  

Autism also has a very specific influence on my sculpting style. My version of stimming involves drawing simple swirls and shapes into complex, sometimes page-encompassing, patterns. I find it deeply calming, and it aids my focus. The style of sculpture I use for the bases of these creatures is the 3D translation of those calming swirls and shapes. These patterns are also reflected in my creature drawings, and other artwork. 

Providing an accessible art experience is something that’s important to you – did you have a particular formative experience that’s made you so set on the accessibility or has it evolved over time? 

I’ve been fortunate throughout my life to have grown up in diverse communities, which has broadened my perspective and empathy. I witnessed the different ways people interact with the world, and how little effort is often made to accommodate even the simplest of requirements. I also experience sensory difficulties, which have proved challenging over the years. As such, I want to make sure I do everything I can to make my work as accessible as I can. I believe that the more we engage with difference, the more we can learn and grow.  

What’s a question that you wished people would ask you? 

Would you like to come and work on Doctor Who? Just kidding… but it has been my special interest since I was 10.  

Who are some of your other favourite disabled artists? 

While I haven’t had the chance to experience her work in person, I enjoy the work of Anna Berry , whose installations offer insights into the shape of an autistic brain – or as close as one can get in the halls of a gallery. Jen Mcarthur’s wonderful play, Echolalia , was an inspiring and amusing production, and I look forward to viewing more of her work in the future. I’m also inspired by the work of fellow creature artist, Lee Cross , who is dyslexic. She attributes her abilities to conceptualise and visualise her creatures in 3D before she begins to her dyslexic brain.

Impossible Things poster including one of the bird skeletons with wings

Impossible Things

Date: 24th-30th January, 2022
Location: Thistle Hall Gallery, 293 Cuba Street, Te Aro, Wellington 6011
Opening: 6pm Monday 24th
Times: 10am-7pm Tuesday-Saturday 10am- 4pm Sunday
Daily talks: 12pm and 6pm Tues-Sat


There will be:

  • Wheelchair accessible entrance, gallery layout, and bathrooms. 

  • Sensory accessible hours: 10-11am and 4-5pm every day. During this time there will be no music, hushed voices encouraged, earplugs available, and potentially adjusted lighting 

  • Some artwork which can be experienced by touch (hand sanitiser provided). 

  • NZSL interpretation at the opening. 

PLEASE NOTE: Thistle Hall requires all attendees to present a vaccine passport upon entry. Masks are also highly encouraged.

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