People and Places

How Sofia Minson draws on her Māori heritage to create powerful art

With her work hanging in homes and galleries around the world, Kiwi painter Sofia Minson is certainly making waves in the art scene. She discusses how she channels her unique life experiences into distinctive artworks

When did you start painting?

My painting journey began as a toddler. I have two older sisters whom I looked up to, and they were artistic, like my grandmother, so our house always had art materials around. When I came back to Aotearoa at 14 after living overseas, painting was a way for me to connect with my ancestors, my mixed Ngāti Porou Māori, English, Swedish and Irish heritage. In my teenage years I began painting images that told stories and learning about Aotearoa’s myths, history and magic.

Did you study art or are you self-taught?

I learned as I went along and art became a natural and enjoyable way to express myself. I actually quit art in fifth form to pursue the sciences, presuming art would remain a hobby rather than a career. At uni I studied science, then interior architecture. It wasn’t until my early twenties, when I started showcasing my art to the public for fun, that I realised people would buy my work. Painting chose me.

How has your international upbringing shaped your art?

Because of my dad’s civil engineering work, we lived in Aotearoa as well as spending years in Samoa, Sri Lanka and China. The Sri Lanka experience particularly stands out as I was in a formative period of life from the age of 11 to 14. The juxtaposition of different religions and ethnicities, as well as the huge disparity between wealth and poverty, were a culture shock.

I attended an international school and my perspective was widened massively with the influx of different perspectives from around the world. I became passionate about celebrating the uniqueness of people, their views, storytelling and spiritual practices and beliefs, which is something that has come through in my art. Equally, I felt rootless after so much travel. Painting has been there for me, to help me reconnect with the land and my unfolding sense of who I am.

How did you go about building a career as a painter?

My first opportunity was nothing fancy, but it was perfect for me; I was offered a leftover expo booth, for free, at the ASB Showgrounds in Auckland. Over the course of one weekend, all the paintings I’d been working on for the last couple of years sold. That was when I realised I could sustain myself from my passion. After that, I put myself out there all the time. I entered (and won a few) art awards and put my work in every group exhibition I could.

At 19, I set up an online presence and people began to discover me through my website, inviting me to showcase my art publicly. Because of group shows, art awards, press and my web presence, galleries began contacting me, wanting to represent my work, and followers of my art grew.

How would you describe the subject matter of your work?

I paint portraits, landscapes and images of nature that contain ancestral wisdom for our modern-day human experience. There are powerful characters, sacred geometry and myths and legends that connect us to the land. I look fair-skinned, with freckles and red hair, and yet my portraits reflect my inner experience of cultural diversity. Many are of Māori or portray gods and goddesses from Māori cosmology. My creativity is inspired by living here in Aotearoa and tapping into my Ngāti Porou lineage and ancestors, so these are the stories coming through to me the strongest at this time.

My creativity is inspired by living here in Aotearoa and

tapping into my Ngāti Porou lineage and ancestors

How do you rest, recharge and stay inspired?

Over the 15 or so years that I’ve been professionally painting, I’ve learned that you can’t force being in the flow. Painting is meant to be a fun and playful act, and when I’m in the studio I’m not judging myself. Anything that comes up and anything I paint is totally fine and I practise ignoring any external voices of judgement.

When I’m not in that feeling of flow, I will rest. Life isn’t about working super hard when you feel uninspired. In those times I will change my environment, travel, go for walks in nature, spend time with loved ones and go out for food. I love absorbing stories so I spend time reading books and watching movies. I get my fix of the outside world, then I want to go inward and paint, since by then I have something new to say.

What advice do you have for other artists in Aotearoa?

I grew up with the false notion that artists are poor, and that to make money you have to be chosen by some imaginary hierarchy. We can make our own paths by putting one foot in front of the other and following our talents. There’s not a particular gallery to be represented by or an institution to study at – there isn’t a set ladder or hierarchy you need to climb. Find your own path.

Why did you decide to start selling prints as well as paintings?

I decided to sell prints because I love the fact that the messages of connection that come through my paintings can reach more people. Because of limited-edition prints, my work is accessible at a different price point and scale to the originals, yet they are still valuable pieces of art in their own right that can be treasured and enjoyed in the home. This has opened up so many new relationships between myself and all the people who love my art. And when I find out my work is meaningful to so many people out there, it makes me incredibly happy.

What other artists or creatives inspire you?

Visual artists I’m inspired by include those such as Alex Grey who are interested in creating their personal version of sacred psychedelic art. Historically, Gottfried Lindauer and CF Goldie are important influences in my portrait work. These artists painted poignant Māori portraits for their generation, who believed Māori culture was destined to live only in the past. Nowadays, Māori are alive and dynamic so I, as a Māori artist, am producing contemporary portraiture from a Māori perspective.

I navigate some difficult historical tensions in my art by integrating my modern experience of the world and my life as a mixed-blooded person, using both western and Māori themes and motifs.

Do you have any exciting news or exhibitions coming up?

I’m so excited by what I’m creating in my studio. There are many portraits looking out of their canvases and they will be released one by one as they’re completed.

Follow Sofia on Instagram: @sofiaminson

Interview by: Sally Conor. Photography by: Helen Bankers.

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