From the time she was 5 years old, Sondra Jonson knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her parents, both doctors, had wasted no time instilling in her a love of art.
“I think we were going to museums before I was sitting up,” she says. “In first grade, art was the only thing I was good at.”
Today Jonson is an award-winning sculptor whose work has been shown all over the United States and Europe. Among her proudest achievements are many works of sacred art inspired by, and supportive of, the Catholic faith.
Since 1985 her S.L. Jonson Studio in Cambridge, Neb., has produced sculptures large and small.
Whether creating a veteran’s memorial for the City of Sioux Falls, N.D., or a religious statue for a local Catholic parish, Jonson is quick to explain that her Catholic identity is inseparable from her craft.
That wasn’t always the case. She entered the Church in 1982, after growing up in a secular Jewish family. As she describes it, her journey began as a young adult.
“I think my big conversion was just to become a believer in God,” Jonson explains.
She opened her Bible to Psalm 84 one night in young adulthood. All at once she “knew that God was real,” she recalls.
This sparked her to read the Old Testament all the way through — and then see what the New Testament had to add.
Suffice it to say that she came away convinced that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Today, she sees her purpose as a Catholic artist as one of teaching and inspiring, like the great Catholic painters and sculptors of old. Says Jonson: “We liturgical artists hope to inspire those who encounter our work with a sense of the mystery and truth of Christ.”
In Wichita, Kan., Sister Helen Lentz, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, counts herself among the many people moved by the work of Jonson’s hands. Sister Lentz met Jonson 15 years ago, when the sculptor was working on a piece for the congregation’s Resurrection Chapel in their Wichita convent.
Jonson designed the “Doors of Eternal Life.” This sculpture presents colorful rays emanating from the sun. It’s set on the chapel doors leading outside to the convent’s cemetery. These doors are only opened during funerals for sisters of the convent.
“What she creates comes out of her own prayer life,” says Sister Helen. “Her work comes out of her deep spirituality. She is very attentive to what the people who are going to use the space want. Everybody who comes into the chapel loves her work.”
Asked about her most challenging projects, Jonson talks about a pro-life memorial she completed a decade ago. It was commissioned by the local Knights of Columbus for a nearby parish.
The sculpture, “Rachel Weeping for Her Children,” is based on Jeremiah 31:15-16. “Rachel mourns her children,” the Scripture reads. “She refuses to be consoled because her children are no more.”
In this life-size bronze statue, Rachel is depicted prostrate before the Lord. Across her lap is an empty blanket that would have cradled her child.
“I knew Rachel would touch people dealing with deep and painful emotions, especially those of parents who have suffered the loss of a child,” says Jonson. “I prayed constantly while working on her. My prayer was that God would guide me to make Rachel what she needed to be for those who would encounter her.”
“Rachel Weeping” is Jonson’s most collected and widely traveled creation. Seven copies have been sold and installed across the United States, and one will be dedicated this summer in Canada. She has also produced a smaller version of the statue; it, too, is proving popular.
Jonson knows of two abortion businesses that ending up closing not long after a Rachel statue was placed in their view.
She also received a letter from a mother who came across Rachel on a trip to Nebraska and, for the first time, felt God’s mercy and his healing touch after the death of her daughter due to a car accident.
“The response to Rachel,” says Jonson, “has been both inspiring and humbling.”
Vision of Unity
Jonson counts among her satisfied patrons Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb. He first met the artist almost 10 years ago when he dedicated “Rachel Weeping.”
“Whether it is a secular piece of art or a religious piece, her artwork is inspiring,” the bishop told the Register. “It is not only nice to look at, but comes from a deep spiritual depth. She is a splendid artist. I appreciate her vision and artwork.”
Bishop Bruskewitz has commissioned Jonson to complete a number of new works for his diocese, including a statue of Blessed John XXIII for a diocesan center.
Bishop Bruskewitz was instrumental in arranging an opportunity for Jonson to present an 18-inch bronze miniature of her existing Blessed John XXIII statue to Pope Benedict while on pilgrimage in Rome last summer.
A self-described “chatterbox,” Jonson says she was speechless as she shook hands with the Successor of St. Peter.
“I wanted to tell him what a big fan I was,” she says, “but all I could say was ‘Thank you, Holy Father.’ He has this smile, and he just seems like the kindest person.”
Busy with a number of projects in her studio these days, Jonson is not speechless when asked about her plans for the future.
“What I hope and work for is an America free from the heavy burden of abortion and exploitation of the human embryo,” she says. “I long for an American Catholic Church united under the magisterium and faithful to the foundations of our heritage.”
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