CAMBRIDGE— When Sondra Jonson tells far-flung art patrons where she lives, they might assume she means Massachusetts.
Certainly the home of Harvard University would seem a logical place for a classically trained sculptor to create her art .
But Jonson works and lives in the other Cambridge, the one with 1,041 residents about 1,300 miles west of Harvard. In fact, it wasn't until she moved to her little town nearly a decade ago that her art career took off.
“Who is inspired in the middle of a city, where there's traffic jams and people are hasty and smog?” she said. “That can't be conducive to creative inspiration.”
She would know. She's a native of Philadelphia. Before moving to Cambridge she lived in Las Vegas, which proudly claims to be the fastest-growing city in the United States.
“After living in cities all my life, I really wanted to live in a small town,” she said.
It's a decision she has yet to regret.
In Cambridge, she bought the house next door to her family's home to use as a studio. She spends her days crafting sculptures she hopes will age as well as the century-old house that is her studio.
Jonson's work has come into public view in recent years. Art followers from Omaha to Cambridge can see her handiwork on permanent exhibition.
“I think Sondra has done an extraordinary job,” said Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council. “She's also done a good job of marketing herself.”
Proof can be seen in the fact that collectors far from Nebraska have recognized her talent. For example, she recently completed a dramatic, life-size sculpture of Jesus Christ on the cross titled “I Thirst,” for a church in Perry, Fla.
While she has done many smaller commissions in her career—sculptures that could fit on a coffee table—she most enjoys producing monuments.
“Outdoor sculpture is so cool,” she said. “You can go up to it and touch it and check it out.”
As a girl growing up in Philadelphia, checking out art was a routine family activity. Her parents, George and Norma Wohl, both physicians, took her to art museums and galleries before she could walk.
Being immersed in art at such an early age gave her an appreciation for classics. Donald De Lue, Rodin, Michelangelo and Matthias Grunewald remain her greatest influences.
After high school, she studied at Bryn Mawr College, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Frudakis Academy of Art in Philadelphia.
She practiced several media, but she was most interested in the human form as a subject. EvAngelos Frudakis said in order to best follow that interest, she should learn to sculpt.
Eighteen years into a professional career, she said she's still learning.
“I know what good sculpture is,” she said. “I'm still trying to be a good sculptor.”
After teaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she decided to focus on her career as an artist. With art friends in McCook, she decided to scout the area for a new home.
Mother of three boys, she chose Cambridge in 1994 largely because the community has a reputation for good schools.
Since her family's move to Cambridge, she has grown as an artist while developing a market for her work.
She said her turning point piece was “Daydreams,” a 4-foot tall monument depicting a ponytailed girl and her Scottie dog. The sculpture is on display at Cooper Park in Lincoln.
She has since created a number of religious monuments, including “Bringing Hope: Rachel Weeps for Her Children,” on the grounds of Saint Germanus Catholic Church in Arapahoe.
Her sculpture of Catherine McAuley, who founded the Sisters of Mercy, is on display at Mercy High School in Omaha and has also been sold to educational institutions in Louisville, Ky.
“I love doing church art,” Jonson said. The subject not only provides a source of commissions, it ties in with her Catholic faith.
While working on divine subject matter suits her, she resists being pigeonholed. She has completed equally impressive secular pieces, including a ballerina titled “Swan Princess” at the Phelps County Performing Arts Center in Holdrege, and a farm family gathering around the radio in “Breaking News” outside of KRVN studios in Lexington.
“It's beautiful,” said Ed Bennett, operations manager for the radio station. “We've gotten a lot of attention because of it.”
When she works on a project, she spends hours doing research and making drawings from both photographs and live models. She sculpts in modeling clay and likes to spend time away from a piece so she can gain a new perspective when she returns to it.
A mason jar, smeared with fingerprints, holds the tools of her trade: wire end tools, ball end tools, paddles and rakes. But her most valuable instrument is the caliper — the pincher-like tool that helps gauge perspective.
“The big picture really matters in art,” she said. “It's got to work all together. The body has to flow.”
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