CAMBRIDGE (SNR) — From the outside it looks like most houses in Cambridge.
But when one enters the front door, one enters a world of life-size sculpture. It is the studio of Sondra Jonson of St. John Parish in Cambridge. Jonson, who has been called one of Nebraska's busiest sculptors, has several different pieces in various stages of completion.
The subjects of the sculptures are wide, ranging from perhaps her masterpiece, “Rachel Weeping for her Children,” a four-foot-high bronze of the Old Testament Biblical figure of Rachel, to “Breaking News,” a four-foot-hight, six-foot-long bronze of a Nebraska family listening to a news broadcast from an old radio.
Jonson developed the concept of “Rachel Weeping for her Children” as a pro-life piece, to depict the loss of children through abortion. Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob, is brought to life in bronze as weeping for her children.
“Breaking News,” was commissioned for KRVN, 880 AM radio of Lexington to mark the 50th anniversary of the farm news station.
In addition to these works, Jonson's studio includes charcoal and pencil drawings, concepts for murals, clay models of proposed works, resin reliefs and the framework for works in progress.
Jonson's work and her journey to Cambridge has been a long and interesting one. A native of Philadelphia, Jonson's father was a native Nebraskan. As an adult and wanting to raise her three sons in a rural setting, Jonson settled on Cambridge. Cambridge is a well-kept, quiet town of about 1,000 along Highway 6/34 in Furnas County – just the perfect place to rear children and pursue a life-long love of art.
For Sondra, the pursuit of art came naturally. She grew up with art, as both her parents are doctors who loved art. They took her to art studios and museums in the Philadelphia area, which helped in developing a desire to pursue art as a career.
Sondra said she had decided to be an artist by the time she was in the first grade. Initially she wanted to be a painter because she did not believe she could be a sculptor.
To see her work, however, one would believe she has a God-given gift to depict people and places. Her sculptures are based on realism – the desire to create images as they are in reality.
Sondra said she sees her work as a natural extension of her life as a Christian and mother.
“I have been in art so long that it is as much of my everyday thoughts as being a Christian, a mother and an American,” she said. “In almost everything and everyone I see, I am aware of their potential for being part of a painting or sculpture,” she said.
“God really helps me in my work,” Sondra added.
Sondra said unlike painting, which is two-dimensional, sculpture is a more difficult art form because it is three-dimensional.
“Every side of a (sculpture) must be good,” she said, “Everything must flow.”
A turning point in deciding to pursue sculpture came when Sondra was in high school. When she was 16 she took a trip to Paris. While there, she visited the studios of nineteenth century sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rodin, a noted realist sculptor, is perhaps most noted for his work “The Thinker.”
The number and quality of his work impressed Sondra. “There were sculptures and pieces everywhere,” she said.
Encouraged by the beauty of Rodin's work, Sondra attended Bryn Mawr College. Following Bryn Mawr she attended an art school in Philadelphia founded by Ev Angelos Frudakis.
Frudakis encouraged Sondra to pursue sculpting. She said it was at that time in her life, in the late 1970s that she made the decision to pursue sculpture. It is a decision she has never regretted.
“If you learn to sculpt, you want to do more,” she said.
Following art school Sondra taught at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Art Museum. Sondra's career eventually turned from teaching to doing what she loves – sculpting. She especially enjoys sculpting people.
“I love doing people, especially religious artwork,” Sondra said.
A convert from Judaism, Sondra's focus is on prominent figures from Catholicism. Her studio is full of religious pieces, ranging from a clay model of St. James to the metal framework of a piece in progress of Jesus hanging on the cross.
“I really wanted to do art that will move people, that will touch them deeply and make them think,” she said.
One commission she is working on currently is a sculpture of Blessed Pope John XXIII Diocesan Center in Lincoln. The building houses many of the Diocese of Lincoln's offices at the corner of 37th Street and Sheridan Boulevard in Lincoln.
Sondra researched the person of Pope John XXIII from archival photos, pictorial histories of his life and from personal recollections of people who met him. The result is a very life-like clay model of the pontiff. The realism includes the lace edges of his rochet, a papal vestment. To get the detail of that garment, Sondra borrowed an old alb from the Chancery as part of her research.
For Sondra, whose works adorn many religious, civic and public venues in a number of states, sculpting is a labor of love. It is also an essential element of her relationship with God.
“I pray to be able to create art that inspires others as early Christian art has inspired me,” she said. “With each new project I pray for guidance throughout the process, so that what comes from my hands and studio pleases God and edifies His people,” she said.
Sondra said she relies mostly on commissions, which come from word of mouth.
“It takes a lot of faith to be an artist because I never know where my next job is going to come from,” she said.
The process in which an idea becomes a work of art is an interesting one. First, a client usually contacts Sondra about an idea they have for a sculpture. After discussing the piece, Sondra will develop a sketch to try and capture the image the person has in mind.
Sondra draws upon many ideas in her sketches as she is always looking for subjects.
“I sketch a lot – sometimes out of fascination for the world around me and sometimes because art is a language I am still trying to master,” she said.
From sketch, Sondra will then create a small clay model for the client to see. Using the clay model as a starting point, changes and modifications are made. The first clay model is the conceptual phase of the sculpture.
“It is the thinking and work which goes into the first clay model,” Sondra said. When the changes are finalized, Sondra will then sculpt a model in the dimensions specified. From that model the piece is cast. Some works are life size, some three-fourths life size and others the size desired by the client. Some are full, three-dimensional works, others are busts, while yet others are reliefs.
Once the clay model is accepted and approved by the client, Sondra begins building the mold from which the sculpture is cast.
She begins each sculpture by building an armature of aluminum wire. If it is a large sculpture, usually a square piece of channel iron metal is used to hold the armature up and give it form. Wire netting is then wrapped around the armature to give it body. Sondra then uses insulation to fill out the inside of the netting to give it firmness.
Plastiline, a molding clay, is then applied to the outside of the wire netting to create the sculpture. The piece then begins to take shape as Sondra sculpts the clay into recognizable features such as ears, a nose, arms, etc.
A variety of tools are used to fashion and shape the clay. A common tool is the calipers, which is used to develop proportions. Most artist use the head of the sculpture as a unit of measure – other proportions of the body are determined from the size of the head.
Other instruments Sondra uses include wood carving and modeling tools. She has even made some of her own tools.
From the time the first clay model is accepted by the client, it takes Sondra six to 12 weeks to sculpt a life size figure ready for casting.
Her works are exhibited in many places including churches, hospitals, city parks, nursing homes, radio stations, performing art centers, high schools and private homes.
Her hope is that her work will lead others to a deeper knowledge of God.
“While it was the Scriptures that revealed to me the reality of God and the divinity of Jesus, Christian art of the past also played a role in my journey,” she said.
“Creating sculpture that reflects the presence of God in His people is a responsibility I do not take lightly,” Sondra said.
Southern Nebraska REGISTER: Vol. LXXII, No.
— March 14, 2003
Blessed John XXIII - Sondra Jonson, a noted sculptor and member of St. John Parish in Cambridge, uses calipers to detail a clay model of Blessed Pope John XXIII. The artist will use this model as the basis for a life-sized bronze statue of the pontiff which has been commissioned for the Blessed John XXIII Diocesan Center in Lincoln. Jonson said her art is a part of her relationship with God. (SRN photo)
“With each new project I pray for guidance throughout the process, to that what comes from my hands and studio pleases God and edifies His people.”
Rachel Weeping for her Children - A four-foot-high bronze sculpture of the Biblical figure Rachel is a limited edition of 12. One of the statues is located at the Fatima shrine at St. Germanus Church in Arapahoe, Sioux Falls, S.D. and at the Knights of Columbus building in Long Island.
Holy Family - This bronze relief is a limited edition which depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The item is on display at Solid Stone Designs, Lincoln, and is at Mercy Villa in Omaha and Holy Family Medical Clinic in Wichita, Kan.
First Image - Sondra holds a preliminary clay figure of a commissioned work of Jesus hanging on the Cross.
Guiding Grace - A limited edition of six, this piece depicts Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, with a student. The bronze sculpture is a permanent installation at Mercy High school in Omaha and two Kentucky schools.
Detailing - Sondra Jonson works at detailing the clay model of Blessed Pope John XXIII. Sondra used a priest's alb (background), history books and photos (foreground) to create the model of the late pontiff.
Mother of Joy- Sondra is pictured next to the clay relief of this piece, holding a photo of the finished work. This was created for Good Samaritan Home, Arapahoe, and is on display at Solid Stone Designs Lincoln.
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