Create Change Alumni Interview: Sonia Louise Davis

We recently got in touch with Sonia Louise Davis, 2011 Create Change Professional Development Fellow, to find out what she’s been up to lately. Read on to find out more!


Photos courtesy of Carolin Knebel & Ivan Forde. Please scroll down for detailed credits.


What projects have you been working on lately?

I work mostly in large format photography and I’m trying to use the physical process to create situations that facilitate collaboration: shooting on sheet film with a view camera, and sharing that experience with neighbors. I’m also delving deeper into research and archives, and dreaming up new projects / returning to unfinished ones.


Why did you apply for the Create Change Fellowship, and what did you gain from it? How did the program impact your work as an artist?

As an artist, I’m basically self-taught. I started shooting on a 4×5 camera in a summer program after college and learned to load film holders from YouTube. I found out about the Professional Development Fellowship at a crucial time—I’d been making images outside in my neighborhood and wanted to engage neighbors in a meaningful way as collaborators, not simply as passers-by or witnesses to my practice. The program informed how I imagined my work, and gave me confidence to take risks and challenge myself. I also made lasting connections with my fellow participants and LP staff!


What else have you been up to since the Fellowship? Can you tell us a little bit about the work you did in residence at Casita Maria, in Hunts Point?

I’ve had amazing opportunities at other exciting arts organizations, including En Foco, gaia, Residency Unlimited, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. In the fall of 2012 I hosted an interactive family portrait studio at Casita Maria and invited community members to make images with me on my 4×5 camera. Using an extra-long cable release, each participant became the photographer of their own family’s portrait. There was this dance that happened as family members took turns looking through the ground glass, framing the picture as I sat in for them, amongst relatives. In the beginning, my interest in archives, authorship, empowerment and the family album was central, but I learned I was also providing a free service, exposure to the analog photographic process and giving fellow artists space to unleash their creativity. I made prints for each family to take home.



We’ve heard about the project you are planning, “Across 116th Street.” Can you tell us more about it? What are you looking forward to about this project?

Across 116th Street is a collective community ar(t)chive project. This summer, I will be “in residence” outdoors along 116th Street, from the Hudson River to the East River, hosting workshops and facilitating large format family portraits, centered around actively (and collaboratively) archiving and documenting “home.” I received a Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC, and I’m thrilled that The LP will feature some of the workshops through Works In Progress at the Laundry Room! Mostly, I’m looking forward to listening to my neighbors and making art together close to home.


What’s your neighborhood? Why there?

Harlem: East, West, Central, all of it. Born and raised and haven’t left.


What’s your favorite thing about living in your neighborhood?

Summer nights, daily good-morning’s and long slow weekend walks with a 35mm.



Who are your neighbors? How have they influenced your work?

Hard-working people, kids who play ball in the park, folks who’ve seen it all, those young guys who ride around on dirt bikes…newcomers, latecomers, students, families, ghosts. We’re constantly in the presence of other people and I’m trying to slow down enough to find beauty in this density of experience.


What are you reading now?

Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs, “Harlem Is Nowhere” by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (for the third time), and I recently finished a book of plays by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona that my downstairs neighbor lent me (I loved “Sizwe Banzi is Dead”). Next up is Envisioning Emancipation, by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer.


What song gets you going when work is hard?

Lately I’ve just been bumping all the homies: Tamara Davidson and Javi Santiago, Le1f and DonChristian Jones, Throw Vision, and Lion Babe.



What’s your favorite word, sound, color?



Your dream last meal?

Combination Platter (chicken and lamb over rice) from the Halal Guys on 53rd and Sixth.


Tell us about an artist who has influenced your work.

Brett Cook, for how he has been able to reimagine the gallery, the block, the classroom as sites for critical engagement, collaboration and collective artistic authorship. I am inspired by the wide range of projects he has initiated, the immediate focus on local communities’ needs and voices, and especially how he speaks about making artwork with others because everyone is an expert in something.



What does “socially-engaged art” mean to you?

Art that connects people, that happens where we live and work, involves regular folks as participants / actors / subjects / authors, as central pieces in the artistic puzzle.


Do you have any advice to offer other artists interested in socially-engaged work?

I think the “why” is more important than the “how.” Know yourself. Surround your work and practice with others who fuel you, who have different specialties, and lend support whenever you can, especially to other artists. These are things I am constantly telling myself. It’s all part of the process.


What will you be working on next?

I’m currently participating in the Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and I’m excited to show two new works from the Hunts Point project at “Bronx Calling: The Second AIM Biennial” in June. Also, I’ll be presenting my work at an event on May 21st at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, called “The Finding Aid: Black Women at the Intersection of Art and Archiving.” And finally, keep an eye out for the Sistah Friends Project, we’ve got some exciting summer plans in the works. Stay tuned and see you uptown!


Sonia Louise Davis is an artist who works with a large format view camera, alone and in collaborative community based projects. She graduated with honors in African American Studies from Wesleyan University in 2010.


Photo credits:  Photos 2 & 4 by Carolin Knebel | Photos 1, 3, & 5 by Ivan Forde