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Sonia Payes



Jesse Marlow


Sonia Payes



A former ballroom in a 19th-century building sets the scene for photographer and sculptor Sonia Payes’s darkly portentous works.

Interview by Varia Karipoff. Photography by Jesse Marlow.

Sonia: We’ll start up here. This is my working space. Everything I do is epic – my sculpture is epic, my upcoming exhibition is epic. My book, which I did in 2007, was epic. I need a big space to work in. I spread when I work and I am messy when I work, and I need space. This actual shooting area is a third the space I had in my old studio. I shoot my landscapes on location but still do commissioned portraits in my studio.

I’ve changed; I am doing a lot of work with digital animation, sculpture and installation now.

I find myself spending a lot of time here, sitting at the computer, more so than I did in the other studio. I relocated from across the street. I was at that studio for 15 years, here for two years.

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I have wonderful light and sunshine streaming in through my windows. The ornate is not really my look and neither are the chandeliers, but they now work with low-voltage LED globes. Originally the walls were pink, blue and yellow. All I had to do was remove the curtains, paint the walls white, relocate my  industrial kitchen bench and build library shelves. Everything in here is from somewhere else; this is our original dining table from home, the chairs were from my family home, the working table over there is an original door from the old building across the road.

This is my library; I have a massive art book collection. From my travels I am always bringing back catalogues, brochures and books. It’s messy in there now because I’ve been researching.

I grew up in Elwood but actually spent most of my time in Chapel Street with my dad; he had his business here. He used to work very long hours, six days a week, so those memories of Chapel Street are still very strong today. I can recall all the shops and sites. The pie shop was one of the last remaining retail icons of Chapel Street, and they’ve only just closed down, which is sad – best pasties, pies and dougnuts in Victoria. I am 20 minutes away from home; the city is 20 minutes away from here. Prahran is and has always been like my second home. I love the familiar faces together with the strange.

I am here all day, every day or working with my ‘village.’ This year I’ve been working four nights a week. It’s been a crazy year so far, but a good one. I go to gym first thing, three mornings a week, and then I’m here.

All of the people I work with are elsewhere, so I spend some time out in Thomastown, South Melbourne and Point Cook. I value the headspace when I am alone here at my studio.

I was a little tense working here at night for the first six months. My old studio was one massive open space and this one has layers and rooms.

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I felt as if I had some company; it’s an old building, so who knows. There’s a headstone as a memorial plaque out the back. This building has quite a history – it was the United Friendly Societies’ Dispensary, then the Garden Growers Association in 1888.

If I’ve got images that I think are fantastic for an exhibition, I’ll print them up and stick them to a wall or a pin board. I do pretty large test strips. I’ll stare at them for months and see if they still give me that gut feeling. When it’s your own work, it’s hard to be critical. I’ve got to think that it’s good enough for other people.

A fair amount of my work is really dark. I did a two-month residency in China in 2012, which also resulted in a very dark body of work.

I love working with young people who are fresh and keen that’s how I was when I started. I never stop learning. I don’t want to fall behind. Working with computer geniuses and 3D fabricators in itself has been quite a challenge. To make ideas come true, there’s a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears. Things just don’t happen on their own.

Someone said to me, “if you get into sculpture, make sure it fits into a shipping container.” You see that face you made there? That’s what I did and that was the end of the conversation. My big sculpture went to Sculpture by the Sea and I had to get it to Perth… but it doesn’t fit into a container. I thought, Oh God, I get it.

– August 2016

Jesse Marlow

Suggested Reading

Art Guide Australia

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