Light work: Greenwood artist uses paper, lights and other accents to make unique art

Everything starts with a simple piece of paper.

Sonja Lehman found early on in her career that through folds, twists and turns, that paper would ripple with kinetic energy. Adding elements such as lights, beads and metal wire only accentuates the visual aesthetic of the work.

The result is a piece of art that radiates with life.

“There is an element of fun in the work, and maybe a little bit of mystery because of the lights,” she said. “Maybe they’ll come away thinking these works were really fun and unexpected, a little bit different.”

Lehman’s joyous pieces are the centerpiece at the Southside Art League this month. “Playful Paper: Mystery and Magic” showcases her creativity and skill with mixed media, inviting the viewer in with warmth and vitality.

Through her work, Lehman hopes to pass on the techniques that she’s acquired over the years, and inspire others in their own creations.

“Sharing it with people is always really exciting, to try to give some of what I’ve learned and pay it forward to others,” she said.

Lehman’s life has been immersed in art and creativity. Born in Chicago, she was pulled towards drawing and painting as a child. She earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Indiana University Bloomington, then worked towards a master’s degree in painting and drawing from the University of Georgia in 1986 and a master’s degree in library sciences from Indiana University in 1989.

She worked as a museum librarian at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for five years before relocating to Greenwood when she joined the Indiana University library faculty as the director of Herron Art Library, where she has been ever since.

“It has always been a strong passion of mine to keep art in my life in some way,” she said.

Lehman was first exposed to paper art as a graduate student at Georgia, when she took printmaking classes and papermaking classes during her final year.

Part of the coursework was making simple Japanese-style stitch books.

“I really loved those processes, and loved worked with paper at home. It’s something that I’ve always been fond of,” she said.

Through her role at the Herron Art Library, Lehman has helped develop the artists’ books collection. The process through which these artists create books, and the talent that goes into it, makes them some of the most interesting works of art she deals with.

She started seeking out workshops where she could work with other paper artists and expand her own skills. One of those seminars involved studying with Helen Hiebert, a renowned artist who creates sculptures, installations and other works from paper.

“That was my first opportunity to really jump back in to the medium and really start learning about it, beyond just collecting works of art for the library’s collection,” she said.

Lehman took a sabbatical from her role at the Herron Art Library to earn a certificate in the book arts, and has been exploring her own creativity in the years since.

As the pandemic forced her to work from home, she had additional time to devote to her own paper art.

“So many artists were putting their classes online. I didn’t have to travel to Colorado to take workshops, so I continued to take classes from (Hiebert),” she said.

The works that will be featured at the Southside Art League were born from techniques that Lehman learned from Hiebert. The style involves special Thai Unryu paper, a lightweight, translucent paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree.

Two sheets of paper are layered, and in between are copper wires and fairy lights that she weaves across those wires, then glues the sheets together.

“There are a lot of things I have to figure out. It involves problem solving and exploration. I don’t always know what direction I’m going to go with a piece, and it’s exciting to see how that develops,” she said.

Lehman’s creations will be on display at the Southside Art League through March 30. A reception is planned from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 24, at the gallery.