Like so many others, by the time Sonya Sombreuil graduated college with a degree in painting, she felt like her path as an artist had become abstract and obfuscated. Mired by the arbitrary privacy of the studio method, she had the impulse to turn towards a practice that felt more active, more reflective of her spirit. “Screen-printing t-shirts seemed like the perfect antidote—something wearable, reproducible, that talks specifically about the things I love,” says the artist. This idea gave birth to Come Tees, Sonya’s hand-drawn and silkscreened line of t-shirts, jackets, and jeans. It’s rare that a pair of jeans be viewed as an emotional, philosophical, and historical work of visual poetry, but every piece of Sonya’s feels like an instant artifact. We spoke with the artist about her process, who she operates for, and of the many messages she sends through her art—which ones she hopes will resonate.
What’s your process for each individual piece?
I have a huge appetite for reading and looking at art. Come Tees is a project based on the art of being an art consumer and lover, paying homage and being a deep “listener.” Each piece begins when I find something I resonate with at that particular moment. That sounds general, but I think we all experience what feel like weather patterns in our lives, and often I am able to find communion with a bit of music or a book for an experience I am having internally. Sometimes I find myself hunting for material (which is something I do naturally and all the time) or sometimes there is a kind of timely synergy involved when I find something that speaks to an experience directly. Having an idea and knowing it’s worth externalizing is a weird body/mind buzz that I’ve refined.
How do you visualize a piece before you’ve conceptualized it?
I usually start with the most substratal visual idea, like a colour palate. I don’t always know where it comes from and it often dissipates quickly in my mind’s eye. For example, with the Cosmic Slop jeans I saw red and blue in complimentary swirls—later I realized it was the Pepsi logo. Once I focus on an essential idea and a feeling, more content tends to amass around it. I try to incorporate little obsessions I have at the moment, like with different logos or lettering.
How would you describe your artistic style?
I don’t have enough objectivity around it to describe it. It sounds funny, but I don’t really know how other people experience it, and there’s a certain fear or anxiety around that. I feel like my style is mutable and unstable, but clearly that’s not true as other people have a very easy time identifying my work. I don’t know what it looks like, but I know what my influences are, and in a lot of ways that seems more cohesive to me.
You seem to be heavily influenced by music. Which artists in particular do you find yourself drawing from?
I’m very influenced by movies, books, art and music in particular. I go through phases, sometimes they are years long, but I know better than to pin them down. There are certain things that are part of my origin story, like tapes my dad made me before the age of 5—a lot of 60s/70s rock, roots reggae, Duke Ellington—but mostly I find that I’m a hardcore music/art lover in general. I could rattle off names of artists that I have a life-long interest in, but I would say that my biggest influence is the very existence of an underground culture—a lot of times there are people in that world who are dissidents of the greater culture at large, but mostly I think it’s comprised of people who feel things very deeply. Those are my people.
Being somewhere between an art market and a fashion market, where do you think you operate? Who do you operate for?
I think of myself as operating in a very traditional sense within the underground. This doesn’t exclude having a wider audience or being part of an exchange of capital, but I know exactly who my intended audience is and who they would have been throughout time. The underground feels like a place where people are motivated to make things as an expression of their soul and to communicate with other creatives. It’s really not about money, or more perniciously about status. It’s very cozy, warm and intelligent.
Each piece of your work sends several messages. What is one that you would like to stick with people?
I guess it’s two-fold. I want people to feel they are in a world in which even the most ineffable thoughts and experiences are simpatico. Art isn’t dog-whistle politics, it’s something everyone can get to. I think of Come Tees as kind of an affirmation of art in general. I also like the idea that in a world where every thought and action has a moral and spiritual consequence, personal taste and fashion actually matter, and that it is not only a privilege but a virtue to be a citizen of culture. I like the idea of wearing things that you actually love and that have content.
Do you have a piece that means more to you than others?
The second edition of jeans I ever made, the Dog jeans are really important to me. They were a gateway into a kind of story-telling and thinking that I hadn’t really worked out yet. I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was feeling really crummy and I made something that asserted that my suffering was valuable. The song I ripped lyrics from —“Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers— is kind of a corny song, I don’t know if people take it seriously but I really heard the message in it for the first time after a lifetime of listening to it, and it synapsed a whole new way of incorporating content into my work. I love that line that goes “My soul has been psychedelicized.” Also visually they are so economical and simple. I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to get back that kind of efficiency and clarity.
What’s one piece you’d like to create or story you’d like to tell that you haven’t yet?
I’d like to make something that’s actually funny. That’s really hard.
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