In this first episode artist and podcast host, Sonja Smalheer, tells us her personal story about how art has impacted her life.

She shares how winning an art competition, living with the Navajo Indians and the struggles she experienced during apartheid were all defining moments that catapulted her art career.

She talks about how her love for art took her 6000 km north, from Cape Town, South Africa to The Netherlands where she now works and teaches other artists how to create with confidence, work with impact and understand the business of art.




The career councilor came back into the room with my aptitude scores in his hands. He was shaking his head and said, ‘Young lady, you have a problem. You can do too many things and you don’t fit into any of the boxes.’ I think his words have haunted me most of my life. This should be a good thing right. Being a good all rounded ‘jack of all trades but master of none’. HELP no! In my case it’s not.

 Out of the box

 In order to get my money’s worth I did make some choices that day. My top three career preference where 1. Fashion designer 2. Graphic designer 3.Teacher

I remember that on the drive back home my mom gave me a reassuring look and said: ‘‘Just follow your heart Sonja, you will find your way!”

 I am truly grateful for those people in my life that have always spoken words of encouragement but following my heart and finding my way has not always been easy. As an artist it has not been a walk in the park but more like hacking an unknown trail through a dangerous, intimidating and messy jungle.

So how do I manage not fitting into any of the boxes? I guess I just had to create my own space, not even a box but a place or space where I can function, breathe, live and create.

 Defining moments

There are moments in our lives that are defining. One of my defining moments occurred when I was 6 years old. At what seemed to be the middle of the night my dad gently came into my room and whispered ‘ Sonja wake-up, I have something very important to show you.’ When he switched on the light I saw he was holding the evening newspaper in his hands and he was beaming from ear to ear. ‘Your name is in the newspaper, one of your paintings has won an award!’ A little confused I vaguely remembered that my art teacher had sent paintings of students to an art competition and apparently my paintings ‘boy on stool’ had one a prize. I had never considered a career as an artist. At 6 I wanted to become a veterinarian or teacher but never an artist. I would choose a career that would make the world a better place. I had always loved art and painting but could I actually make it my career? Secretly, I thought this would be awesome!

 Living with the Indians

 After graduating from high school in Cape Town, South Africa I spent a year living in New Mexico as an exchange student. When my placement came through I had to run to the library (this was before internet existed and we still used things like encyclopedias) to find out where New Mexico was. I remember the book saying that New Mexico was one of the 50 states, situated between Arizona and Texas and was called ‘The Land of Enchantment’. I since then had the privilege to live there and indeed meet many enchanting people.

The Navajo, Hopi and Zuni Indians, Spanish and Anglo Americans all made up this beautiful, diverse state. I was so fortunate with my placement as art, artists and artisans play a vital role in New Mexico as a cultural expression, earning a livelihood and a social gathering.

 As an exchange student I completed an extra year at high school with subjects like jewelry design and ceramics. My teachers where expert artisans in their fields, teaching me the secrets of inlaying turquoise in silver and firing up ceramic pots in a pit filled with cow dung.

I left New Mexico inspired, set to find a ‘career’ where I could create and express myself, maybe even as an artists.

 Apartheid at university

 I received a government bursary to study BA Arts at Stellenbosch, a South African University, close to Cape Town. My plan was to study art while qualifying as a teacher. For me this would be a perfect combination and according to my parents a wise decision. If I failed as an artist I could always teach! Not only teaching and developing creativity in myself but also in others like me.

 My university adventure was short lived. This was before to Nelson Mandela’s release and apartheid was still very much alive on campus. It was a very confusing time. I had to come to terms with all the apartheid propaganda. I found it difficult to study art and be part of a government system that was sponsoring my art and teaching studies. One thing I knew for sure: Discrimination was not OK!!!!

I had three choices. I could either beat them, join them…or leave.

At that time I saw no option to ‘beat’ them and I certainly did not want to ‘join’ them so I opted for option 3. I headed to Europe to study art in The Netherlands.

 The Netherlands is one of the smallest European nations but with a large art and cultural heritage. I still marvel at the museums filled with all kinds of art. They even use art to decorate their highways or city squares, which was a far cry from the statues of our founding fathers I was use to only seeing in South Africa.

 Fortunately much has changed back home and art and artists are experiencing an African renaissance. With annual events like the Cape Town Art Fair and the Design indaba local art is receiving international recognition. Slowly art and expression is finding its feet in a post-apartheid society.

 Art reflects the health of a nation

 I believe the state and quality of art and artist in a society determine the health of a nation. When art and artists are embraced and valued a culture can flourish.

 Strategy needed

 I have lived in The Netherlands for more than 30 years now and I have embraced that fact that I am an artist.

 Being an artist is still one big adventure and often I still have to hack out new paths in my ‘jungle’. With changing technology offering new possibilities and social media and the WWW, the art landscape has changed forever. It has never been easier to reach your audience, follow a class or exhibit your work online.

The rules and strategies have changed and it takes a new kind of creativity to maintain a viable and happy life as an artist.

I recently found my aptitude test and saw the three choices I had made at the councilors office. Strangely enough my top three choices are the core of my business and art today! I think deep down we know the way, we just need to find it!

You do not have to live as a poor, unhappy, floundering artist. Being an artist is an amazing privilege. What is true for a nation is also true for you. When you find wholeness and happiness your art will flourish too. You are worth it!



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