"There are those of us who have been sitting at that table for a long time. And I got news for you: You will continue to eat. But, we’re gonna pull this table apart. And we’re going to add some leaves on this table. We’re gonna make this table bigger, because for years, we had the same folks sitting at the same table, and there were folks sitting there at the kiddie’s table watching everybody else eat."
- Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, Inaugural Address, Jan. 2
A couple of weeks back I began seeing a photograph all over my Facebook news feed, shared by a number of local creatives: A masked Mayor Van Johnson stood holding a painting called "At the Table" alongside its also-masked creator Sonja Robinson. The original posting by the Mayor himself, which has nearly a thousand reactions, a hundred comments, and 30 shares, thanked "local artist extraordinaire" Robinson, using the hashtag #SavannahStrong to punctuate his gratitude.
Given the state of affairs in our society in the months since Johnson took over as Savannah’s leader, it was nice to be reminded of the powerful speech that reinforced the notion that we’re all in this together, depicted beautifully by Robinson as a collection of locals seated at a long table.
"That subject matter really resonated with me," Robinson said of her decision to bring Johnson’s words to life on canvas. "Being that all voices should be heard, when it comes to political standpoints. And I thought Van was the person that was going to allow everybody to be heard."
The characteristics of the piece have its roots in Robinson’s time as an event manager with the City of Savannah. There she came to admire many of her fellow civic employees, such as City Manager Pat Monahan, ultimately including several of them in the painting.
She also added other inspirational locals like Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter, a particularly thought-provoking choice given that she and the Mayor don’t always see eye-to-eye politically.
But for Robinson, the reasons behind her artistic choices go beyond simple research or composition. Instead, the painter seeks a higher form of inspiration.
"I always start a piece with sitting and meditating," she explained. "I ask the ancestors to help and guide me and move me through the painting."
Robinson’s spiritual artistic practice is unsurprising, given her journey to creativity. Like many, she "painted, doodled, and sketched" through middle and high school, but ultimately moved away from art making as the realities of adulthood set in.
Then, in 1999, two days after Christmas, her father was tragically hit by a car and killed, changing her life forever.
"I was in a dark space," the artist recalled, noting that it took years to heal following her "best friend’s" death. But it was during that time that she re-discovered art.
"It would get me out of bed sometimes," said Robinson. "I would get up, get out, and paint!"
The years that followed saw the artist go from filling her house with artwork done simply to heal or bring personal enjoyment, to doing live painting in clubs in St. Louis, to offering in-home consultations for custom interior design based around her work.
These days, however, as Robinson has become more self-sustaining and high-profile, she’s following a path that she describes as much more "deliberate and intentional." She’s also recognizing that she can have an impact on others.
"I know I have a purpose, and I’m still growing," Robinson mused. "I’m still trying to figure it out. But so far I know I should be an inspiration to others. I am self-taught. And from that should be an inspiration to a lot of people who don’t believe they can be creative or be outside the box."
Following her path from a "dark place" to City Hall is the kind of journey that anyone could be inspired by.
Learn more about Sonja Robinson’s work at SonjaRobinsonArt.com or @thesonjarobinson on Instagram. You can also visit her new studio in Gallery #11 on the second floor of City Market.
Listen to my entire conversation Sonja the Artist embedded here. Next week I’ll be speaking with photographer and filmmaker James Graham.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.