Sonia Litynskyj is a self-defined medium of Photography who divinates through lensless, material studies. Sonia is currently a graduate student at Cranbrook School of Art's MFA program. A Michigan native, she previously taught photography at The Anton Art Center and Paint Creek Center for the Arts. I wanted to catch up with Sonia to talk about her recent work and the space she's recently opened this summer, the Grounding Center in Troy, MI, a collaboration that intersects art and healing through creative practice.
So, we’re meeting here at the Grounding Center in Troy. Tell us a little bit about this space, what is its history and what is your vision for it?
I’ve always been interested in how an art space can function as a small self- sufficient community. My close friend, Alycia, a recycled art junkie, has been dreaming for a very long time about a space where cathartic making could exist. Between some heavy thinking about the function of art and a conversation Alycia and I had 6 months ago, we decided how important it was for us to collaborate. Simple magic, really.
Right now, it’s part home away from home, part studio space, stage, library. Most of my energy is towards continuing to perform my Darkroom Alchemy readings, and building up our calendar of events. We’ve been reaching out to people interested in anything from curating shows, playing music, offering healing sessions or something that can merge it all. We are currently working on a schedule of open studio hours, Alycia is hosting recycled sculpture classes and preparing for our Poetry Slam events that begin in mid-July.
I really desire for the space to continue as a community of artists, healers, storytellers and mystics collaborating to share their magic with one another. My hope is, that our transparency as artists and women, with the strong determination to live in authenticity, will attract anyone searching for something similar. I have no intention of weeding anyone out– I truly want to encourage everyone to tap into their own individual magic and creativeness.
How do you see this space as connected to your own practice as a photographer?
I’ve been exploring different ways photography can feel less two-dimensional and then it occurred to me how much I was trying to materialize my research. Maybe my photographs have been attempts to spill magic into a room and heal anyone who looked at it, and this approach had been failing. This current space is exploring what kind of magic materializes when mysticism and creative making intersect.
Photography attempts to reveal information, true or untrue, an action frozen or staged, that no longer truly represents anything other than what it stirs up in your desires, beliefs, thoughts – divination does this also; inviting people to experience something and being a part of that experience with them. There isn’t a huge difference for me from reading a tarot card and being an audience to a body of work.
Your work feels very physical, using photographic, or other, materials as canvas and paint, but not based in the tradition of looking through the lens. It almost begs the question, why use photography at all?
The relationship between the occult and photography’s birth feels important to a much larger goal for me in my work. I’ve had a love hate relationship with photography but was always infatuated with it growing up because my mother constantly photographed me. This influenced a lot of performative imagery I was experimenting with.
After some time, it occurred to me how masculine the lens was, how penetrating it felt, and how tired I was trying to reveal something through my physical body and how problematic that became for me.
After swallowing all the feminist theory I could, especially Roberta McGrath’s Re-reading Edward Weston: Feminism, Photography and Psychoanalysis, I felt validated about my experience with the lens. By working directly with materials and removing the camera, I dive into the guts of Photography. I’m looking to stir it around and reveal everything we didn’t know was there, or knew but were too afraid to look at.
These material studies in my divination photography aim to reveal the unseen, with the most ambiguous visuals that hint to something within us and Photography herself.
Your work also deals explicitly with the imprint, making images with photographic chemicals that literally translate thing to paper (such as your recent work with the body), or making something invisible visible (such as the readings). What are you looking for in photography’s ability to create change through process?
My relationship with photography is very heavily used for mediumship and divination. An intuitive process, guided first by intellect; removing the lens and revealing only the imprints of material process.
Photography is revealing herself to me almost as a deity – which is incredibly exciting. And if I continue to approach her this way and treat her as such, it’s narrating a beautiful transformation that is beginning at a universal level.
I don’t have a deep connection to my ancestral background and this darkroom divination process has stirred up something extremely powerful for me. I’m beginning to understand why I do things and how connected I am to them - how lost and separate I am from my own roots, how harmful this separation is to myself and others.
A second series of color images involve my body to make contact to 4x5 sheets of film, which are undeveloped and scanned digitally as objects. A process that is still being fine-tuned but I’m excited to continue it further.
Photography for me, is reclaiming her feminine energy. As an artist, I’m practicing acting as a medium for this energy rather than photography being a tool for me. In this way, it feels right to speculate she might be an energy that has been misused, misinterpreted.
You’re now halfway through the MFA program at Cranbrook, how has grad school changed your work?
I’ve gone from performative nude photography to a visual opposition. I’m only beginning to see a transformation visually because most of the work is happening internally. My final year will help me connect the two more successfully.
Describe for our readers your current work and the process through which it’s made.
This process is done in full light, my supplies for darkroom divination consists of 8x10 RC paper, a candle flame, salt, developer, fixer and perma wash. Through each reading process I collaborate with one person. I ask them to think of a question or concern, sometimes they come to this process open. I give them the paper to contact the flame, emulsion side down, while they meditate on their question. Each person interacts with the flame and paper differently. Some only hover over it, some make contact until the flame is put out, some circle the paper around. The querent is then instructed to throw salt onto the top of the paper while I hold it, face up. After about 10-20 seconds I place the paper in the developer, deciphering the shapes while the development process is completing, revealing information presented to me through forms, processing mistakes and intuitive information.
What is your interest and history in the mystic, or spiritual, realms?
There have always been signs and experiences that feel like they were adding up to where I’m at currently. Right now, I’m delving into different practices around Witchcraft, Wiccan and Pagan traditions. I’m beginning to learn a little more about Slavic folk healers called Whisperers and spending a lot of time meditating. Moon magic has been incredibly instinctual. I read a lot and attempt to absorb all of this intellectually but finding how magic is working in my life, what it looks like, feels like, what shapes it takes, what signs to look for – its important that my mystical practice is specific to my experiences and learning how She communicates with me. This has transitioned into my relationship with Photography.
My mother was adamant about raising me a Ukrainian Catholic. I respect her admiration to her religion now, but as a teenager I rebelled against it. For ten years I had no connection to anything outside of myself and it drove me into a lot of depression and obsession, one of which turned into free online Tarot readings. Along the way I met women who were willing to share their spiritual experiences and beliefs with me, borrowing a little bit of what they had until I knew what I was looking for on my own.
When you’re doing the readings, how much of it comes from a visual translation of the image versus an interpretive intuition?
It’s an equal distribution. Intellect and intuition need to exist in balance with one another.
I take into consideration shapes I see, and the mistakes made through the chemical process, chemical fogging, flame burns, areas where developer never reached. The photographs function as objects, that exists as recordings. Because of the nature of the paper, this object is non-archival, a crucial element to the process.
What other photographers, artists, people or things influence you? (either historical or current) Where do you find inspiration on a daily basis?
Cindy Sherman’s multiple roles in producing an image was exciting for me and influenced a lot of performative works. Francesca Woodman, Ann Arden McDonald. It’s changed dramatically in the past year as I’m absorbing a lot from Sabat Magazine and Carla, Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici, Amanda Yates Garcia- Oracle of L.A. and the #witchesofinstagram has been a source for learning about current trends with witches and mystics. Louis Darget, Chaira Fumai – my list is constantly filling. I like to pull in as much as I can.
I spend an unhealthy amount of time in my head but also a lot of my inspiration is sourced through mediation and ritual.
What drives you to live and make work in the Detroit area now?
I’ve lived in the suburbs outside of Detroit my entire life. I’m isolated when it comes to downtown connections, even at Cranbrook, it became difficult to find time to casually meet and discuss with other artists. During the school year, once 3:00pm hits I’m transitioning into mother mode time- not anything I’m willing to sacrifice. My role as a mother is the most important right now.
Finally, what advice do would you give to an aspiring photographer?
Liz Cohen, my graduate AIR, urged us to decide of how art is supposed to function. This is your rule. Once it is established then self–defeat has less of a chance to ruin your dreams. On that same note, when someone asks you “And what do you plan on doing with your photography”? don’t take them seriously and remember your fearlessness is intimidating. Don’t give up. Don’t take rejection personally. Success requires patience and practicing compassion towards myself and my process. My critical brain will never validate me at any point in my artistic career because it always expects I can do better. When we stop making work we get depressed, resentful and confused. So please, just keep making art.