Sonja Flavin (1936-2014)
Sonja Flavin (1936-2014). MACKINTOSH CHAIR, C.1985. Dyed wool. Panel measures 53.5 x 57 inches. wood hanging bar sewn into top margin. Signed on crimp tag, lower left. Excellent condition with no damage, fading or restoration.
Sonja Flavin was born Sonja Severdija in Southampton, New York, on September 25th, 1936. The daughter of Branko (Frank) Severdija and Anka Parac, she grew up in Riverhead, New York, with her siblings Olga, Tom, and Nada. At an early age, she showed an interest in art and music, and played the clarinet and trombone in high school. She received the Daughters of the American Revolution Citizenship Award.
She graduated from Riverhead High School in 1954 and went on to study Art at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Here she met artist, Michael Venezia, who would continue to be a lifelong friend.
In 1958, she left Buffalo to attend New York University. While living in New York, she began working at the Museum of Modern Art, along with Venezia. Venezia, working as a guard, had befriended other artists who were working there at the time: Sol Lewitt, Robert Ryman, Ralph Iwamoto, and Dan Flavin, among others. Michael introduced Sonja to Dan and the two were married on October 28th, 1961.
The next several years were difficult, yet exciting ones for the couple. They collaborated on Dan Flavin’s works of art and their establishment with New York City galleries, while living in a light industrial space in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. On July 7th, 1964, Sonja gave birth to their son, Stephen Conor Flavin. Becoming concerned about the living conditions in Williamsburg, they moved to 109 Main Street in Cold Spring, New York, a year later. With increased income from Flavin’s art, they bought their first house in the community of Lake Valhalla in Cold Spring. In 1969, the couple went on to purchase a house in Garrison, New York, which still remains in the family to this day. They also maintained family ties to Long Island and owned a summer home in Bridgehampton.
In 1975, the couple separated and, a year later, divorced. Sonja and her son, moved into a house on Beverly Warren Road in Garrison. It was during this time that Sonja had a tea room and antique shop in Cold Spring, as well as functioning as a landlady for rental properties along Main Street. Also during this time, Sonja began to study weaving at the Garrison Art Center. Textiles would go on to be her favored medium in her career as an artist.
In 1976, Sonja began a relationship with another friend of Michael Venezia’s, Robert Sobieszek. At the time, Sobieszek was a curator of photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Taking a sabbatical to attend Columbia University, he moved to Garrison. The couple would later marry, in 1981.
Having always had a great interest in the ideas and art of the Bauhaus, Sonja landed a position at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, in 1980, preparing a study collection of industrial textile samples done by Bauhaus weavers. From this experience, she would go on to co-curate an exhibition entitled, “Bauhaus Weaving Workshop: Source and Influence for American Textiles” at the Paley Design Center in Philadelphia, in 1987.
After having married Robert Sobieszek, Sonja moved with Robert to Rochester, New York. While living there, Sonja attended the Rochester Institute of Technology and received a Master’s degree in Weaving and Textile Design, in 1982.
Over the next several years, Sonja engaged in her work as an artist, concentrating on textiles, but also experimenting with drawing on computer. During this period, she received a Crafts Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, an award from the Chenven Foundation, and the Grand Prize for Rug Design at the 3rd American Crafts Awards. Additionally, she had solo exhibitions at the Memorial Art Gallery, Nazareth College, and Audets, all in Rochester; and in 1984, she was part of a commission in the San Francisco International Airport called, “American Craft Traditions”. Sonja also took part in group exhibitions at the American Craft Museum, S.U.N.Y. Buffalo, the Chicago Merchandise Mart, the Germanow Gallery in Rochester, and the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton, N.Y.
While working on her art, Sonja continued to hold museum and academic positions in Rochester. After first moving to the area, she worked on cataloging the Archives at the George Eastman House, and later, was a lecturer on Design and Textiles at Nazareth College. In 1990, Sonja was asked to function as a juror for an exhibition of computer art at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
After Sobieszek was hired as the Curator of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in 1990, Sonja and Robert moved to Los Angeles. Sonja continued her life as an artist there, working on a series of rugs designed for well known chairs of the early to mid 20th century, which culminated in a show at Wilder Gallery, entitled, “The Chair as Object and Statement”. It was in Los Angeles that Sonja became fascinated by optical fiber and, at first, included it in tapestries, then did three dimensional works, solely, of illuminated optical fiber. This work led to other exhibitions chiefly, the International Textile Fair in Kyoto, Japan, in 1994. As well, there were exhibitions at the Burchfield- Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y. and the New York State Museum in Albany. In California, Sonja took part in exhibitions in the gallery of the San Juan Capistrano Library, as well as other Los Angeles galleries. Her optical fiber pieces, also, led to her inclusion in publications, namely, “Hi-Tech Textiles” by Sarah E. Braddock and Marie O’Mahony and the catalogue accompanying the International Textile Fair in Kyoto.
1996 brought Sonja’s divorce from Robert Sobieszek and the death of Dan Flavin. In 1998, she returned to Garrison, N.Y., with her mother and son, whom had been living with her in Los Angeles. Here she took up the work of cataloging Dan Flavin’s drawings and organizing his archives. She also played a significant role in the retrospective of Dan Flavin’s work that toured from 2004 through 2007.
She continued to work on her art, while living with her son, until her death. Sonja’s art continues to reside in many private and university collections. She is survived by her son, Stephen, her sister, Nada Severdija, her brother-in-law, Capt. Richard J. MacGarva, U.S.C.G. Ret., and her nephew, Gregory MacGarva.