A thick blanket of dark grey clouds was hanging over the quiet Monmouthshire countryside as we made our way to Llancayo, a small village near the market town of Usk where former art and photography lecturer Sonia Pang recently opened a new contemporary art gallery in a disused space that used to be a cowshed. Over the past 7 years, she passionately devoted herself to collaborating with local makers and artists, giving their work a platform at an annual pop up store in her own home. Sonia’s appetite for contemporary art inspired her to move her ‘Gallery at Home’ concept into a dedicated space, aiming to foster creative collaborations and exchanges and to promote a diverse and progressive range of artists through inventive exhibitions and events. This love for collaboration and for a multi-faceted and interdisciplinary take on creation is at the very root of her curatorial philosophy. Representing an inspiring, challenging and thought-provoking range of creative voices and art forms, Sonia has been instrumental in drawing the locus of contemporary art in South Wales towards the small market town of Usk and its neighbouring rural communities. Keen to find out more about her curatorial philosophy, her connections with the local creative community and her upcoming projects, we caught up with Sonia at the quirky gallery just as Suzie Larke’s captivating show, In The Mind’s Eye, was drawing to an end.
Sonia, can you tell us a bit about your background?
My background has always been in art and photography, from as early as A level choices and then in my first job working as a photographer for a year under the manpower services commission programme in Newport Museum and Art Gallery. After starting a family I went on (in my 30’s) to study photography at Caerleon university and then to lecture in it at degree level. I taught intermittently for 15 years. I have three children: a 12 year old son and two daughters ‒ both are grown women; one a soon to be published scientist and my eldest daughter, a creative director for Refinery 29 living in New York. I consider my daughters’ strength and independence a great achievement as a parent. They inspire me every day to be my best self.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Vivid childhood memory… there are so many! My father took me to have my ears pierced, it was a Saturday morning, just me and dad. I was 4 years old. He chose pearls. I remember the pain and the joy. Pearls are profoundly significant to me now. Catholic christmases. Camping which was hideous.
What about your first memory related to art?
My first memory relating to art is a trip to Cardiff museum with my mother. Sandwiches sat on a window sill. The vastness of the space. The beauty of everything. The simple clean ordered displays. The sculpture that I surreptitiously touched. Degas and a ballet dancer.
How did your career unfold up until the point where you are now?
My career shifted after a crappy illness that knocked me off the path I was on and stopped me in my tracks for a year. When I recovered I made life changes. Teaching was more intermittent and my Gallery at Home concept began. I showed work at home, curating my interior space. Artist friends supported me. Work sold. I did this once or twice a year for 7 years. Always showing photography. I pursued it because I loved it. It felt as natural as breathing. It was obvious that one day I would move to a space but I was nervous about the leap.
A few months ago you moved your Gallery at Home concept into a new space. What was the driving force being this move and what makes this new location the perfect spot for Gallery at Home?
In August 2018 a space became available just 200 yards from my home in an old converted cowshed. I decided to stop teaching and to open a gallery full time. After a few months of painting and fitting out and leasing a coffee machine (almost as hard as buying a house!) in November 2018 I held my first show, Fears and Dreams, with photographer Toril Brancher and artist Philippa Robbins ‒ they took a chance on me… and it was a success. The local art community came and supported me. Work sold. The location is perfect from a logistical point of view (my son still only young) but the local art community is nearby and regularly meets up here, for conversation and inspiration. I have a diverse public, from artists to locals to passing tourists. All come to visit and to see the current work and drink coffee of course. I greet them as if it’s my home still. There is always a warm welcome and interesting conversations around the central table are a daily occurrence.
To what extent does your background in art and photography enhances your curatorial work and your dialogue with contemporary artists and makers? What is the overarching philosophy that informs your curatorial choices when putting together an exhibition?
My background is an intrinsic part of the gallery. It holds it all together. Curatorial choices are based around my personal aesthetic. I choose from the artist studio, I stitch things together in my mind to create visual cohesion... it always seems to come together beautifully. I want the space to be accessible to all and to remove the elitism in order to create a welcoming atmosphere where art meets home. I enjoy showing a wide variety of artwork. To challenge and provoke occasionally. For example, showing the work of Megan Winstone for 4th Wave, a feminist show, was such a risk in such a little space and in my quiet community but it was received in such a welcoming and brilliant way. It was exciting and ‘out there’ but I think I need to push boundaries sometimes, shake it up a bit. There are lots of lovely local craft centres and gift shops and local galleries that show safe happy commercial art. Highly unlikely to show young opinionated provocative work. I wanted to be different. I think for so many reasons this was my most successful show to date. Work sold, which was amazing for the artist and validated my curatorial decisions as a gallerist. Megan is a young, fierce, up and coming photographer with a great future ahead. I loved being part of her creative journey. This felt immensely rewarding.
Who are some of the inspirational people in your field that you follow and what do you admire about their approach?
I am inspired by so many people. I love to look at local galleries to see who is showing and how the work has been hung. I draw inspiration but also decide to do things differently. I think The Table in Hay-on-Wye has a great little set up. Absolutely love Huxley Parlour, London. Ffotogallery in Cardiff. And Phrame, a new female driven photography collective.
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worthwhile to you?
Why do I do it!? Because I can’t not do it.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
One questions that remain unanswered: What next? This. Or. No idea!
What will you be showing at Gallery at Home in 2019?
I’m currently showing In The Mind’s Eye by Suzie Larke for mental health awareness month. It’s not commercial but so vital and important and has brought a different audience to me because of that. These are the shows that make what I do worthwhile. I love all the wonderful artists that show in-between. Looking forward to showing Felice Hodges in the summer. And Zoe Taylor in the autumn. Toril Brancher has a solo show in September. The gallery is booked up until next spring so far with many options for future shows. My next show (number 6) is a collected works exhibition showcasing all the newly found and established artists that have supported my business venture. Old friends and new. It’s a privilege to curate the work and always a gift when I get to see their journey of their creative process. A natural facilitator.
And finally, what are your dreams and aspirations for the future?
Collaborate with my daughter. Run photographic workshops. A bigger space. Gallery at Home 2.