It must be more than coincidental that so many creative people like Sonja Christoph are drawn to live in Como – the city nominated unanimously back in June by Italy’s UNESCO committee to form part of UNESCO’s ‘Network of Creative Cities’. She herself was unaware of Como’s creative designation, nor necessarily of its astounding recent achievements in art, architecture and both furniture and textile design. But as an art illustrator with a passion for folk tales and fables and as a wife and mother committed to fostering the creativity of all of her family members, it’s as if Como’s spirit and location called her here to join the ever-growing number of local foreign residents involved in the arts.
I initially contacted Sonja, who only arrived in Como back in August, once I became aware of her work as an illustrator, knowing that all us ex-pat immigrants have a story to tell. Her road to Como started as a form of wanderlust overcame her as a ‘teenager’ living with family in Florida.
Her family combines links with Norway on her mother’s side and with Germany from her father. So off to Germany she went to live initially in Heidelberg and subsequently for the next ten years in Munich where she completed a Masters degree in Comparative Literature and met her future husband, Alessandro Vannini, British by birth but Italian by upbringing. They then moved to London where Alessandro took up the prestigious post of Vice Director at the Institute of Cancer Research. It was however the birth of their son, Cristian, that prompted Sonja to develop her artistic career – not primarily for economic reasons but out of a desire to give her son a magical environment in which to enrich and preserve his inherent creativity.
As part of her studies into comparative literature, Sonja had been attracted to the theories of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim concerning the critical role played by fables and fairy tales in children’s emotional and creative development. He postulated how fairy tales and fables, sharing a high degree of thematic universality, seem to provide the means for young children to make sense or manage some of their emotions and reactions to the world around them. She then thought that the best way to maximise these emotional benefits would be to work on illustrating the stories since these would provide a pre-literate child with a stimulus for further reflection and a context for sharing their feelings and reactions.
This was the starting point for her career as ‘Sonja Illustrates’ which developed from the illustrations on the walls of her son’s room to a series of commissions for other families and the production of a unique child-centred art product known as ‘fairy doors’. The latter combine Sonja’s skills in art and illustration with calligraphy and, applying her literary background, with a series of suggestions for adults on how they might best use the imagery on the doors as gateways into their children’s fears and thoughts
Meanwhile, in the ‘free Hanseatic City’ of Hamburg, Kevin Fehling, the highly successful chef of the city’s 3 star Michelin restaurant ‘The Table’, had commissioned Sonja to provide illustrations in four editions of his in-house magazine.
He also turned to her when thinking about the decor for his next project, a restaurant known as ‘The Globe’ aboard the MS Europa, the only cruise liner to achieve a 5 star plus classification. Reading Kevin’s biography one can appreciate why he selected Sonja to design a series of drawings to fill the restaurant’s rear wall. His type of cuisine seeks to exceed any standard expectations of creativity. He must want his customers to both approach and react to his culinary experience with an open-minded almost childlike sense of wonder and amazement. After all, his clientele are for the most part exceedingly wealthy, very demanding, accustomed to luxury and most probably nursing jaded palettes. So what could be more refreshing for them than to be transported back into a sense of innocent discovery combining his cuisine within the packaged ‘wanderlust’ of an ocean cruise.
Kevin himself has stated how he took on the opportunity of establishing a ‘roaming’ restaurant as a reflection of his own sense of wanderlust which for him he has described as ‘like homesickness but only worse.’ His somewhat oxymoronic comparison seems to capture part of the ex-pat’s dilemma – a love of travel and enlarged experiences but a loosening of roots and fixed coordinates. Many of us ex-pats including Sonja have upped anchor numerous times. Kevin Fehling’s The Globe restaurant itself upped anchor aboard the MS Europa for the first time this October with Sonja’s illustrations helping to feed Kevin’s clients with a sense of wonder and adventure.
So what were Sonja’s first impressions of Como? On the positive side, she was delighted to find herself within a short walk of that great art supply shop on Via Milano so no excuse to getting that key commission from Kevin Fehling out the door. However this major commitment was not helped by an irritatingly long delay in getting Internet installed at home. Italy would not be Italy if there were not at least ‘one or two flies in the ointment’. But, in spite of long exposure to German efficiency moderated to some degree by her spell in London, she is adapting stoically to that uniquely Italian sense of customer service. Notwithstanding Sonja’s fascination in fable and fantasy, she struck me as being a total realist well aware of the need to confront and overcome the intimidating aspect of moving to a country where many of the norms and customs are new to you.
The size of cities count. After her years in London where it seemed you remain anonymous no matter how long you live in a neighbourhood, she is happy that both she and her son are now readily recognised and greeted in their local area. Como is still a city of human dimension, but with the additional extraordinary gifts of nature to its north and, if required, the cosmopolitanism of Milan to its south. For now, Sonja has had to return to driving getting Cristian to and from school, to which he has adapted well. Husband Alessandro takes on a highly ambitious and significant role as the Director of Research at the Human Technopole – the state-sponsored project occupying the ex-EXPO site in Rho which aims to re-position Italy as an international leader in life sciences. Sonja continues to foster the creativity of all her family members and, of course, to illustrate.
Do visit Sonja’s Internet site to see more examples of her work, for further biographical detail and a very much more accurate and complete understanding of the theoretical basis of her approach.
Her full social media links are:
Also visit https://www.htechnopole.it/en/home to understand more about what brought Alessandro, Sonja and Cristian to Italy and to appreciate the immensely ambitious scale of this major state-sponsored initiative.
Como Companion has always taken an interest in Como’s artistic tradition, and in both her local and immigrant contemporary artists. The following links may be of interest: