It’s not easy to tell where Sonya Darrow’s artwork ends and her life begins. The clothing she creates for her exhibitions, lectures, and photos is some of the same clothing she wears as she walks the streets of her Cedar Rapids, Iowa, hometown — skirts fashioned from mops, dresses stitched from tablecloths, blouses sculpted from vintage lace and hanks of embroidery thread, headpieces crafted of embroidery hoops and holiday ornaments. Her deep engagement with her Czech heritage influences the shapes and forms the clothing takes. Sonya’s activities and art reflect a commitment to sustainability: despite Iowa’s climate extremes, Sonya chooses not to own a car, and the clothing and artifacts that comprise her artwork are made almost exclusively from recycled materials, down to the needles and thread she uses to stitch her garments.
These affinities made Sonya a regular fixture at her local Goodwill stores, where she foraged for inspiration and materials. “A thrift store is a cultural pocket in a neighborhood, and I find so many historical pieces there,” she says. Her presence intrigued Goodwill, whose mission is to advance the social and economic well being of those facing barriers to independence, and they contacted Sonya about forming a partnership.
“They were open to anything I wanted to do — this was new for them,” says Sonya, who calls her business LADYFITS. “So I told them I’d love to be an artist-in-residence. My official title is thrift artist. I’ve learned so much about all the great things they do. I wave the flag of Goodwill.”
Sonya’s thrift artist activities include a Recycle in Style fashion show at which LADYFITS and local designers share clothing created solely from repurposed textiles and materials; this year’s 4th annual event drew more than 300 people. She’s joined forces with Goodwill’s Day Habilitation program, which works with individuals whose emotional or physical disabilities make independent work difficult, to help clients use items gleaned from Goodwill stores to express themselves artistically. Sonya publishes brief, image-filled newsletters about her work with Goodwill, distributing them through the stores and carrying them with her to hand out. “You never know whom you might meet,” she says, acknowledging that people recognize her at the grocery store and on the street. “There are all those clichés about Iowans being shy, but if you’re a genuine person, people will approach you.”
One-on-one encounters also take place during the Open Studio she holds in Goodwill during store hours, when she works on her art and makes herself available to shoppers.
“People of all ages are drawn to Sonya,” says Brent Watkins, creative services manager at Goodwill of the Heartland. “They ask her about her process and she’ll give them ideas of how to use items they find. She’s great at using things in ways people might not think of.”
These encounters are one of Sonya’s favorite parts of being a thrift artist.
“I like to be directly in contact with the community,” says Sonya, who also sees herself as an educator, helping customers learn about the world and work of an artist while inspiring them to make art for themselves. “People could be shopping for furniture and there I am in the corner. I put myself in a vulnerable place and it gives people a chance to see the sacrifices and time a maker puts into a piece. Some Goodwill shoppers might not go to galleries or may be suspect of artists. I’m transparent about what I’m doing and why, like dismantling a vegetable steamer and crocheting it. I like to break down what I’m doing and let them know ‘Hey, I’m just like you.’”
And she is just like the customers in many ways. Sonja spent her childhood in Cedar Rapids, a city where a significant number of citizens have Czech heritage. Growing up, she celebrated St. Nicholas Day and listened to polka music at the bandstand in Czech Village on summer nights. She studied journalism and art in college, but rather than move to New York as so many of her friends did, she felt compelled to return to Cedar Rapids.
“I’m a very determined person. I like having hurdles to jump over and I’m not scared easily,” she says. “But I decided there was a reason to come back to Cedar Rapids, though I didn’t know what it was. It turned out to be a great decision because a lot of key art players in town said ‘Yes, you can be on our board’ and ‘Yes, you can write grants’ and pushed me to try things I didn’t know how to do and helped me flourish and learn. I owe them so much.”
She’s also seen a darker side of her hometown. In 2008, a flood damaged thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses (including the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, where Sonya is a regular volunteer). After the waters receded, Sonya was hired to gather information about the actions and needs in flooded areas. “It was horrible seeing the damage and destruction of places and artifacts that inspired so much of my creativity and aesthetic, and seeing the grief of the residents,” she says. “I did that for two years. The decay of things inspired me; there is beauty in loss and devastation. But I had to step away and regain myself as an artist. The flood pushed me to be an activist and give back culturally through what I do and communicate.”
Sonya’s composed a life that enables her to do just that. She was asked to share her artistic perspective and process during the grand reopening of the Czech and Slovak Museum, when she spoke on Resourceful Expressions through Folk Dress. Brent Watkins of Goodwill will be sharing the story of Sonya’s creative engagement as thrift artist at the national Goodwill meeting later this year. Though she makes frequent trips to New York and hopes to exhibit at Bohemian National Hall, Sonya has no intention of leaving Cedar Rapids. She’s pieced together a life that enables her to make art, expose others to its value and pleasures, and explore the past and future of her Czech heritage.
“I’ve never felt any ageism, that anyone thought “Oh she’s too young and can’t do this or that,” she says. “This community has truly embraced me.”