Fantastical Forms: Tonya Solley Thornton’s Lively Sculptures

Get to know the strange, beautiful world of the multi-media artist, whose work can currently be seen at CAM and Anchorlight.
by Colony Little  | photography by Sally Van Gorder

Stepping into a world created by Tonya Solley Thornton’s sculptures and collages feels a little like stumbling into a fantastical forest. The crowns of colorful, tilting trees bow gently to the earth, their trunks and branches cobbled together from scraps of fabrics, afghan squares and pom-poms. Their shapes conjure a variety of peculiar yet familiar associations: Dr. Seuss’ Whoville comes to mind, or perhaps Gaudi’s parabolic arches.

A particular curvilinear shape is repeated in each piece. “I see this form everywhere,” says Thornton as we walk through her solo show at Anchorlight Studios, aptly titled Strangebeautiful. “We moved to South Florida when I was little, and I remember being fascinated with flamingos. I see this form in nature; even if I’m driving down the road, it’s a shape that I see and am drawn to.”

If one doubts the ubiquity of this shape in nature, the walk through the gallery makes it clear. In her work, one is reminded of bananas, rainbows, the articulated antenna of an anglerfish — it truly is everywhere. While Thornton’s work has a supernatural appeal, it remains grounded in the familiar.

Arriving at this particular place in her creative journey was 17 years in the making. After receiving her MFA at Mills College at Northeastern University in Oakland, California, Thornton and her husband moved to Asheville for a year, then lived in Brooklyn for five years.

There, the couple started a family and her studio practice was placed on hold. But she kindled her love for creating using the space and the materials available to her at home. “I found that the closest thing that I could work on, that resembled the process of sculpture, was collage,” says Thornton.

She began experimenting with shapes by cutting out images from old craft magazines and rearranging them into two-dimensional forms that reimagined some of the 3D sculptures she created during her MFA years. “The fun part is playing around with a big mess of collage pieces — it goes through many different stages before I finally get to where I want it to be,” she says.

Thornton continued her collage process here in Raleigh before securing a small studio space at Anchorlight a year and a half ago. She started using a communal project space available for Anchorlight tenants to workshop ideas, scaling her collages into small sculptures. The work caught the eye of Anchorlight director Shelley Smith, who offered the main gallery to Thornton to create larger works.
In Strangebeautiful, a wall of 10 of her collages accompany six large, site-specific compositions.

Each piece is named after a grandmother that she knows —  Ethel, Flossie and Esther among them — as a nod to the craft traditions that are honored in Thornton’s work. While most of the works are static, one beguiling piece, called Agnes, is animated: at the end of a pink lure, an inverted crocheted petunia moves up and down, playfully kissing the spikes of a cactus-style flower.

“Tonya has the gift of being able to create fully realized work in both two and three dimensions and at scale. These are different skill sets and it’s easy to underestimate how challenging it can be to move between them,” says Smith. “For Tonya it’s intuitive, and that’s rare.”

As with collage, Thornton’s sculptures are created by arranging and rearranging thrifted items, like fabrics sourced from the Scrap Exchange in Durham. “Experimenting with materials is my favorite thing,” she says. Thornton creates armatures from household items like chairs, poles and wire, then will wrap them in yarn threaded with large beads, pom-poms and feathers, or layer an old afghan over the frame. For the Strangebeautiful exhibit, she worked on multiple pieces at a time for two months, incrementally adding final touches until they were just right.

Working with found materials adds an emotive quality to the work that reflects their original beauty. “Somebody spent so much time on it, and they have so much feeling. When I’m working on them, I feel like they just kind of grow,” Thornton says. “They end up having a lot of different emotions to me personally. Sometimes I think they’re a little melancholy, or a little tired, or curious.”

Raleigh artist Jane Cheek is a close friend of Thornton’s. “Tonya’s work resonates with me on numerous levels. She produces works that invite exploration, resembling a strangely familiar home. Her work exudes warmth and nostalgia while blurring the lines between art and craft,” says Cheek. “These elements harmonize to create a space where the viewer slows down and revels in curiosity and thoughtfulness.”

Thornton’s work embodies a spirit of resourcefulness, ingenuity, whimsy and wonder that’s evoked in the craft traditions she incorporates into her work, creating new worlds and breathing new life into old, familiar treasures.

Strangebeautiful is on view by appointment at Anchorlight through Jan. 6. The exhibition will culminate in an artist talk at 2 p.m. on its final day. Two other pieces of Thornton’s work are part of the Neo-Psychedelia show at CAM Raleigh, on view through March 24, 2024.

This article original appeared in the January 2024 issue of WALTER magazine