Go Baby Go! Try and Survive, by Sonya Allen

By Peter Vankevich

For many people, creating art is therapeutic, a nice respite from the many demands and challenges of daily life.

What is depicted in a drawing can shed an insight into one’s feelings at a given moment and even a psychological profile.

Islander Sonya Allen knows that. Not only is she a prolific artist and former art teacher, but she has worked as an art therapist, helping those who have experienced trauma in their lives.

“Like most artists, I have always done art, but I knew that I could not make money on that alone,” she said. “So, I got a double major in college in English and psychology, and then went to graduate school.”

Graduate school meant moving on from Old Dominion University and getting a master’s degree in art therapy from Eastern Virginia Medical School.

After that, she left to work in Long Island, but that was just a holding period.

She had applied to be a volunteer for the Peace Corps and after a year, headed to Romania. Her work there included providing art therapy for the elderly and for children in severely overcrowded orphanages.

Sonya Allen in Romania as a Peace Corp Volunteer. Photo by Rob Livengood

“I taught basic therapeutic techniques to psychologists because they had a very limited knowledge of the soft sciences, anything that’s not a STEM program,” she said. “They didn’t really know how to deal with PTSD, trauma and the many children who had AIDS.”

After her volunteer service, she returned to her hometown in Virginia and taught art at Chesapeake Western Branch High School and later returned to art therapy.

Just what is art therapy?

 “As a professional art therapist, you use art as a way to just help people communicate – a medium to open people up,” she said. “So, the art isn’t necessarily beautiful. It’s a way to express what’s going on the inside of the person in a visual manner that we can then talk about and use as an opening point for conversation and discussion.”

Another aspect of art therapy tries to get clients to delve into personal issues, she said.

She worked in a battered women’s shelter that included children whose lives have also been totally disrupted.

“When you ask children to draw their favorite weather, you expect a sunny scene, something happy, you know, with clouds,” she said. “But when you have kids suffering from trauma, they draw things like rain, thunderstorms and lots of tornadoes. So that’s what I mean about you can uncover what’s going on inside and have them be more conscious of what’s going on.”

Allen’s extensive art background enabled her as a high school art teacher to better understand students.

“I had parents that would come to open houses and tell me your class is the only reason why my kid goes to school every day,” she said.

Island Inn girl with bike, by Sonya Allen.

But being empathetic – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – contributes to success as a teacher, she said. “Art is a medium to help with their emotional development.”

While teaching, she continued art therapy and and developed a program helping military veterans using farm therapy, having them work with horses and other activities.

Allen moved to Ocracoke last August with her family, husband Daniel and two daughters Skyann and Mira, both students at the school. Daniel, originally from Pantego, has family roots tied to both Ocracoke and Portsmouth Island.

The family hosted Ukrainian exchange student Sonya Voitenko for the last school year.

Surfing Sloth by Sonya Allen

Since arriving on the island, Sonya Allen has been able to focus more on her art, mostly using acrylics these days. Possessing a long-time fascination for wildlife, she paints Ocracoke fauna, such as pelicans, ponies and sea turtles, but also ventures into whimsical surrealism. Her Surfing Sloths painting is an example.
Among her community activities, she is a member of the Ocracoke Alive board of directors.
A sometimes plein air artist, she can be seen painting outside of Spencer’s Market at the corner of School Road and Irvin Garrish Highway.
She sells her paintings at her Art Ocracoke Gallery on Creek Road.

Roma Life by Sonya Allen
Sonya Allen outside her gallery on Creek Road. Photo: P. Vankevich