All photos by Trisha Ventker
Sondra Ferrari Parker recently placed her artwork in a gallery for the first time. It was one more milestone that added to her unexpectedly happy and satisfying 40th year of life.
Unexpected because just a few years earlier, she found herself alone with two kids and a missing husband who had walked out on the family leaving no financial support. She resorted to salvaging scraps of wood to paint on because she couldn’t afford to buy canvas.
But the hardships turned out to be fortuitous events in both her life and her art. She began experimenting with covering the wood with shapes, painting over the barrier, then removing it to reveal the wood grain. It launched a whole new direction for her work, and has led to interest from galleries, Sotheby’s staging agents, and private clients.
And after accepting that her marriage was over, she met the love of her life, Greg, two years ago on Match.com.
I’ve known Sondra since we were kids growing up in a very small, rural town in Pennsylvania. I graduated from high school with her older sister Dottie, and always knew her as the “kid sister” (albeit a stylish and creative one). When I recently saw her amazing paintings and she told me her story of difficulty and ultimate success and happiness, Sondra suddenly came into focus as an amazing mother and artist who is setting an admirable example for all of us.
This is how things went down.
Sondra and her husband had been making annual trips from Pittsburgh to visit her sister in Colorado with their son and daughter for years. But in 2008, a couple months before the trip, her husband left the family and never came back. She took the kids to Colorado anyway, and when she couldn’t get a response from her husband, decided not to go back to Pennsylvania.
“Every day I would just cry. He didn’t have any interest in us coming back, he wasn’t returning the kids’ calls,” Sondra said.
Her sister Dottie, who has a husband and three kids of her own, took Sondra and the kids in, and eventually Sondra found a house to rent. But she needed to find work. She also needed a way to channel her grief and frustration.
She had painted in high school and majored in art and art therapy in college. Breaking out the brushes again seemed like a great way to deal with her turmoil, but canvas was expensive for the large pieces she liked to paint. So when she found some scraps of wood in the basement of her rented house, she figured she’d paint on them. She is loving the unpredictable results.
“You never really know what the painting will be until the last minute,” she said. “I’ve been doing the technique for over a year but there’s still a lot of experiementing and discovery.”
This creative spurt of new work led to her first gallery exhibit at Bittersweet Gallery in Louisville, Colorado (If you’re in the area, join Sondra tonight for the gallery’s April opening night). The location is a natural market for her paintings — the wood grains appeal to outdoorsy Coloradans, and the large size of her pieces, as big as 4′ by 8′, look great in large mountain homes.
Sondra’s background in interior design fuels her interest in larger pieces. “A signature piece of art makes a big difference in a room,” she told me.
I was initially surprised to discover Sondra possessed so much creativity and skill. But it all makes sense when I remember her mother and grandmother, who lived with the family growing up. Sondra describes her grandmother’s sartorial style as “over the top.” When I think of her, the amazing women of Advanced Style come to mind. She had traveled around the world collecting gobs of jewelry and over the years amassed an impressive assortment of Miriam Haskell pieces, to which Sondra is now a beneficiary. Her mother was an art major who also had a directional sense of style and encouraged creativity among the four girls in the family. I’ll never forget the red velvet couch Mrs. Ferrari had placed in the Ferrari family room. I’d never seen anything like it.
With the influence of these creative women as a foundation, followed by her education in art, Sondra always had artistic tendencies, and was poised to make a lucky find in a Pittsburgh garbage can.
“In Pittsburgh I noticed a guy was carrying some chairs out to the garbage,” she told me. “They were Pagani mid-century modern with brass legs. I had just been shopping on 1st Dibs where the same chairs were featured and being sold by a gallery in San Francisco. I called the gallery and found they were selling them for $20,000 for the pair. I sold him mine for $9,500.” It was the perfect boost for a vintage chair revamping business she had started with a friend called Limited Seating.
Now, Sondra’s trajectory towards a successful, creative career is finally coming to fruition.
“I never thought I could leave everything I knew, leave my family and friends behind and find all of this. I finally get into a gallery and find a man who I adore. I find a stable, happy life. If someone would have told me this a few years ago I would have never believed them.”
Check out our photo gallery to see Sondra’s interior design, art work and fantastic fashion sense in action. Even back in high school, I remember being in awe of her ability to have a strong personal style in our tiny town where most of us tried our best to blend. When I asked about her style she said she favors plain t-shirts from H&M or the Gap festooned with her grandmother’s jewelry or her own vintage finds.
She has the same approach to both decorating and dressing.
“I mix a lot of styles,” she said. “I like an ultra conservative chest of drawers mixed with something mid-century modern. There’s no one style that I focus on with my design work.”
“I like to look around the room and see stuff sparkle.”
The photos are by Trisha Ventker at Sondra’s home in Erie, Colorado, which she shares with her daughter Madeleine, 11, her son Trip, 6, and her Prince Charming, Greg. Here are all the details on what she wore and what she serves. We’re keeping our fingers crossed she invites us over for dinner soon!
Dinner party outfit:
Dress: Vintage Richard Frontman
Sweater: Banana Republic
Boots: Nine West’s Boutique 9, BTCHARISSA
Necklace: Vintage Miriam Haskell inherited from Sondra’s grandmother
Ring: Banana Republic
The table and chairs are from HW Home. The sterling Vases are vintage. Place mats are from Z Gallerie. Dinner plates are Martha Stewart for Macys, salad plates are from Pier 1, dessert plates are vintage, napkins from Williams Sonoma and the glasses are vintage.
Flowers: Ranunculus, tulips, and mini cala lilies
Appetizers: Anti Pasta and flat breads: Caramelized Onion and Pancetta; Ricotta and Spinach: 3 Cheese
Salad: Arugula with blue cheese, apples, figs, walnuts and balsamic vinaigrette
Entree: Braised short ribs over campanelle with shaved parmigiano-reggiano
Dessert: Black berries, marcona almonds, nacaroon and mint chocolate chip cheese cake from Whole Foods
Cocktail: Lemoncello martini
Wine: 2007 Sausal Private Reserve Zinfandel
After Dinner: Absinthe
Appetizers: bowl of strawberries
Dinner: Campanelle with cheese sauce
Dessert: Whole Foods cupcakes: thousands of blue sprinkles Amish market Riverside, Pennsylvania.
The photos taken outside featuring the yellow necklace were before a black tie event at Sondra and Greg’s local clubhouse: