Blythewood artisan creates flowers from clay

BLYTHEWOOD – A dewy, delicate arrangement of orchids . . . that lasts forever. It sounds like hothouse hocus-pocus, but Blythewood’s Chatchakorn ‘Jom’ Sonday can make it happen.

A native of Thailand, Sonday is one of the few artists in America who specialize in clay flowers, a traditional Thai art that involves sculpting and painting a fine white clay into remarkably lifelike flower arrangements.

Sonday displays some of her clay flowers at Arts on the Ridge. | Barbara Ball

Sonday’s award-winning clay flowers are favorites at juried art shows in Atlanta, Asheville, Charleston, Hilton Head and Charlotte and are available for sale in area art galleries and through custom orders. Sonday designs 70 or so kinds of flowers, including orchids, which are arranged in natural driftwood or decorative pots.

“Each arrangement is unique,” Sonday said. “I receive a lot of custom orders around Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas.”

She also has available in her studio a collection of ready-to-purchase arrangements on those holidays for those procrastinating shoppers who are looking for something both beautiful and unique at the last minute.

Sonday first discovered clay flowers in 2004, while still living in Thailand.

“I was shopping at the JJ (Chatuchak) Market, a huge weekend bazaar in Bangkok, when I noticed an exquisite lady slipper orchid display in a flower vendor’s booth,” Sonday recalled.

“I love orchids, and lady slippers especially,” she said, “because each flower is so unique, like a fingerprint. The flowers I saw, which were arranged in driftwood, looked so real. But the shop keeper explained that the flowers were actually made of clay. I was fascinated. Even though I had a small budget, I bought a little flower to bring home.”

Sonday grew curious about the process of creating the lifelike flowers, and she eventually signed up for a six-month class at an art school in Bangkok.

“At the time,” Sonday said, “I worked as a hotel receptionist, and didn’t imagine I’d be able to do something else, much less become a professional artist!”

But she’d always loved art, especially drawing and painting, and soon she was creating clay flowers as an enjoyable hobby and sharing them as gifts for friends. Before long, she was selling her work to the market vendor where she had first discovered clay flowers.

“Then I started receiving requests from my friends,” Sonday said, “for flowers that they could give as gifts.”

Now her work is displayed in local galleries and at regional festivals and flower shows. She said she appreciates the many opportunities for artists in America.

“I love it here,” she said. “Everywhere you go, you can show and sell your work. In Thailand, it’s much harder to connect with buyers and display and show art.”

Sonday and her husband, Donald, moved to the U.S. in 2009 after marrying in Thailand the previous year. They settled for a short time in Pennsylvania, then moved to Blythewood when his company relocated. Sonday now stays home with their 7-year-old son, Jason, and spends many hours in her studio creating new work for shows and custom orders.

“I wake up at five every day,” she said, “and work in the studio for three hours, before my son gets up. Then I work a couple of hours after breakfast and three or four hours in the evening.”

Although Sonday learned the basics of the craft in her Bangkok class, she said that practicing and experimenting on her own over the years is how she’s learned many meticulous techniques that make her flowers look extraordinarily real.

“You have to learn those things yourself,” she said.

Sonday uses Luna and Thai clays, which she purchases in bulk during her trips home to Thailand every couple of years.

“I can’t get those types of clay here,” she said. “The clay available here breaks easily. The quality of Thai and Luna clay is like Japanese clay. Luna clay is soft and delicate, and creates a more realistic-looking flower. Thai clay is hardier, and better for stems and leaves.”

Her process varies depending on the specific flower, but often includes mixing oil color into the fresh clay, pressing the clay through a pasta maker for uniform thickness, shaping the individual petals and forming the flowers. When the flowers have dried, she makes and attaches the leaves, then paints details by hand and places the arrangement into a base. The process can take a couple of weeks, and she often works on four or five arrangements at a time.

She also continues to incorporate new skills into her work.

“I recently took a class in Thailand to learn how to sculpt small-scale items such as animals and human figures,” Sonday said. “It will be fun to combine that with the flowers and make a small garden scene, with trees and people sitting in the shade.”

Depending on the dimensions and complexity, Sonday’s flowers are priced from $7 to $600. Custom orders range from detailed miniature and even bonsai sizes to 2-foot-tall displays. Locally, her work can be seen at the Village Artists Gallery in the Sandhills and on her website at jjsclayflowers.com, and shipping is available. For more information or to order for Mother’s Day, go to her website.