Liz ‘Tinky’ Sonntag is an Australian artist creating miniature worlds – both as illegal street art, legal street art and as stand alone studio works. Through Liz’s art the everyday detritus of modern life – such as cigarette butts, half finished food, food packaging etc – are re-framed through the addition of miniature human figures, fake grass and other miniature objects. Creating a Gulliver Travel’s world of mismatched proportions. Where people are crushed by cigarette butts, tiny rain filled puddles become pools, chicken eggs are cracked open by workers using jackhammers and flies become giant, imposing monsters.
An act of re-framing and re-contextualisation that forces the viewer to look at the everyday world and public spaces anew. More than adding to the urban landscape, Liz’s work becomes the urban landscape, transforming it into a magical realism-esque world of play and fantasy.
Having spent her early years working and travelling the globe, Liz only discovered her inner artist in her 40’s – thanks to being exposed to the vibrant street art scene of early 2000’s Melbourne.
With Liz elaborating,
“My middle age meanderings were hugely significant for me.
In a nutshell, I unearthed a love of street art, thanks to a hyper-manic episode in the city one day.
I spent weeks and months travelling into the city every weekend to hunt down as much street art as I could and photograph everything I found – tags, stickers, murals, stencils paste-ups, installations, the lot.
Then I started creating my own small installations in laneways in Collingwood and the city using toy soldiers, small Big Birds, and other little things.“
With Liz gaining new fans everyday thanks to her unique and often humorous work, we wanted to get to know her a bit better. So we sent her some questions to answer over email.
You can read our in depth interview with Liz, below:
Name and D.O.B?
Liz (Tinky) Sonntag
19 April 1968 (Age 52)
City, State and Country you currently call home?
Melbourne, Vic, Australia.
City, State and Country you’re from?
Mt Martha, VIC Australia.
Please describe some memories from key stages of your life: concerts, art, toys, romance, hunting, school, politics, crime, religion… ANYTHING really!
* Age 5 – beginnings:
I went to a convent primary school run by the most heinous clusterf*ck of nuns, who were – ironically – called The Sisters of Mercy. I was a very shy, nervous child and they were twisted bullies – I’m still scarred!
One day they made two children stand up on their chairs until they wet their pants in front of the whole class. WTF?
When I was six, I blitzed ‘Show and Tell’. I stood in front of the class and told everyone – including my nun teacher – that I was born in the manger where Jesus Christ was born, in Bethlehem. I described in detail how I lay on the hay, surrounded by goats, chickens, a donkey, and some lanterns. My halo shone bright. My classmates were impressed. The nun was not.
Stunned, she called my mum to ask why I would have made such an outrageous claim. Mum laughed nervously and told the nun: “Errr, Elizabeth was born at Bethlehem Hospital in Caulfield. We just tell her she was born in Bethlehem.”
* Age 10 – continuations:
My years consisted of waiting for one school holiday to the next, where my sister and I would spend time with our three cousins, who we loved dearly. We were like five sisters (still are).
They lived on a farm in Bendigo and we lived three hours away in Mt Martha. I existed for those times spent together, listening to ABBA records, creating our own concerts, dressing up, riding horses, swimming in the dam or at the beach.
We had lots of Famous Five adventures together.
They were the happiest times of my childhood.
* Age 15 – getting serious:
I really hated school, it was like torture for me. I didn’t feel like I connected with genuine, interesting, funny people until Year 12. I had a strong desire to travel overseas from the age of 15. It was all I wanted to do, so I didn’t concentrate much on school work.
At 18, I got a job in the city as a travel consultant and moved out of home into a flat in Carlton. I thought the job would enable me to travel. The agency went under 18 months later.
I lucked a job at The Age newspaper straight away in admin. It was an incredible place to work – a huge editorial floor with reporters everywhere. It was the 80’s, where people could drink and smoke in the office. People were having affairs left right and centre, sometimes turning up drunk to work, and putting out their ciggies in their desk bins and causing spot fires.
I was petty intimidated by the editors and journo’s though, so I kept my head down in those days.
I met one of my best friends there. Fran and I would, outrageously, sometimes to go to the movies in our lunch “hour”.
We got away with so much in the 80s.
* Age 20 – young adult:
I was living in a flat in Carlton and planning a life ahead filled with travel. I had also met my tribe at this point. A bunch of amazing girls that are my best friends still, 30 years later. There was so much joy and laughter in our group and there still is.
Finally, at 21, in 1989, I set off overseas on the first of many adventures. I spent six months in Europe with two girlfriends. I had $5,000 and it saw me through that six months. We spent a month of that in Turkey and month on the Greek Islands to save some of our pennies – they were cheap countries to visit then. I fell in love with Turkey and went back a few more times years later.
I travelled in East and West Berlin in 1989, two months before the Berlin wall came down. It was extremely tense there at that time. I travelled through Yugoslavia (when it was Yugoslavia). I remember the locals being really unfriendly. I also saw a man who had been decapitated in a car accident. That image is burnt into my brain.
I was in Egypt when the Gulf War broke out in 1990 but had no idea because there was no such thing as the internet or email. From there I moved to London for a year, where I met my first love, a Scotsman named Peter, who I married three years later, back at home in Australia.
* Age 25 – adult mode:
I was working at The Age again, which I loved. It was constantly interesting and entertaining with all the personalities, breaking stories, meltdowns, and strange yet wonderful behaviours.
I spent all my annual leave travelling overseas and my spare time planning where I was going to go next. I was completely obsessed with travel.
My marriage to Peter was no longer, but we remained dear friends, and still are.
I lived with a gorgeous friend, Ali, in an art deco apartment in Toorak.
I felt a bit lost and confused at this time though.
* Age 30 – fully formed:
These were super fun times; mostly spent with friends in bars around St Kilda. Some of that’s a bit of a blur.
I was living with a photographer friend in Elwood and they were really happy days.
I met my now husband, Karl, at the Doulton Bar in St Kilda. We’d go camping at Wilson’s Prom and have little weekend adventures away.
It was fantastic.
A few months after we met I was offered a 2-year contract job in South Africa though Australian Volunteers International. It was a volunteer marketing officer role for a NGO in Cape Town called Sports Coaches Outreach. I’d always wanted to work in aid overseas, so this was an incredible opportunity. The irony was I’d just met someone who I adored.
Worried I’d regret it if I didn’t go, I packed up my life and moved to Cape Town two months later.
It was an incredible rollercoaster of experiences. The best thing I ever did, and the most terrifying.
It wasn’t a safe place at that time. I lived in a lovely little house with an American girl, in a colourful, vibrant part of Cape Town. But there were times I’d hear gunshots at night, or someone running over the roof of our house trying to break in. I was shit-scared much of the time.
I made some dear friends though, and this was the highlight of my time there. My bestie was a girl from Norway, Beret, who I love to this day. Other friends were from Finland, Zambia, and the US and we all became very close.
Things went south after five months when my Finnish friend was attacked on a train and thrown out of a window onto the tracks. She was in a coma for a month and wasn’t expected to survive. Beret and I visited her hospital bed daily. It was so surreal to see our vibrant friend unresponsive and on life support.
The day she woke from her coma Beret and I were at the hospital. The relief was so overwhelming. I remember emailing Karl and his beautiful reply was “I want you to come home to my arms.”
That was the day I decided to leave South Africa and come home.
* Age 35 – meanderings:
I started work back at The Age for a third time. I started writing for Epicure, Travel and Saturday sections of the newspaper.
At 38 Karl and I bought a cute little house in Seaford (where we are still) and we got married a year after that.
They were very happy days.
* Age 40 – middle age creeping:
The newspaper landscape was changing. I took a voluntary redundancy and a leap of faith.
I started working at Monash Health as an Executive Assistant and then moved into the fundraising space as a grants writer.
I made some wonderful friends there.
* Age 45 – middle age meanderings:
My middle age meanderings were hugely significant for me. In a nutshell, I unearthed a love of street art, thanks to a hyper-manic episode in the city one day.
I spent weeks and months travelling into the city every weekend to hunt down as much street art as I could and photograph everything I found – tags, stickers, murals, stencils paste-ups, installations, the lot.
I’d also drag Karl along to go searching for abandoned buildings to look for graffiti writing.
Then I started creating my own small installations in laneways in Collingwood and the city using toy soldiers, small Big Birds, and other little things. I wasn’t using puns then.
Around the same time, some events led me to see a mental health professional, where I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type II. I was so excited – finally, I understood why I had been so manic, excitable, nuts, all my adult life.
I called all my friends and family and announced “You’ll never believe this but…” Turned out they all did believe it and were not in the slightest bit surprised.
At some point amongst all of this, apparently I became an artist. I’d been invited to participate in a couple of well-known street art festivals, much to my surprise. I didn’t think what I was doing was on anyone’s radar.
At 48 I left my full time job to take a part time job so I could pursue my art more seriously.
Serendipitously, two months later I was invited to take a studio at The Blender Studios.
I cried tears of happiness that day.
* Age 50 – middle age freak-out:
Turning 50 was the best birthday I’ve ever had. I really embraced it and we threw a huge party in a bar in Footscray. There was no freak out at all. It was a ripper.
Art life has been very good to me and I continue to have amazing opportunities and experiences for which I am very grateful.
Four years ago I attended an ‘Inspiring Leadership’ program as part of a part-time job I had. We were taught how to write our personal ‘purpose statement’. I had no idea how powerful an exercise that would be for me.
So, I guess my purpose statement is my personal motto:
“To inspire and encourage others to experience joy and delight through the appreciation of visual art.“
When and why did you first start making art of any type!?
I’ve never been able to draw or paint; and never saw myself ever becoming an artist of any kind.
In my 20s/30s I made jewellery and sold it to shops around the Mornington Peninsula.
In my mid 40s I discovered street art which grew into a manic obsession.
One Sunday I woke with a burning desire to head to my local trash and treasure market. There were two things that I absolutely HAD to find – no question.
The first thing: vintage toy soldiers. You know, those small army green figurines; usually a bit chewed at the ends from the child that once owned it.
The second thing: some kind of small plastic toy. I wasn’t sure what exactly, but I knew it would become clear when I saw it.
I’ve always been a healthy manifester of events in my life, but I never understood what that actually meant until this particular day, five years ago.
I set off, paid the $1 market entry fee and walked straight to the second stallholder. Among a plethora of junk sat two large jars of vintage toy soldiers. $5 each jar. At that moment I knew something strange was at work in my universe. I felt it. It’s almost impossible to put into words, other than to say I felt an overwhelming, all-embracing, sense of excitement.
I purchased the two jars of toy soldiers and continued my search for “the second thing”.
It didn’t take too long. As I rummaged through a vintage suitcase filled with second-hand children’s toys, I scooped up a hard plastic, bright yellow Big Bird, about 7cm high. This Big Bird had his arms positioned up in the air, as if he had been taken by surprise. I knew I’d found “my things”.
The same enthusiasm was now telling me I had to head to Collingwood (an hour’s drive away from where I was at that moment). So that where my husband and I headed.
We walked around the back streets of Collingwood, I found an interesting laneway, and I installed a scene on a window-sill – the toy soldiers surrounding Big Bird, pointing their guns at him. I stood back, thought it was funny and took a photo, and upload it to Instagram.
A few days later I saw a photo of the scene on someone else’s Instagram.
That’s when it all began.
Any pivotal artistic moment(s) / influence(s)?
Please describe the process of producing your public art dioramas? – Dot point all ok!
* Deciding on a funny or absurd scene to create on the street.
* Thinking about an accompanying pun / caption.
* Packing a bag with my miniature figurines and required objects for the scene, plus a variety of glues, faux grass, trees and shrubs.
* Stalking the laneways to find an appropriate hidey hole, drain or surface to install the scene.
* Sit or stand on a milk-crate to put it together, keeping in mind the best angles for viewing and photography
* Unglue fingers from thumb
* Brush off faux grass from clothing
* Photograph artwork and upload to Instagram with caption!
Sometimes I stick around to watch people engage with it (or miss it altogether). That’s the best part.
Eventually I’ll wander off but I always leave feeling really happy.
I love uploading the scene to Instagram because my followers get really into and come up with counter puns that are absolutely hilarious. I respond to everyone because I love that they’ve made an effort to contribute to it. It’s such a laugh – for them and me.
With the prep, there’s also a lot of travelling around to antique shops, markets, and collectable bazaars, to search for the right vintage items for artworks – small rusty tins, vintage plastic fruit, old cigar boxes, shoe lasts, an old shuttlecock, or old rollerskates, etc. When I spot the right thing, I know straight away that I can use it in a humorous way. I always get a wave of excitement when I find something.
This is my drug of choice!
Are your public art, photographic records, and studio-works inter-connected parts of a whole – or do you view them each as unique art objects in their own right?
They are definitely interconnected, even though the landscape they sit in might be very different. If I construct a scene on the street, for example, it can still be just as funny as if it were sitting in a glass cloche, even though one might look more polished than the other.
I guess the difference there is, street art is ephemeral, so a scene in a laneway might last only days, or weeks. Whereas the studio works are presented in or on an object, and there is permanency about that.
As for the photos, they are an essential part of what I do. Without the photo, I can’t present the caption, or pun. And because I often come up with the pun on the spot, once I’ve installed on the street, I can’t come prepared with a little plaque or label.
I do get attached to each one though – especially the street scenes. For me, there is a back story to each scene that I don’t even make public.
Their back story just sits in my head.
To me, the miniature people all have their own personalities and character.
Do you have an official photographer to capture your public works – or do you take the photos yourself?
For the most part I take photos of my own work just with my mobile phone (hence there is vast room for improvement!). I usually install on the street so I’m the only one there to photograph it.
I do have some gorgeous professional photographer friends who have been very generous with their time and skills and have photographed my work for exhibitions.
There are also many awesome street art photographers out there who capture my work and share it on Insta.
Worst aspect of the contemporary art hustle?
Artists frequently hear: “We don’t have any budget to pay you, but it’ll be great exposure.”
i.e. We love your work, but we don’t deem it important enough to pay you.
I once had an organisation contact me with a three-page proposal outlining a detailed project that involved me creating 20 installations around the city. There was a lot of specific detail in the proposal.
The last paragraph, on the last page, actually read: “Unfortunately we don’t have any budget for this, however we plan to have media there so it will be great exposure.”
I politely explained that as I’m sure he was being paid in his role as marketing manager, I too had an expectation of payment for my work.
He didn’t reply.
Best aspect of the contemporary art hustle?
The arts community – from fellow artists, gallerists, curators, art lovers, art collectors, street art followers, photographers and supporters – these folks are diverse, interesting and passionate about the arts, which I always find inspiring.
The people I meet are the best part of the art scene. Whether I’m talking to an interesting collector in a gallery, or sitting on the ground in a dirty laneway chatting to an onlooker, I’m always grateful for these often funny, stimulating conversations and encounters.
Favorite other artist(s)?
Oh there are SO many but I’ll try to keep my list to five, otherwise we’ll be here forever!
My favourite artist of all-time is Isaac Cordal, a Spanish sculptor/installation artist who lives in Brussels.
I desperately want to meet him. He sculpts small humans and installs them in streets, fields, pavements, and on the outside of buildings in Europe.
His characters can look forlorn or weary and sometimes the story can appear bleak, but they are so poignant and beautiful.
I also love the wondrously colourful work of installation artist, Pip & Pop, from Western Australia.
She installs her sugary creations in galleries around the world. I first saw her work at the Christchurch Art Gallery in NZ and I got to meet her two years ago at the Biennale of Australian Art. That was a highlight for me.
Lucy Bryant’s works never fails to crack me up. Known as Haus of Lucy, she uses kitsch ceramic figurines – the kind you find in op shops everywhere – and adds a modern-day and hilarious twist to them.
An an olde-worlde ceramic figurine of a young girl wears might be wearing a (painted on) Thrasher hoodie with a skateboard under her arm. Or an Elizabethan figurine of a woman might be chowing down on pizza and coke.
Roa (Belgium) paints animals and often includes their skeleton and internal organs.
He is an exquisite artist and street artist.
The beautiful female faces that adorn doors and walls around Collingwood, silos, an old theatre, a haunted mansion … Rone (Melbourne) needs no introduction really.
Help, I could add another 50! I also adore the work of Herakut, Adrian Doyle (and not because he’s the boss of Blender Studios), Freya Jobbins, Julia deVille (her taxidermy), Julian Clavijo/Pachi, Adi Brierley, Caper, Kitty Calvert and Andria Beighton.
How has being a part of the ‘Blender Studios’ communal art space in Melbourne impacted your personal and artistic life?
Being part of the Blender family has been life-changing for me. It has without a doubt been one of the best things that’s ever happened.
I love those people.
It has become all-encompassing, personally, socially, professionally, and creatively.
Each artist studio at Blender is walled on three sides, so they’re quite open, which means we are very friendly, social and collaborative. There are a range of art practices at Blender – street art, fine art, sculpture, photography – so it’s easy to be constantly inspired by the energy and the diverse skillsets.
Professionally, it’s been wonderful to have the opportunity to be taken seriously. Great opportunities have come my way, I get to meet interesting tourists, collectors, gallerists, and it has provided credibility that might not have been afforded otherwise. There’s a real sense of community.
I feel like I am a part of something really special at Blender.
Odds and Ends
What role did toys play in your childhood?
I don’t recall toys having a huge impact on me, to be honest. My childhood was during the 70s and 80s, so my sister and I played outdoors a lot, running though bushland in Mount Martha before it got built up.
We played dress-ups a lot. I dressed up as Wonder Woman frequently and ran through the bush in a leotard, long brown boots with red socks pulled over the top (so they became red boots), and I carried a piece of gold thread (which was my gold lasso).
Fuck only knows what anyone would have thought if they saw me.
My favourite toy was a plush Snoopy (which I still have). He had a few outfits I’d dress him up in (still have those too).
Toys didn’t play a role in what I’m doing now with miniatures. I didn’t have an interest in tiny things when I was young.
I think comedy and humour had a big role to play in how I saw the world around me. In the 70s-80s, Dad would make us watch funny movies with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, and The Pink Panther movie with Peter Sellers.
I adored those actor-comedians.
Who was your 1st crush and why?
My first crush was a boy at kinder, Andrew Bartlett. He was quiet but a little sweetie who had lovely big brown eyes.
He remained a crush throughout my primary and secondary school years, but I barely spoke to him.
I heard, sadly, that he died about three years ago.
Does sex change everything?
I’m not sure. I’ve never had a sex change.
Please describe what you think the Australian psyche / zeitgeist is today?
I’d love to answer that but I can’t get my head out of my phone long enough to do anything other than upload photos to Instagram, as I consume things at a rate of knots, and share my very important opinions on social media on things about which I know very little.
I think that’d be the Australian psyche just now.
Which cartoon character, would you most like to see in a tribute sex toy, and why?
You’re killing me. Pop-eye has great guns but I reckon you’d get spinach stuck in places where it doesn’t belong.
Wonder Woman is pretty hot.
I’m so not drawing these.
Out of the following who would win in a fight and why: Gulliver from the 1726 book ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ Vs. the Four Shrunken Kids from the 1989 film ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’?
Gulliver, hands down. He was a surgeon as well as a giant so had magnificent knife skills and wasn’t afraid of the sight of blood. Those kids were toast. They would have been a ‘Honey I shrunk the Kids’ kebab.
What are the top 3 items you own?
They’re all artworks!
I found the most amazing thing on eBay about six years ago. It’s a stencil, on a door, of 50’s siren Bettie Paige.
Unbelievably, that same year, a friend gave me a street art book; as I was flicking through, a photo of the very door jumped out at me. It was a picture of the door, with the stencil, while it was still in situ on the street.
I still don’t know who the artist is. I’d love to know.
The girl I bought it from reckons she found it on hard rubbish.
I paid $40 for it.
A painting of my hand by artist Yvette Coppersmith.
In 2010 I went to a fantastically warped carnival show called The Carnival of Curiosities by performance artist Moira Finucane and theater director Jackie Smith. It was magnificent.
As part of the event, Yvette was painting hands for $20 so I paid up and sat with her as she painted my hand on a canvas. She won the Archibald in 2018 so I’m proud to say I have one of her artworks!
I have a painting that I treasure that my Aunt Bindy painted and gifted me for my 7th birthday. It has her hand-written birthday message on the back. She is an established artist in Bendigo (Belinda John) and she would have been only 30 when she painted it. The painting is of a little blonde girl holding a cat.
It hangs in my bedroom and I love it so much.
Drugs – waste of time or gateway to the universe?
I’ve had Bipolar Type II for a long time and before I was diagnosed one of the ways it would manifest was through hyper-manic episodes. I was always “up” so drugs did nothing much for me.
These days I’m on meds for Bipolar so I don’t mess with that.
Please describe your latest dream in detail…
I’ve had the same dream for about five years. The theme is always the same but the locations are different…
I dream that I’m out at night looking for Blender Studios. I don’t know what it looks like, but I know I have to find it. In the dream, I’m always searching streets, laneways, cities, trying to find the elusive Blender.
Sometimes I find it (it always looks different in each dream) and I always feel at home. Often in the dream, instead of finding Blender Studios, I bump into Junky Projects (a real-life Blender legend).
Weirdly, I was having these dreams before I’d ever met Junky (though I knew what he looked like).
I’d been having these dreams for about a year before I even considered myself an artist, or was invited to be part of Blender Studios.
I can’t explain it at all. It’s just so weird.
I had one just last night, too.
Of everything you have done, what would you most like to be remembered for and why?
I’d say it was climbing Mount Kenya and not dying.
It was a stupid idea and people who know me know how stupid I was to do it. It’s still a source of great mockery by those closest to me.
I was 22. I was in good shape but I wasn’t necessarily a fit person. I hadn’t climbed more than four flights of steps, ever.
While travelling in Africa with my then partner, we thought it would be a good idea to climb Mt Kenya, because everyone else in our hostel seemed to be doing it.
The mountain is 5,200m high. We didn’t do an ounce of research. We just bought a gas cooker and packed a few things for our 4-day “hike”. I wore a pair of jeans, t-shirt, windcheater, and a pair of white runners – oh, and I packed a thin wind-jacket.
We had no thermals, no hiking boots, no guide, no idea.
It was minus 20 degrees on the mountain top – and if we’d done our research, we’d have known that.
I lost the gas cooker on day one. I left it on the mini-bus that took us to base camp. Never even got to use it. We had to keep up with a righteous (and very fit) NZ couple, just so we could use their cooker at the end of each day.
On night two, I slept on the wooden floor of a human-filled hut, with mice running over my face.
While “trekking”, I frequently slipped on loose rocks, I fell over in knee-high mud, I cried a lot, and I damaged my knees to the point that I couldn’t walk for seven days afterwards.
I was so miserable I couldn’t appreciate the views, the animals, the unique vegetation. The iodine we put into our mountain water (to make it drinkable) made me sick. My breathing was shallow. I had a killer headache and I was freezing in hell.
In essence, I was a total fuckwit for doing it.
Hilarious now, though.
If people wanted to work with you or buy something – how should they get in touch?
That would be real nice. I’m always up for a coffee, a chat or a collab.
When self-iso is done and dusted, people can see my work up close at The Blender Studios (33 Dudley Street, West Melbourne), or get in touch via email firstname.lastname@example.org or Insta @tinkysonntag.
Any collaborations on the horizon?
I’m working on some exciting things for Melissa Cahill who is opening an art salon, Madame Hunter, in Collins Street, Melbourne. She is doing something quite unique in the Melbourne art scene, so I’m excited to see how it unfolds.
I’m also looking forward to doing some more work with regional galleries in NSW later this year (if we’re allowed to by then) and next year.
Regional galleries are the bomb. They know how to art well and I find the people are so down to earth and super fun, which always makes the experience special.
Any major projects you want to hype?
If we hadn’t been hit with a pandemic, I would have had two awesome interstate regional art projects this year to hype!
I have a couple of other things on the boil but they’re a bit secret just now because they haven’t yet been confirmed.