Sonie Ames (1900 – 1994) was my grandmother. She was born and raised in Provo, Utah where her father was a farmer. Grandma Sonie met Grandpa Chester when she promised her girl friend a nickel if she would whistle at 2 young soldiers walking in the park.
Grandma said she was always interested in roses, and one of her favorite wedding gifts when she married Chester in 1917 was a plate with pink roses painted on it. She thought it would be “out of this world” if she could learn to paint like that. But the art did not start immediately. Living in California since 1925, she began a career as a ladies’ dressmaker to help support her family.
When she turned 50, things changed dramatically for Grandma. While visiting her doctor, she was advised to get some exercise and find a hobby. She decided to start by walking home that day. On the way, she saw a piece of china with a beautiful hand-painted rose on it displayed in a shop window. She entered the shop hoping to find someone who would teach her how to paint china like that.
The pupil quickly became the teacher as she developed her own style of painting roses and other flowers. Aspiring painters began to gather around her. Her fame grew as she and Chester attended china painting conventions in the US and Europe as guests of honor. When she was not traveling, she taught students in her home studio which Chester had made for her out of their garage.
Sonie was most famous for her roses, and she came to be known in the china painting world as the “Rose Lady.” I visited one of her china painting conventions and was struck by how accomplished and famous she was. But Sonie stayed grounded – to me she was always just grandma, who gave warm hugs and made great pumpkin pies.
Her admirers often mention the warmth and sense of calmness and peace that her paintings evoke. I think this is because what she was like on the inside shined through her paintings to the outside. She combined an eye for composition with a fondness for rich, deep and vibrant color, bringing the essence of the subject to life. These qualities led to honor after honor, culminating in one of her rose paintings (number LG093 in our Gallery) being donated, by invitation, to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 1983.
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Sonie Ames Designs, the mail order company founded by Grandpa Chester to make Sonie’s work accessible to more people. Tens of thousands of color prints of her most popular pieces have been sold throughout the world. To me, what is truly remarkable is that Grandma Sonie did not pick up a paintbrush until the age of 50! She said, “It is never too late for someone to begin developing a new talent. If there is anything you would like to do, you should go after it.”
By Walter Ames
1. Smithsonian Institution Archives: National Museum of American History, Division of Ceramics and Glass.
2. From an interview that appeared as “Painter’s china secures a place at Smithsonian – and a Provo award,” in the Deseret News, Oct. 2-3, 1986, page 2B
Videos of Sonie Painting a Rose Masterpiece
In 4 parts, watch Sonie paint a masterpiece from a blank plate. This 30 year old video was taken by one of her students and, as far as we know, is the only one of her painting in existence. While not of professional quality, Sonie’s consummate technique and warm personality come through clearly.