Divine Inspiration

Painter Savonnara Alexander Sok draws on Buddhism, family, and street art


Originally from Long Beach, California, where his Cambodian parents immigrated to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide, artist Savonnara Alexander Sok was close to his grandfather, a Buddhist monk at the local temple. “He had all these prayer books, and I drew animals and images from them,” Sok recalls. “He pretty much opened the door for me to creating art. He was an artist in his way, but his life was dedicated to the temple.” It was one of his uncles, a very talented artist, “who I think I may have gotten my traits from.”

At 12, Sok’s mother moved them to Omaha, Nebraska, and his art flourished in high school under a supportive teacher who allowed him to develop and explore his own style. His undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska were focused more on his graphic design major and a long-term relationship, and less on painting. Following graduation and the relationship breaking up, “I had a lot of fueled-up feelings,” which he channeled into painting. “I can take adversities and things I go through and reflect them outward, and not feel anything afterwards,” he says. “It’s kind of my gift and my curse.”

In 2015, Sok was in Providence to visit his ailing father, and he decided to stay. Instagram helped fuel his early painting career, sending lots of commission work his way like custom shoes, pet portraits, and murals, but he’s taking 2018 to focus solely on his own work and gallery pieces. Preferred materials include spray paint, big markers, and acrylics – things “that are really quick to use.” He does not plan his pieces in advance; instead he goes “hands-in” and just does “everything at once.” He’ll often find discarded pieces of wood, especially oak, and use them as canvases, employing negative space to bring out the wood’s organic texture.

David Choe, with whom Sok shares a street art background, is a big inspiration.The Buddhism instilled by Sok’s grandfather appears in his art, but “I wouldn’t say it’s super-religious. I don’t want to preach my religion to anybody, but I do want to share the love and my vibes.” Although his art usually isn’t trying to make a political statement, one painting features an iPhone, an observation on how social media can be a blessing for sharing unknown artists’ work, but also can promote self-tagging over the actual themes and meaning of the art itself.

“Life, death, and love” are Sok’s recurring themes. His first gallery show, “Hearts & Souls,” was in large part a tribute to the passing of his artist uncle, Daron. His next show at Skye Gallery on Broadway, a series of portraits following in-depth conversations he will conduct with subjects from diverse backgrounds, will take place towards the end of March. Many of his subjects share “tougher upbringings,” and each “have a story or something they want to express.” Each painting’s colors and “vibe” will stem from “the connection between people.”