Art of Sofia

Sofia Cole - her signature self portrait
Behind her sweet smile and twinkling eyes, Sofia Cole, 51, is a fighter.  That’s because 15 years ago, she was told that she had only 3 more days to live and advised to say Goodbye to her family.  She was devastated when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma because her children, Stefan, Sasha and Sebastian, were then aged 6, 4 and 18 months old.  Her first thought was, “I can’t die – I have so much to do!” as she grappled with how she should break the news to her husband and family. 

Her B-cell lymphoma was the size of a grapefruit and inoperable as it was wrapped around her heart.  She went through chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments and fought the battle with tenacity as the drugs ravaged her and her family was traumatised by the ordeal. “My life is defined as “Before cancer” and “After cancer”,” said Cole, whose illness went into remission for about 5 years before she started experiencing black-outs with convulsions. 

Sofia Cole with portraits of her sons, Stefan [Right]
and Sebastian [Left]
For her own safety, she had to give up her driving license and one day when she collapsed in the street, the doctor suspected that she had a late onset of epilepsy.  In hospital, the medication was making her heart race and they discovered that her heart was failing.  Since Cole was fitted with a pacemaker, she is able to enjoy a better quality of life and continues to have regular health checks.  Born in Essex, Cole, who once worked in London and lived in Devon, England, now makes Johor Baru her home. 

Personal Struggles

As an artist, Cole had a long road to recovery after her illness because due to the numbness in her fingers, she could not draw fine pen illustrations.  She struggled on with sheer determination and it was about 12 months later before she was satisfied with her drawings.  So the successful completion of each portrait was indeed, a sweet achievement for her.

Sofia's daughter, Sasha, portrayed as
Alice in Wonderland surrounded by a
halo of icons from Alice's adventures
“If I’m not reading, I’m drawing,” said Cole as she showed off her collection of classics, mainly by Jane Austen as well as prequels and sequels to Pride and Prejudice and confessed that she is a Jane Austen buff.  Being dyslexic, she desperately wanted to read but could not until she was 11 years old.  So once she started reading, she could not put the books down and is now an avid reader and reviewer of Jane Austen classics. 

When their family lived in Dartmoor, Devon, Cole was involved with the Chagford Filmmaking Group, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of English fairytales in films.  Cole’s children are her inspiration and while they joined the casts to act in various films on folklore, she focused on helping to design and make costumes and dress up mythical characters like fairies, water nymphs, flowers and giants.  These colourful characters were later immortalized in her paintings designed in portraits crowned by a halo filled with interesting icons, often in intricate decoupage.

Itchy feet

Devon is one of the wettest parts of England and Cole depended on all sorts of medication to stay free from frequent coughs and colds.  As a cancer survivor, she was ready for a radical change, and after a family meeting, they decided that the time was ripe to go on a Round-the-World trip.  But before they left, Cole had to take her daughter to see Venice because it was a special place to her and was where she had honeymooned.

Sofia painted this family portrait from a photo
In November 2008, armed with one suitcase each, Cole, her husband and children headed for their first stop, Pattaya, Thailand, to join Stefan who was taking a diving course there, but due to protests in Bangkok, the airports were closed.  So they landed in Singapore and had an adventure travelling by coach via Johor to Penang, en route to Hat Yai and finally arrived in Pattaya for Christmas.  

Cole and family took a slow return trip through the peninsula with stops in Pangkor, Malacca, Tioman, Kuala Lumpur and Johor through to Singapore before leaving for Australia.  After 3 months in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane as well as diving in the Great Barrier Reef, the family journeyed onward to New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the United States of America.

Portrait of an Indian bride who caught
Sofia's eye
While her children enjoyed all the extreme sports in New Zealand, the cooler temperature and dampness was affecting Cole and making her feel unwell.  After celebrating Sasha’s 18th birthday in Las Vegas, the family had to make some decisions as they were already on the final leg of their trip.  When it came down to the final word, Cole told her family, “I don’t want to go back to England,” and added, “Let’s go back to Malaysia.”

Her husband was expecting her to say, Malacca, but she decided on Johor because she felt that Johor Baru has the best of everything. 

The city is situated close to Singapore and they can enjoy visiting the islands off Mersing for diving and snorkeling.  “I feel better than I have in years,” declared the affable Cole surrounded by her paintings in her 6th floor apartment that commands a panoramic view of the Johor Straits.

Sofia Art

With more time to herself now, Cole can concentrate on her art – portrait painting and creating wearable art which she calls, “danglies” that feature characters from English classics.  These vintage looking danglies are designed in themes like Beatrix Potter, Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland and Pride and Prejudice. 

Wearable art or "danglies" designed
with classic English themes like
Mary Poppins, featuring a spoonful
of sugar, Beatrix Potter and English Tea
“It’s someone’s childhood caught in bits of glass,” said Cole about the tiny paintings of the characters fitted into frames and linked into danglies.  One of these truly unique creations is the pretty Mary Poppins dangly that even had a tiny teaspoon framed with several crystals for a 3-D effect portrayal of “a spoonful of sugar” that helps the medicine go down!

Cole is inspired by the people she meets and if a person or picture caught her attention, she will not hesitate to approach them to ask if she could draw him or her.  One of her favourite portraits rendered in a Black & White pen illustration is 5-year old “Maslinda’s boy” a cheeky boy whom she met in a café close to her apartment. 

Just before Hari Raya, Cole’s cleaning lady approached her with a photo of her mother and mother-in-law and asked Cole to paint a portrait of them so that she could present it as a Hari Raya gift.  Cole also paints portraits in mixed media and in oil paints besides painting portraits from photos. 

Painting produced from a photo of her cleaning lady's mother and
mother-in-law that was presented to them at a Hari Raya gift

Sofia Cole at her first exhibition here, at the recent 9th JB Arts Festival
Sofia's passion for Jane Austen classics is translated into wearable art that
features the suave Mr Darcy [Right] and another dangly designed with a painting
of her daughter, Sasha, [Left] when she was going through her red hair phase!
The public had a glimpse of Cole’s creations at her first exhibition in Johor Baru, billed “My Passion For Portraits” held during the recent 9th Johor Baru Arts Festival.  For more info and to commission art work, visit: and for her book reviews, visit:

A version of this article was published in The New Sunday Times, Sunday Life & Times on 28 October 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment