Ilene Sova

” Art can create social change”.~Ilene Sova

I am just inside the front door of Walnut Studios looking at painted canvases of portraits.  Stacked against the wall are women’s faces created with distinct fluid brush strokes, most of them appear to be smiling and laughing.  I don’t recognize any of them but still they have a familiarity.  Although they are strangers, they could be a neighbour, a coworker, my sister or woman I just passed in the street on my way here. I fight back tears.  They are among over hundreds of missing women in Ontario, but more importantly, these 18 women are a part of the Missing Women Project  painted by Ilene Sova.


Ilene Sova has been working on the project for almost 3 years.

Wllnttz: How did the missing women’s project come about?

Ilene Sova: While I was in University, I saw violence against women first hand with a couple of my close girlfriends. One was almost killed by her boyfriend and the other one was my room mate.

Ilene went on to tell me these women were strong, independent, educated women, that somehow got wrapped up in abusive cycles and as time went on she realized how more and more prevalent violence against women was.

However, it wasn’t until Sova watched a cold case file show that motivated her to learn more. After the show, she did a Google search and came across the OPP missing person data base.  Six months later she made the decision to move forward with the project. After she had researched each case in the Toronto Public Library data base she started painting the faces on small canvases and then called on friends and family for feedback on her idea.

Sova describes how the first 6 weeks were so depressing that she found herself falling into  a dark hole. Horrified by what she was learning about, she became angry about the injustices. Thoughts on how prevalent it was and how we tend to think this is a problem in the developing countries like Afghanistan, Saudia Arabia and India.  “There is a bigger problem   and I wanted to communicate it in a respectful and honouring way instead of painting them as victims”. She then recounts her struggle with how she would land her idea in a place of positivity.

The positive turning point that brought her back on track was Eve Ensler.  After watching her on a Ted Talk, Ensler, the creator of the “Vagina Monoglues” refers to the meaning of happiness.
Sova:  “We can’t reach Nirvana until we speak about the things that we don’t want to speak about”  The things that we hide and don’t talk about are the things that cause us not to be happy.  Even though it can harmful or emotional to work through these stories in our society, or in our lives, however, once we do that, then we can see progress.
Sova’s mission and drive became clearer, she needed to focus on speaking about the unspoken to create awareness. By focusing on the positive consequences and what good could come out of it.

Wllnttz: Do you feel like you have connected with them (women) in some way?

Sova: I’m used to painting someone I know like friends and family, painting a stranger was something new to me.  I tried to find something in the article that told me something about their personality, a quote like “she loved writing poetry”… “she was really good at math”, details like “she had a lot of friends”.  Sova recounts how she would extract details and pieces of knowledge about them before she painted their face so she could connect with them in her own way.

 “A magical thing happens in art when you capture a person’s personality,  I am not sure if anyone knows how it happens its not something that is really tangible”.
Wllnttz: Have any of the women been found?
Sova:  All currently missing, one person I started working on she was found, so I didn’t continue with her.  And another woman’s murderer was arrested recently. Without the discovery of the body, there is rarely a conviction in Ontario.  The defence can always create doubt, without the body. Some of these cases have had husbands, boyfriends that have been brought to trial, they couldn’t convict because there is no evidence that the person has passed away.
Wllnttz: You talk about your paintings as double portraits what do you mean? 
Sova: With my series, what is also important, is that it is obvious an artist in a studio painted those paintings.
A double portrait; when I’m painting someone’s face, you actually see the process of the painting, like a pencil mark or brush stroke that is visible. As a viewer when you look at the painting there are many marks left by the artist, so when people look at a painting it is different then looking at a painting that is photorealistic, where there is no trace of the artist. When a person looks at one of my paintings they can imagine the gestures, they can imagine me in front me painting.
Somewhat doubtful if it would work, Sova’s idea was to create a discussion around missing women in Ontario, by painting an exhibit to raise social awareness. Fortunately this idea became reality. The media found her story compelling and the exhibit was featured on TV, radio and by several newspapers. These articles successfully created the discussion she wanted.
“Most people who attend an art exhibit are progressive thinkers anyway, so the fact that the mainstream media brought this to light meant that Art was able to reach that goal”.


Ilene has just returned from her latest exhibit in Barcelona. Sova’s show HEROINAS was on display at Mutuo – Centro de Arte in Barcelona. She painted women who have focused their life towards the Austerity Movement (social justice). Many of the women she painted are, Performance Artists, Musicians, Poets, Artists, Politicians, in Barcelona.


Photo above taken by Michelle Felip Insua the coordinator of Ilene Sova’s show at Mutuo Centro de Arte in Barcelona.


Above: Ilene Sova’s work featured at the Brockton Collective
The Missing Women’s Project is on display for the entire month of July in Toronto at the Oakwood Library Centre of the Arts

photo-2Ilene Sova has kindly donated her portrait of  “June”  Check Back On Friday July 5th for details about  Free Art Friday Toronto and get hints on where you can find it.

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