At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities. – Jean Houston
If I could close my eyes and remember the vision of Wanda, what would come through first to me is her beautiful dazzling smile that seemed to always be on the verge of bursting into a full-bodied laugh that took over her entire being. Even when she wasn’t laughing, her eyes looked as if mischievous frivolity was just around the corner.
She, like many of us, had her share of pain and frustration, but handled it with such strength, authenticity and truth. The image that stays with me – is the one that represents my most favorite shared moments with her. A tool that she used throughout her life and art to deal with heavy issues – humor. Her art and life used humor to make difficult topics easier.
I would say that both of us, no matter what kind of a day/week/month it was…thrived off of laughter. Deep in our souls we were glass half-full humans and when we commiserated about the week or a hot topic …we would talk about it, shrug it off, and laugh it out of our system. She didn’t want to hold onto the “dark stuff” – the weight of the things she confronted every day. Wanda wanted to call that shit out, make her voice heard and move on. Humor was a way of coping, communicating and connecting. If you understood Wanda’s humor, you understood a deep and authentic part of her. She let you in. And it was glorious.
So let me share some of the tracks from our Laughter Playlist; the videos we would watch weekly. We would pull up YouTube, digging for the latest things that made us laugh. It was our form of a shared ultra-cathartic, mind/heart workout.
Hopefully this blog will leave you feeling a little lighter, and remembering the immense sunshine of Wanda’s spirit, smile and laughter.
Terry Tate was one of our favorites and our first online comedy love.
In 2006, I produced and curated an exhibit titled, “Cheesecake Cover-An Exhibition-ism”. Wanda responded to the call-for, emailed photos and then visited with me on the phone. As I opened the email, my head exploded, and I was in love with Wanda and her fabulous work. She was very excited to exhibit a recent body of work of this exact theme called, “BOUGIE”. This work, fueled by her ability to stand on the top edge of the fence regarding the constantly contentious subjects of sexuality, race, and the tension between both, was akin to opening a fresh oxygen bottle into a vape machine full of CBD. Grounded to the era of 1950s glam, Wanda took a stab at the 1970s era “Blaxploitation” and used it as a way to wave a finger about women’s issues. But not in the direction one might think in today’s climate. She was indeed speaking to the whole room yet referencing a specific message to her sisters in the room of, “STOP #!!@% with your HAIR!” As a guy who is a big fan of “au naturale”, observing this over all dynamic, I can report that her message was serious AND hilarious. During the opening of the exhibit, Wanda owned the room. All either nervously grimaced or stared and then laughed outload at the imagery of a huge smile and the accompanying texts such as, “Of Course It’s Your Hair…You Still Have The RECEIPT!”
In 2011, my wife Sheryl and I were privy to a trip to Omaha with another artist friend, Conrad Snider whom works often for and with artist Jun Keneko there in Omaha. “We gotta go see WANDA!”, I pronounced. We had a delightful visit over dinner and a memorable tour of her home, her collection of other artists as well as much of her personal inventory. I am so glad I took several photos during our visit. So glad.
I recall we spoke on the phone perhaps once or twice more. I do recall attempting a few more times over about a two-year period with no reply. People get busy, I know. I had been thinking to try again. You know how it is when you’re thinking of someone and then one of you call or you run into one another at the store or something. Well, my “something” was serendipity, stumbling across part of some comment, on the facebook page of someone I do not know, by someone named Mona Ewing. I barely recall, but the comment appeared sad and referenced “memories”. I had to find out what this was all about. Then I knew why I’d not heard back.
Mona, I thank God for you responding to me. Thank you for inviting me to share my speck of history with Wanda. She’s looking over me in my studio every day. Her painting, “Get WHREEL!” overlooks my workbench while reminding me to indeed stay “Whreel”.
Having a solid memory of an introduction to a friend is a rare gift. I first met Wanda at a social gathering. If you knew Wanda, it won’t be a shock that I met her at a party. She treated people and parties similarly, rarely saying “no” to either. At a backyard soiree hosted by Timothy Schaffert and Rodney Rahl, Wanda and I got on immediately, talking about art and men. I went home and wrote about the day, with a small section devoted exclusively to the new friend I’d met just hours before, In walks Wanda/all confidence of comfort/She wore the print/before the leopard/A paper-art predator she’ll/masticate you with enticing aplomb/Until you are simmering in the/hot tub of her belly/Warm and at ease.
One of my cherished memories of Wanda was in Sally Brown Deskin’s basement with our friend Kristin Lubbert Ndoda. The four of us enjoyed cocktails and mocktails while playing Truth Jenga. How was I the only one to never have a wild run in with the police? Even though a decade of ages spanned across the four of us, we were all girls; in need of nothing other than friendship and fun. We were without airs that evening.
Wanda produced art that was as provocative as it was aesthetically inspiring. Both her art and her personality evolved to be subtly, rather than aggressively, confrontational, which was in my opinion way more powerful than any style of “in your face” attitude. My favorite piece of hers was a sculpture she brought to show when she was the featured artist at the inaugural Chittenden Art Haus event. The 3D piece resembled hot tar, magically animated into women bulging languidly from the tabletop on which they sat. Like naked bathers coming up for slow swallows of air, they entranced me.
Wanda wasn’t pedantic or pompous when it came to teaching. I wasn’t a student of hers in the formal sense, but I did learn a great deal from her. While setting up for “Les Femmes Folles: Voice,” a group exhibit we were both showing in, she came over and gave that carnivorously curious eye to my format and suggested something different. Bold, but not arrogant, she was right, and I believe my photos were better for the modification.
While we are born as individuals, we become myriad people once we set out into the world, because who we are to some people is completely different than who we are to others. The self-known by our mothers is different than the self-known by our lovers, and so on. To me, Wanda was effortlessly thought provoking, and just as effortlessly delightful. I loved how she was almost always the last to leave a party I hosted, and yet I never wanted her to go. She straddled the worlds of woman and little girl, and this was something we had in common. We would often talk on romance and love, and how both seemed so much more foreign and unobtainable than anything else in our lives. She passed before she fell in love, but she seemed more settled about it, and in that wisdom, I believe she found great comfort. And yet, so many were in love with her spirit, then and still now. She was as spiky as she was soft, as timid as she was conspicuous. But this is only who Wanda was to me. I can’t wait to read who she was to you.
It was the fall of 2006, and I was out of place. I had finished my MFA a couple years before my young family was moving again. However, I had what felt like a big break: my first solo show in New York.
This was to be a woodcut show, and printmakers are very particular craftspeople. Paper is important, ink is important, no detail is unnoticeable. I received the call from the gallery: they wouldn’t accept the prints I had sent them, on multiple, technical fronts. Wrong paper, poor printing technique, poor storage and shipping.
I am reluctantly in Omaha and have no idea where any of the resources I need are. I reached out to UNO and talked them into letting me use a little time on the University presses, as long as I wasn’t disturbing anyone. I came in at night and got my work set up for an evening’s work.
At UNO at the time, there were two presses: the nice new press, still pristine and perfect and the old warhorse, with dented rollers, slipping gears and odd shaped blankets.
Soon, a Professor came in to print on her own work. Wanda. We talked about our work, I watched her preparing and printing on the beautiful press while I tried to calculate how much work she was going to do, figuring I would just wait. If my turn came at midnight, then it would come then. However, all printmakers know that dance, and she quickly turned the conversation to my work that night. She shared my joy for a show, my dread at having messed up my work with slapdash execution and low-key panic that my work won’t be good enough after all, that the printing won’t get done.
She removed her work from the press, insisted I take it and spent the next hours with me, assisting with paper, having deep discussions on what we do and why we are doing it.
That’s my first memory of Wanda Ewing. Her seeing my moment of insecurity and vulnerability in a new city, and greeting this stranger with generosity, assistance and confidence. I loved her ever since. She included me in print projects of hers, I lived with her work in my home. It was her advice I would seek in this art world over the years. I held a fundraiser to support her residency in Brazil when she started blending her prints with sewing and fabric. I visited her in her studio as she started making latch hook rugs, making the best work of her career, in my opinion.
I was in a hotel room on a freezing morning in Chicago when I heard she’d passed. It felt unfair. It felt tragic. It still does. We could use her voice these days more than ever.
I have started this about 14 times. I get a few sentences in and hit, delete, delete, delete…
Here goes again.
Where do you start to talk about a woman who has had such a significant impact on your life both personally as well as professionally? What can I say about Wanda that hasn’t been said? I don’t know but I am going to try.
I remember the beginning and the end so vividly.
Wanda and I met at her show at the Darkroom Gallery in the Old Market back in the early 2000’s. I remember it being sunny and walking into the gallery which was full of people talking, laughing and drinking. Wanda’s prints were so large and filled the space with color, texture and the female form. I hadn’t seen any work like hers before. I remember the dress prints which took on the shapes of women who would be wearing them, without the woman in them. I remember the shoe prints and how they were shaped on the paper. I remember confronting sexual scenes and being a little uncomfortable and thinking about why I felt that way.
I had no idea who the artist was, but I was so intrigued and in awe of the work that I knew I needed to meet the person who created them.
One of the many, many things that captivated me about Wanda’s work was her interpretation of the world through the female form, the black female body to be specific. She took on issues of race, sexuality, and the standards of beauty and identity through the lens and perspective of a woman of color living and working in the very white and conservative Midwest.
I remember our discussions about this topic as she was going through the tenure process to become the first person of color to be hired full time and tenured in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She never had any representation in school and very little in college; some women, but mostly white men, so she knew being a black female professor would hopefully start a change at UNO and in the community. I remember her calls at the start of each semester that followed her making tenure, excited that there were black and brown students in her classes and LGBTQ students as well.
She didn’t always like being the “first person of color” in many areas of her professional life, but she knew nothing was going to change if she didn’t keep pushing through it. She understood that she needed to step up and be the artist for others that she never had when she was growing up. She was really proud to be and see the change happening.
I will never forget her memorial service. There were so many people that they opened an overflow room. I was so sad, but somehow also filled with such joy at the stories everyone shared about their own Wanda moments. I had no idea she had connected with and impacted so many lives. It was incredible to meet everyone. I remember we had made her a mixed tape of her favorite songs and played it throughout the service, and I know she would have been chair dancing too. I left the funeral home with a smile and I never thought in a thousand years that would have been possible. But it happened.
I think about what she would say about the state of the world today and what provocative art she would be creating in response. I can only imagine and that makes me smile.
Still so many moments, experiences and thoughts about my friend, but I’ll stop and end it the way she ended most all our communications.
Welcome to the new and updated website. Dec 2018 marked the 5th year of Wanda’s passing. This month would have been her 49th birthday. So, it’s my pleasure to refresh her site, start the new year off as this month’s blogger, and share my views on Wanda. I’m Mona Ewing Yaeger, Wanda’s older sister.
As I started to think about what I wanted to share with all you, it became hard for me to think about things you didn’t know about her or what great memories I had from our childhood or what she meant to me. So, I’m going to try to do a little of all 3. First our childhood, Wanda, Clarence (our brother), and I were pretty close as kids. We played together with our stuffed animals every day. Wanda had a pink dinosaur, Dino, Clarence had a koala bear, Koala and I had a green and white gingham cow, Cowie (I know, original names from a 7 year old, a 5 year old, and a 4 year old). We loved making up games and scenarios and acting out these adventures. This most likely was the start of Wanda’s creativity.
As we grew older and found other interests, Wanda’s grew with art and music. This was the start of MTV and the 3 of us were hooked. During this time, Fleetwood Mac had a great song called “Hold Me.” In the video, there was a scene that was pretty cool; it was a little boy dancing with a man above a clock next to a stairwell. I’m not giving it any justice, because it reminded me of Salvador Dali painting. Wanda was able to memorize this scene from the video and recreated it in pencil. That is when I knew Wanda had talent.
Art was her outlet, her voice, and how she saw herself in the world. She also knew that she was not a “normal” black kid or woman living in middle America. Both of us knew we were different as we moved from elementary school to junior high to high school. Most people don’t know this, but we were both bullied during this time by other black girls because of our hair, our size, how we spoke, and acted. If you knew Wanda during this time period, she used her art to express her feelings, understanding of how the world viewed her, and her own thoughts about how it made her feel.
I still miss her every day. We didn’t talk all the time or live close by, but when she because sick I think we both realized how important our friendship and sisterhood meant. I have many pieces of her work in my home, photos of her, and when I hear a really great new wave /alternative song from the 80’s (not the pop crap) it reminds me of those days when we would watch MTV from the time we came home from school and until we went to bed. I love how our brother Clarence who DJ’s on Sunday afternoon from CHIRP.com radio will always play a song from that time bringing back those memories.
So, simply put, Wanda was a complex, special, and fun woman who left our lives WAY too soon. We all know that there will never be another spirit quite like her.