There are forces in nature that shake the very bedrock of our hearts, souls and brains and Wanda Woman was one of those forces. She is a Wonder Wanda Woman. Rene and I would sing to her with the biggest grins on all of our faces.
Wanda created art the only way she knew how; honestly, unadulterated and raw. Always from her viewpoint not what the norms required, Wanda’s art was pure and she owned it!
I met Wanda years ago at a group print show at The Darkroom Gallery located at 601 S 11th St. At that show I viewed a print entitled, “Who can I call at 3 AM?” by Wanda Ewing. I knew immediately I needed to meet her, and Carol the Gallery owner pointed her out and escorted me over to meet Wanda.
As we were walking over, I saw freshness, I saw the future, I saw a commander and I saw a new good friend. Carol introduced me to Wanda, and I said, “You can call me at 3 AM.” Then I hugged her.
Throughout the years Wanda showed her work at my gallery, The RNG Gallery, including group shows, themed shows and a 2-person show. One of my favorite shows included “Dream House on Rye” that I curated at the Bemis Underground, showing her large Pin-Ups and creating a “Rumpus Room” with prints featuring “Super Head.” She would deliver poignant, edgy and vibrant work.
When Wanda brought her latch hook rugs for her last show, at my gallery I looked into Wanda’s large beautiful brown storytelling eyes and saw a tale that was hidden in a fog and mist. I did not see the stoic brave sureness that was always there. I made sure her show would be hung brilliantly. She was a strong proud woman, she requested silence about her health, as she had throughout her entire medical journey. I was honored to uphold her request. As we were nearing the show’s end, we planned a closing reception where numerous patrons attended. That afternoon I had received a call, that she could not attend but was going to the Emergency Room. As the night wore on, we received news her condition was clinging and grew harder and harder to handle. Early in the morning we received news of her passing and the world would never be the same. I hated the world, for I did not want to live in a Wandaless world.
It has taken me years and thousands of tears to realize Wanda is in my thoughts every day. Her art is on view. Her stories are vibrant for Wanda is a Vibrant Thing!!!! I have all of our crazy 1:1 time etched into my brain, the mutual love for Paul Weller, Ultravox and being Under the Milky Way and Reaping the Wild Wind. Wanda you are Solid, Solid as a Rock.
I miss the Sundays when she would come to Dixie Quicks by herself and state, “Rob Gilmer we are going to have Sunday Brunch together!” I always responded, “Yes and let the organ music begin.” Brunch was always: Divine Dining with a Diva!
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.