The first time Wanda and I got in trouble together was with the Aug 14, 2003 edition of Omaha Pulp, a short-lived alternative newsweekly.
Aside from the publisher, Pulp had 2.5 staff, and we all took on multiple identities to people the paper with contributors. Our art director wrote music reviews as a critic named Dirt; we used a 1970s-era photo of my mother in a beehive to serve as astrologist for a horoscope written by my boyfriend; our advice columnist was Baby in a Walnut Shell, a little plastic doll (inside a plastic walnut shell), bought off some Japanese novelty shop on the internet.
Wanda’s sensibility fit perfectly with ours, and we featured Leslie Prisbell’s profile of her as our cover story: the cover image was “I Have Big Lips,” a linocut from Wanda’s autobiographical book of large-scale images, Growing Up Black, Growing Up Wanda. The image — a portrait of the artist with her eyes closed but her grin wide and toothy – captured much about Wanda’s personality and vision. It was a tribute to caricature and cartoon, while also analyzing stereotype at the same time; but mostly it was a celebration of beauty and confidence, alive with Wanda’s charm, delight, sharp wit, and talent. (In Wanda’s characters you can see her appreciation for comic book art, with influences ranging from “Friday Foster” of the early 1970s, to the work of R. Crumb, to the fashionable characters of Jackie Ormes.)
But what got us into trouble was what was inside: we published her linocut of a black body and a white body in a naked embrace, and this led to the loss of a few vital advertisers. And Wanda spoke frankly (and in fascinating detail) in the interview about how she’d put herself through college as a phone-sex operator. When the article appeared, Wanda was called into her boss’s office at an Omaha artists’ residency for a scolding – she ran the risk of offending the board of directors, she was told.
Here’s a quote from Wanda, in Leslie’s article, about how she reconciled her job in the phone sex industry with the feminist perspectives of her art:
“Eventually I had to quit [the job as operator]. I didn’t like the way that it made me feel towards men… You think, ‘Am I exploiting women, am I getting the customer all juiced up so that they can go out and do the thing they’re talking about?’ You can’t even begin to allow yourself to think that you are… You have on the one side these women who say, ‘I’m just using these men; they’re pathetic,’ But then you hear some of these fantasies and think, God, this guy really hates women.”
Whenever Justin (aka Dirt), Pulp’s art director, sent the paper’s layout off to the printer, he shouted through the offices “Shut it down, motherfuckers!” and we were off to La Buvette in the Old Market for bubbly. Wanda became a regular at our table, and our group’s conversations which crawled late into the evenings inspired me to write my third novel, Devils in the Sugar Shop, in which a character named Viv does artwork much in the vein of Wanda’s:
Her art tended to make people nervous… ‘You should do more of those pretty shoes,’ Viv’s mother had told her. For a time, Viv had made lithos of the designer shoes she’d splurged on one summer to console herself after a wicked breakup – python slingbacks, calf-trimmed pumps, fur clogs, kitten-heeled patent leathers. She’d had prints of a pair of Ferragamos and some Bettye Mullers and some pink leopard-print Claudia Ciutis in shows around town… [from Devils in the Sugar Shop, 2007]
Wanda, in real life, did do some lithos of shoes, but the reference above is really to her series of prints, “Big Woman Little Dress,” inspired by dresses she bought during a love affair. Again, a quote from Leslie Prisbell’s Pulp article: “I was dating this guy and I bought these dresses because I wanted to look sexy for him. I was feeling sexy, and I was having sex, and it was wonderful. And he broke it off. Just out of the blue. And very rudely, I must say. When I look at these, it’s like a journal of the relationship. It’s also about the form. There’s definitely a figure in these, a body. Hips, belly. I like that.”
Wanda’s affection for fashion, for style (she did artwork based on jewelry too), and how it all informed her life, and how it informed culture, and conceptions/representations of race and gender, led her to create art that was both commentary and revelry, criticism and indulgence. I had the opportunity to write the gallery notes (excerpted below) for “Bougie,” her exhibit at the Sheldon Museum of Art at UNL, which featured a series of covers for a fictional women’s magazine focused on beauty standards:
Ewing portrays women in the act of posing, women possibly conscious of their degradation yet nonetheless seducing us with their self-confidence. For Ewing’s women, the beauty myth becomes just another beauty mark; politics likely seem silly to these cutie-pies. And yet the politics of fashion are what give Ewing’s work its sinister and satirical bent. Just beyond the coy winks and the toothpaste-peddling smiles and curve-hugging skirts of these fine black women is the sense that the images aren’t just about them. Caught up in it all is the photographer, or the art director, or the advertiser, or the pornographer, or the doll-maker, the various co-conspirators in the invention of glamour. All unseen, their shadows drop between us and the artwork, darkening the humors of the women on display. [from “Bougie” gallery guide]
My partner Rodney Rahl and I, in the backyard of our home in West Omaha, premiered another of Wanda’s series on beauty, race, and sexuality: plywood portraits of black women in classic pin-up-girl poses. She eventually called the series “Black as Pitch, Hot as Hell,” but at the time she’d only just finished the pieces and hadn’t named the project yet; as a matter of fact, she was finishing them during the show, with her hammer and chisel, carving into the plywood, touching up the paint. It was a windy day, and we spent a fair amount of time chasing the 48”x48” pieces every time a breeze plucked them from their easels.
Even when not writing about Wanda directly, I find our work still dovetails today, her perspectives on fashion, on gender expectations, on sex and sexuality, on pop culture, on race, on body image, all intertwine with my own as my characters evolve. I’m still very much in conversation with my sweet, gorgeous, brilliant, inventive, magnificent friend. As I thumbed through Devils in the Sugar Shop, to summon Wanda’s spirit to step forward, step forward she did… as I read the line “the sound of the sleet that salted against the windowpanes,” I realized I was hearing that exactly, against my windowpanes just now, as winter arrived.
Wanda was the first person I met when I moved to Omaha in 2003. At the time, she was the program director for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. My husband and I stopped by to see an exhibition by Terry Rosenberg, but the Bemis was locked. Wanda graciously let us in, chatted with us and welcomed us to Omaha. I had just left a position at the Akron Art Museum, and Wanda made sure to give me a lowdown on Omaha’s art scene, sending me to another gallery two blocks away after we left. I made a friend that day, and she remained a steadfast one throughout the years.
While art was always a starting point for us – she created it, and I wrote about it – we bonded over much more. When she purchased her home, she was excited to show it off. She adored her kitchen with its retro tiles and relished composing a gallery wall in her living room with all the art she had painstakingly collected. She took me through each piece, explaining who the artist was and why she was drawn to it.
Gardening was a new endeavor for her. When faced with overgrown hostas, she invited me to help thin them. We spent a very hot spring afternoon splitting and dividing, and I have several “Wanda hostas” thriving in my yard. I remember that day so fondly in part because my daughter was about four at the time. Wanda thoughtfully got a copy of “The Lion King” so my preschooler could watch a Disney movie in her cool living room while we toiled in the dirt. Specially prepared snacks were of course included. Wanda was like that – she always considered the details surrounding her friends’ lives.
That is why people responded so warmly and openly to her. You could go to any event and everyone in the room would eventually be drawn to her exuberant warmth. Wanda had that special kind of charisma that was rare. It actually transcended people. When our family adopted a rescue dog, we discovered Lorna was skittish and withdrawn and wanted to be left alone most of the time. Wanda came over one evening, and Lorna immediately responded to her. It was instantaneous. The dog who couldn’t bear to be pet rolled over and let Wanda rub her belly for the duration of the visit.
The last time I saw Wanda, she stopped over to bring me a bottle of champagne as a belated thank-you gift for writing a letter for her Pollock-Krasner grant. Over the years I had covered her work for various magazines, so was happy to write the letter. I was tickled when she received the grant. There were few artists who I thought deserved it as much as she did. I was excited to see what would come from the opportunity.
I could write a book about Wanda’s art, how incisively probative, challenging and outright brilliant it was. But it’s my friend I’m always drawn back to – that woman who chatted with me about our lives, delighted in her home and garden and liked to celebrate with champagne. I still have that bottle, and one day when the time is right, I will pop its cork and say a toast to a dearly missed and beloved friend.
I met Wanda a couple years before her cancer diagnosis. We weren’t especially close, but her warmth and attentiveness made me feel so welcomed and appreciated. She had so many exciting life stories to share and was equally interested in the experiences of others. We had both spent time in San Francisco and it was so enjoyable sharing our experiences with one another. Hearing her laugh in conversation and the joy it created is so easy to recall.
Shortly after meeting Wanda I started nursing school. I worked as a figure model for art classes during my program. Most modeling gigs were sporadic, occasional and unreliable. Wanda did things differently than most. I was fortunate to spend an entire semester modeling on Tuesdays for her. I was grateful for the steady income and to be able to sit in on her teaching of an introductory life drawing class. She included how the relationship with the model is part of the artistic process and was part of why she had only a few models through the semester. So instead of feeling like an object that drops into a class for a few hours I felt like a person contributing to the creation of art. She had a way of making life more meaningful in this way.
My Tuesdays with Wanda were the best drawing education I have ever received. I remember one lecture especially well. She taught about the concept of Gestalt – to not get caught up in the details, but to look at the whole of what is being seen and drawn. She walked around the classroom as students were drawing and gave this lesson so casually – but had clearly come from years of dedicated artistry and attention to aesthetics. The way she taught about Gestalt went beyond art and became a life lesson for me. Look beyond the details and see the greater whole.
Nursing school became very intense for me around the same time the cancer struggle was consuming Wanda. I know little about her private struggle. I think her approach to art and life in general helped her see the forest for the trees in a way that is nearly impossible for most amid a cancer struggle. The reach of her life, attitude, art and the whole of her were magically massive. I felt lucky when I first met her, and I continue to feel lucky to have known her and been moved by her. Wanda was working on the ethereal latch key carpet images the last time I talked with her. I can only imagine how fascinating the medium and imagery of her work would be now.
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.