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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

Tona Wilson: Gained in translationby Ross Rice

There’s a real art to translation and interpretation. It takes a special talent to capture the nuance and subtleties expressed by one person in their own language, and accurately present them to another listener in theirs, using completely different words and sentence structures. Often the translator must be an empty vessel to achieve this well, allowing the information to flow through without injecting themselves into the process to insure an accurate communication.

Spend enough time with any artist—in any discipline—and you will often hear them express a similar analogy: the ideas just flow through me, I feel like a conduit for them, I’m just accurately trying to realize the inspiration. The artist as translator: this metaphor will usually get a nod of the head from the artist—though you’d get varying results as to who/what is requiring translation in the first place, and just who exactly is receiving the message.

Tona Wilson is a rare combination of the two. In her “day job” as a professional Spanish translator, she is in high demand using her skills in the education, prison, and court systems in the Hudson Valley. But the rest of the time, she has built a solid body of art works that reflect a deep interest in the human condition; works often created as a response to her jobsite experiences. Not to mention a vivid glimpse at her own mortality.

Situated just outside of Rosendale, the Women’s Studio Workshop sits back from Binnewater Road, its multi-windowed front facing the hills to the west. A staunch advocate of the “voice and vision of individual women artists,” the WSW functions as a gallery, educational laboratory, and has multiple studios specializing in printmaking, hand papermaking, ceramics, letterpress printing, and photography.

It’s in the field of “book arts” that WSW has been a pioneer, initiating a book arts grant program in 1979 that has produced over 180 limited artist’s editions, at the rate of seven per year—making them the largest publisher of hand-printed books in the country. WSW also features yearly artists-in-residence (thanks to the grant), and this semester it’s New Paltz- based artist Tona Wilson getting the nod.

It has been a circuitous route getting here for Tona. Born in New York City, she had a peripatetic upbringing, as her parents moved frequently when she was young. But she knew she wanted to be an artist, and eventually she ended up in a Chicago art school. When her great aunt, sculptor Helen Wilson—passed away, she left Tona a small inheritance. “It wasn’t a huge amount, but I thought I was rich! I quit my job, quit art school, and headed out. I had a lot of adventures in South America, and ended up settling in Buenos Aires.”

While in Argentina, Tona found herself immersed in the Spanish language, as a result becoming fluent over several years. The time in Buenos Aires also rekindled her interest in her art, and she had her first exhibitions there at both the Ciudad de Buenos Aires and San Martin Cultural Centers in the late 80s.

Tona and her then-partner decided to move back up to the States in 1988, to be closer to her parents, who were then living in Kingston. Within weeks she had found herself an unexpected career. “When I got back here I realized: well, I’ve got no skills except my Spanish to make a living. Nobody’s going to buy my art right away.” A teaching job soon led to more translating work, inevitably leading her to upstate New York’s number one industry: the prison system.

As she found her services more in demand, she couldn’t help but be affected by the stories of those she translated for, and started sketching particularly memorable events and interactions. “Right away when I started working for them I started drawing in these sketchbooks…as a way of processing what happened during the day. Because there were always really interesting stories.”

Though the sketches have the appearance of happening in real time, they are actually recollections drawn later at home. “I’ll sit there looking, and while part of my brain is doing the translation, the other part is looking. They’re probably distorted by my memory, but it’s basically what I saw, my own interpretation.” True life stories, like when the crying two-year old was cruelly kept in a separate holding cell from his mother, and the visitor who had to change a diaper on the filthy floor of the bathroom, using her jacket under the baby—all presented journalistically, without judgment.

These sketches led to her “Jail Portrait” series, straightforward snapshots of orange-clad inmates, all regarding the viewer from different angles. “Those are really not portraits, they’re more composites. There is a confidentiality issue, and actually I’m not too good at likenesses of people, fortunately!” Though indeed inspired by real people, Tona makes sure nobody is overtly recognizable. But that doesn’t detract from the honest humanity of the images, which run the emotional gamut—with the exception of joy. “The expressions and gestures I think are accurate.”

But Tona’s spare unused sketchbooks soon had a new subject, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, and much as she did with the court/prison sketchbooks, she found therapeutic value in recording images and observations. “I just drew all the time, through the whole treatment.” Fortunately, it had been diagnosed early, and the chemotherapy—though often harsh—stopped the cancer, and she is now in remission. But for a time, the scary story she was interpreting was distinctly her own.

While in recovery, Tona started a new series of works on paper, inspired by a Berthold Brecht song titled “Whitewash.” “I wanted to do a whitewashed wall that had (underneath) all kinds of the stuff people don’t want to look at. It was an external/internal train of thought that had to do with people not wanting to look at death, not wanting to look at scary stuff.”

The image of the wall became a recurring theme for awhile. She started incorporating bones as building blocks, and the walls “came alive.” One particularly powerful work is Cells (2006), where individuals are seen constructing their own private cells out of their possessions, effectively cutting themselves off from contact with one another, and seeming quite happy to be doing so. (A similar new work will be one of two pieces that will be shown this March at the exhibit “Painted Cities,” at Carrie Haddad Gallery, Hudson.)

The following series of oil stick on canvas works took on a different tone. But they too started from the idea of a “wall,” with her triptych Firing Squad (2007). “It was an attempt to get a really tall wall that was made out of people. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it; I cut out silhouettes of people out of paper, and using oil stick, I rubbed around the edges. Then I realized I didn’t want it to be one layer, I wanted layers and layers of people. So it comes from the same process of thinking, though it looks quite different.” Starting with a black background, Tona constructs layers and wisps of white and pastel, with ghostly human shapes and silhouettes interacting in the often densely packed spaces, creating a web-like visual texture.

But it’s a return full-circle to the sketchbooks that brings Tona back to the Women’s Studio Workshop (she did a previous artist-in-residency there in 2005). As well as teaching some art classes for Kingston fifth-graders, she is working on completing a new composite book of her courts and prison sketches. A single box will hold four pamphlet-stitched sections of the book—which is really more like a hand-drawn graphic novel, to be accurate—with prison bars in the window on the box's front. Through the bars, a portrait can be seen on the cover of the sections, each of which tells that person’s story, as well as others. “It deals with jail and prison. It was originally going to be (about) prison in general, but obviously my experiences with immigrants (added to it.) This is going to sound really dry, but (it’s now about) the ‘immigration consequences of criminal convictions.’” Once seen through the bars, the books can then be manually examined and experienced during the exhibition.

Without her beating you over the head with them, Tona makes her feelings about immigration justice understood. But when asked directly, she firmly replies: “I would like to see more humaneness in the treatment of immigrants. That’s a general thing. I’d like to see actually more discretion (in sentencing) for people who are in deportation proceedings. I’ve seen even the judges complain that they don’t have any discretion anymore. I’d like to see ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) treat people better, and in a more honest way.”

Tona is nothing if not honest in how she treats her subjects. Many of these stories echo stories of our own, and things that we fear may happen to us. The project has taken on a life of its own now, as Tona is planning to do a full-fledged graphic novel on the subject, having work-shopped it last fall upstate at the Blue Mountain Center—as well as at the WSW, to a certain extent.

Meanwhile she continues to create at her New Paltz studio and home she shares with partner Judy Mage, and to work her “day job” as translator, a job that—though it’s sometimes trying—offers a degree of flexibility in scheduling suitable for a creative soul. Tona has the quiet determination of someone who knows her value in the world. There’s always someone or some idea in need of interpreting that shouldn’t be lost in translation.

Tona Wilson’s sketchbook exhibition will be showing through April at Women’s Studio Workshop, on Binnewater Lane just outside of Rosendale (www.wsworkshop.org, 845.658.9133), during weekdays hours 10 AM-5 PM or by appointment; and two of her larger-scale works are part of the “Painted Cities” exhibition at Carrie Haddad Gallery, 622 Warren St., Hudson (www.carriehaddadgallery.com, 518.828.1915), showing through April 11, 11 AM-5 PM, closed Tu/We. Visit www.tonawilson.com for more about the artist.



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