I wrote this memorial for Wanda Ewing for the February 2014 issue of The Encounter Magazine. To read the official version (with more photos!), go here.
The last time I saw her, she didn’t look herself. Sure, she’d lost at least 25 pounds, was practically bald, and had taken a beating from radiation, chemo, and surgery. But it really wasn’t that. The fabric and colors were all wrong. Wanda wearing black? A black hoodie and sweatpants. And they did not appear to have come from Anthropologie.
I parked my car, and Wanda waved as she huffed her way up the sidewalk to greet me. She’d just finished her two-block walk for the day. Doctors had removed the entire left lobe of her lung a few weeks prior. Now, she was working to regain her strength.
She gave me a big hug, as always, and we walked up the steps to her mother’s house. Inside, we sat down, and after five minutes her rapid breathing had slowed down a bit. Ten minutes later, the rattle quieted. Her breath was shallow, but it didn’t take long before the conversation went deep. It was clear that cancer had changed her perspective on life. “I don’t know how, but things are going to be different now,” she told me.
She was eager to move back to her own house and get back to making art. She hinted at a few other changes, not knowing exactly what they would be. She wanted to make room in her life for more love—starting with a dog and opening up to wherever else love might show up. She spoke of taking on less responsibility, less struggling against the powers that be. She wanted to travel more—to places where she could breathe easy, places that accepted her and her art.
Wanda’s art was an overflow of her own personality: colorful, boldly feminine, vibrant, out there for the world to see. She often teased my husband, Caleb Coppock, and me about our “process art.” If ours was process, then hers was the presence. While our work was quiet and minimal, hers made a splash. Ours was about noticing the smallest details; her brush had the broadest stroke. You had to look twice at our artwork; with hers, you never looked away—it took up space and ended in exclamation points.
A generous mentor, she was the favorite professor of many University of Nebraska-Omaha art students. A hardworking achiever, she donated her talent, time, and energy to countless committees, exhibits, and other people’s hair-brained ideas (and many of her own). A childless, unmarried 40-something with a million friends, she always showed up.
But there was a loneliness to her that accompanied that joie de vivre. In many ways, Wanda’s very presence was a challenge to our community, and she carried the weight of it. She was brave and buxom, smart and sexy, artist and academic. She was controversial and feminist in a conservative, white, male-dominated region. She was a well-educated, successful black professional living in a racially segregated city known for its “failure to keep and attract educated, upwardly mobile black professionals” (Omaha World-Herald, Jan. 6, 2011).
Being Wanda in Omaha took a lot out of her, probably more than any of us knew. She often mentioned the statistic that black, college-educated women over 40 are the people least likely to marry. She’d make a joke about it, but we all knew she wasn’t really laughing. Let’s be honest, Omaha never fully appreciated the treasure we had in her. Wanda knew that, and she carried it with grace. But even the strongest person can only carry that so long.
To those of us who loved her, Wanda was impossible to resist. Her charm was magnetic: huge smile, funny as hell, she had a special way of connecting with people and finding common interests whether it be ’80s pop songs, scary movies, wine, shoes, or art. And there were always the inside jokes that she’d effortlessly slip into conversation. Every interaction with Wanda spoke loud and clear: “I’ll be me, and you be you.”
Last week, I was shopping the sales at Anthropologie, and a memory surfaced. I had run into Wanda at that same table about a year ago. We’d chatted over the clearanced kitchen items, laughing and pointing out the deals to each other. I bought the mildest set of taupe bowls, and of course, Wanda’s hands were on the brightest in the bunch. I use my bowls every day. I love them, but sometimes I wish I’d chosen something more colorful. Now I hear Wanda saying, “You be you.” Minimal, simple…and taupe. Yep, that’s me!
Back at the house, I began to feel I had stayed too long. She was getting tired, but she walked me outside and gave another big hug as I left.
“Love you, Wanda.”
“Love you, doll.”
“Hey, this might be one of our last nice days this year. You should stay out here for bit—soak up some Vitamin D.”
“Yeah, I think I’m gonna do that.”
And that’s my last picture of her: smiling up at the afternoon, eyes closed, November shining on her face.
Omaha artist Wanda Ewing passed away on Dec. 8, 2013. In addition to being a friend of Wanda’s, I was the writer for her artist website and own what is possibly the only cream-colored piece of artwork that she ever created.