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Tona Wilson: Between Worlds

Tona Wilson "Jail Portrait, Sonia"

A WSW Artist-in-Residence Profile

By Steven Andersen

Your Honor, this inmate would like to request time to arrange her business.

And what business would that be, ma’am?

My baby. This inmate requests to go home to pick up my baby. After that I have no problem to be deported.

This is a pivotal moment in a life, rendered with dialogue in an ink drawing by Tona Wilson. In a few strokes we are given rudimentary elements: A prisoner. A judge. A child. Deportation. Time. It is a charged, tense moment, but there is no emotion evident. This is not a plea, it’s a procedure. We can only infer who these people are and speculate about what they are feeling.

The same goes for Wilson’s oils of prisoners in orange jumpsuits sitting before cement walls. They are clearly, intensely thinking, but their thoughts, their stories, remain a mystery.

Walls figure prominently much of Wilson’s work—even when it’s far removed from the prison system. The walls are literal and metaphorical, built of cinder blocks or bones, or the accumulated jetsam of a lifetime. They seem oppressive, yet strangely mutable. In one image, people push wheelbarrows full of bones, build walls out of them, then whitewash the walls to hide the bones from view. All the while, we see through their gauzy bodies to the bones that are doing the pushing, building and concealing. Or is it obfuscating?

These walls are more than divisions, they are interstices, liminal spaces, and Wilson’s gaze is fixed on them. She is standing between cultures, between freedom and incarceration, often between life and death. There is palpable anxiety in that space, but it’s tempered by a persistent curiosity and met with an unblinking eye.

SA: Tell me about what you’re working on during your WSW residency.

TW: Well, I’m a Spanish interpreter. I mostly work in the courts, and nowadays I also work in the schools as well. Sometimes I do interviews in jails and prisons, or at the immigration board. I’ve done that work for years, and as I was working, I’d come home and make sketches of what I saw. Some of them I couldn’t publish of course, because they might be identifiable, but most of them are not. For a long time I thought it would be a good idea to do a book based on these sketchbooks and submit it for publication—sort of a graphic novel.

SA: This work is clearly personal, yet it has an unbiased, observational tone to it, like reportage or documentary.

TW: Yeah, it’s kind of like documentary, filtered through my own perception. I try to just tell what I saw. This project has developed into stories of immigrants within the prison/jail system. It’s a huge subject. I’ve never been in jail or prison—I don’t know that side of it. I just know the side of translating for Spanish speaking immigrants in this system.

Tona Wilson, Sallyport
SA: How did you come to be a translator?

TW: When I was in my 20s and was in art school, I had a great aunt—a sculptor—who left me some money. It wasn’t a huge amount but I felt really rich and I went to travel in South America. I ended up settling in Buenos Aires and teaching English to make a living.

It was a different time in Buenos Aires; now everyone in their 20s goes to Buenos Aires and they all hang out and talk to each other in English. But in those days I didn’t really know anybody who spoke English so I became pretty fluent in Spanish.

When I came back to this country, instead of going back to art school, I was feeling really ignorant about the world so I finished school with a major in Spanish. I spent another six years living in Buenos Aires and became truly fluent. When I came back to this country again, I didn’t have any particular skill, other than teaching ESL, which I did for a while. Then I realized I could take the interpreter test. I really enjoy it. It’s a really great, fun job.

SA: It seems analogous to your art, where you’re translating one type of experience into another context, almost reflexively.

TW: That is indeed what’s happening. In a way with the translation, you use a part of your brain, but you just let it come in.

SA: You’re not judging it; you’re just trying to get the idea across as clearly as you can.

TW: And if you have to curse the judge out, you do it.

SA: I want to ask you about some of your other work, some of which is more purely figurative. Does that tie into this project? Is there any kind of connection or evolution in the ideas you’re exploring?

TW: I think so. Up until about 2004 I was doing a lot of the jail and prison work, partly because I was doing more translating and interpreting. Since then I’ve been doing a little more other figurative work. It’s not as much a direct narrative as what I get from the prison and jail work. It’s more filtered, but it definitely takes into account the stuff that I’ve found along the way.

SA: Even in your most abstract works I get a feeling of solitude and alienation and a sense of an engagement with mortality.

TW: The engagement with mortality pretty specifically came up in 2004. I was diagnosed and had treatment for breast cancer, so that was a heavy year. It was a pretty bad diagnosis and it was very clear to me that I was a mortal human being. That was two years after both my parents died, and a friend died, so it indeed led to a lot of exploring.

SA: How are you doing now?

TW: I’m fine; I get my six-month check-ups.

Tona Wilson, sketchbook drawing

SA: Did that experience chance the way you approach the prison material? I mean, you worked on it before, and are returning to it now with this life-threatening experience in between. Has it changed your outlook or method at all?

TW: What happened was, I was doing the sketchbooks about the prison/court experience and then when I was diagnosed, I began doing sketchbooks about myself. At one point, I remarked, “Huh, I’m writing about myself instead of everybody else.” So I think there might be a little more willingness to look in a more intimate way at the some of the more painful stuff about the courts and prisons. I certainly was willing to see it before, but I think I see it in a different way now. I feel more vulnerable myself, I guess.

SA: I want to ask about some of your images that jump out at me. There’s one that is kind of this honeycomb maze, these people confined by walls built of possessions and junk and stuff.

TW: (Laughs). That grew out of being on the train to the city and coming up with this drawing about hiding mortality from oneself. I did this little drawing of a woman trying to spray paint over herself—to try and cover up her shadow. And then I just happened to be listening to a song called “Whitewash.” That was using it more in a political sense, i.e., whitewash is what covers up everything that’s crumbling that you don’t want the public to see.

So I started just exploring; I was working on black paper with white watercolor and white gouache, which is a lot more opaque than watercolor. I was doing all those skulls and bones, and then covering them up with the gouache, experimenting with different ways of covering it up.

I was thinking about walls being a construction of all different materials because about that time, my brothers and I had to take apart our parents’ house and it was just a lot of stuff, and so I think that was how the wall was built with objects.

Tona Wilson, Whitewash, Oil on Canvas

S: Some of the drawings you’re describing, they almost take on the texture of x-rays, because of the inversion of the black and white, and the way you build layer upon layer. So this suggestion of medical imaging also ties in to theme of mortality, which is something we don’t have a lot of cultural framework to deal with in our society.

TW: No, we don’t. We act like, “Here we are, have fun, collect a lot of stuff.” When I was in Argentina, I realized that I had gotten to be quite old in my life before I saw anybody who was dead. But there kids, just as a matter of course were taken to a lot of wakes. Death was just much more … there. Argentina’s not a wide-open culture by any means, but in this context it was a little more so.

A Hudson Valley native, Tona Wilson lives in New Paltz. She is currently in residence at the Women’s Studio Workshop.

You can see her work at tonawilson.com/


  1. wrote on September 20th, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Ellen Calmus

    My community organization in Mexico helps the families of migrants to the U.S., including trying to help people recover from the trauma of sometimes very inhumane deportation processes. Thanks and congratulations to Tona for the moving glimpses her art offers of migrants’ experiences in the U.S. courts, and to Women’s Studio Workspace for providing this virtual space where people can see this important work.

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