By Nadia Todoroff
Wanetta Jones is a firecracker. At eighty-seven years old, her voice floats and delves octaves with stories of herself and her three daughters, all of whom are artists. Sitting in her Ann Arbor condo surrounded by her oil paintings, she explains the way she encouraged her three girls to become artists: “I said, you kids have to pick out art. I’m not going to have my children grow up just using one side of their brains.”
So they did. And now, after all those years, they are having their first art show together, to be held July 1-30 at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor.
Maryam Ali, the oldest daughter at age 66, has a job as an administrative assistant but actively pursues her art in her spare time. She uses mainly stoneware clay to create functional and sculptural ceramic pieces. Maryam apprenticed with a master ceramicist in 1998 and now makes some of her own glazes, which are usually in warm, earthy tones. Her pieces are hand-built and slab thrown. Lately she has been creating wall pieces, and makes custom stamps that she uses in her work.
Maryam’s ceramics are inspired by walks in the woods, nature, and the changing of the seasons. “I like to play jazz [while making art]. I have my music going, I open up the back curtain and I have bird feeders — the birds are going back and forth — and my jazz is playing, and maybe I have an emotion or idea in my head and I just kind of go with the flow,” she said.
Sixty-three-year-old Wasentha Young, the middle sister, is owner of the Peaceful Dragon School in Ann Arbor, where she teaches T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Chi Kung. She creates mosaics. Her interest was sparked at the age of eight, when she received a mosaic ashtray kit. There was something about the grouting process that resonated with her, and she told herself she would have to revisit mosaics sometime in her life.
Forty-five years later, Wasentha returned to mosaics, after traveling through Europe in 2006. She said, “Spain ignited my interest again, Greece made me curious, and Italy moved me into learning about the art itself.” She later studied at the Chicago Mosaic School, where she learned to work with the hammer and the hardie, which she uses to cut marble, slate, and stone. Many of her pieces convey movement and transformation, as do her T’ai Chi and Chi Kung practices.
Wasentha explained, “There’s a state of mind you get into in creativity… One of the men that I interviewed in Ravenna [Italy], he put it as, ‘time dilates.’ And in that dilation of time, the mind and the heart really connect…And that’s not time in terms of the clock or in terms of the sun going up and down, it’s a different aspect of time. Where there is actually kind of no time. In T’ai Chi, you take the body on that same journey. Where the body is moving through space in this state of mind of being; where there isn’t any time.”
Wasentha creates mosaics she calls “power pieces,” which are inspired by the Aztecs’ use of mosaics to empower their masks and shields. She also makes “process pieces,” which, for her, reunite a fragmented aspect of the psyche and put it into a place of harmony, which often requires more chaotic lines of expression. “Sometimes the materials themselves tell me what’s supposed to happen. If I try to interfere with that, then my piece is going to exemplify that struggle,” she said.
Wanetta Young, the namesake of her mother and, at 60 years old, the youngest sister, works with fabric. She began with traditional quilting, but the artist within her expanded beyond traditional styles. “I used to do painting, and I sort of transferred some of that artistry into fabric,” she said. “I never enjoyed coloring in the lines of a coloring book!” She describes her work as a collage with fabric. She works as a bookkeeper now and, for her, fabric art is more of a hobby than anything else.
As a child, when she first started drawing, Wanetta shared, “I was making people’s heads, and I would attach [them to] their shoulders without a neck. My mother would have me feel my neck and look in the mirror…She was very patient with me, because after she taught me people had necks, I was drawing people with necks like giraffes!”
In regards to her family’s influence on her art today, Wanetta said, “The fact that they’re creating something -- that inspires me with my own work. They’re using that part of themselves, the right side of their brain.”
Raised in Long Island, New York City, the sisters grew up with a strong sense of independence. Their mother said, “The first thing they learned is they had to like themselves. And you like yourself better than ‘they’ [others] like you. That was a rule of the family.” She continues, “I raised my daughters as, ‘I’m not going to make decisions for you. And whatever you want to do, you have to do it well.’ ”
The elder Wanetta, now an oil painter, began creating art at a young age. The oldest of her mother’s family, she was forced to become an adult early on and took care of six young siblings and cousins while her mother and aunt worked. She spent the time she had to herself copying trees and nature with chalk. “When I was younger and I had all those kids to watch…that’s what helped me keep my sanity. The fact that I would do art,” she said.
After studying commercial art in New York in the mid-1940’s, Wanetta went to the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City, where she was educated in an array of art forms including fine art, 3-D art, and textiles. After taking jobs painting murals in people’s houses, Wanetta had to take a hiatus from her personal art as her children were growing up. “Their father and I were splitting,” she said, “and I had to get more than one job, which put my artwork on the back burner.”
Wasentha was the first of the daughters to delve into art. Wanetta said, “I came home from work one day, and we lived in a middle-income project. I went in her bedroom and looked up, and she had taken thread of different colors and covered the ceiling. But it was such a fabulous design! That’s when I realized Wasentha had my gift.
“And she’s sitting there, defiant. ‘Now let’s see, if you don’t like what I like, well…’ Wasentha was very tough like that… And I said, ‘Ooo! This is gorgeous! You did that?’ She’s looking at me like I’ve gone crazy, ‘cause she did not expect me to do that.”
Wasentha recalled, “My mom asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ I said, ’Because I’m tired of living in a box.’ And she said, ‘Ok,’ and that was it. She kind of left me a lot of space to be creative.”
Maryam said, “She [my mother] opened my eyes to color and expressing yourself in an artistic way. When I was very young, I was playing and I saw her sketch with a pencil, and I was amazed. My mother was always sewing and things like that, but to see her sketch something, that kind of opened my eyes.”
Wanetta told her girls: “Each one of you pick a facet of art. You pick that part of art that you like best. You might even pick something, then later on you don’t like it. So? One of the things that makes the United States the best country in the world, no matter where you are, is nobody’s going to kill you if you fail at something and you are gonna try something else. Part of our freedom is to keep going, and do different things. You are becoming what you are because you are American.”
After her daughters grew up, Wanetta spent much of her time oil painting. “Many times I would have conversations with them when I really started to do a lot of art, and I would ask their opinion. And they were so thrilled that the first paintings that I made were pictures of my children.”
Many of Wanetta’s paintings now are landscapes. “I will never paint from a photograph. Now that I have used the photographs to make nice paintings of my children when they were little, I don’t need to do that. I make my own artwork of places, and mostly places that I identify with.”
She shows me a painting, one with a scraggly white tree and mountainous hills in the background. “This is near UCLA. When I used to live in California, I worked for UCLA. I like the way these mounds are. I was Presbyterian at that time and I asked the people there, members of the church [who lived in this area]… ‘Do you mind if I come to see you and could I paint the scene of your backyard or upper yard?’ And they were delighted to be recognized. So that’s what I started doing. I stopped using newspaper things — no, I had to do it myself.”
On raising her children, Wanetta notes, “Let them make…decisions, just so long as you can let them, but also let them know, anything go wrong, or somebody bothering you? I’m here.”
Wanetta Jones used to show her art out of her home, but has not exhibited her work publicly before. Maryam shows in a variety of galleries in New York, and Wasentha has exhibited her pieces around Michigan, as well as in Texas and Illinois. Wasentha also has taught mosaic classes at the Ann Arbor Art Center and the Copper Colored Mountain Art Center, just west of Ann Arbor.
Wanetta Jones and her daughters remain close, though Maryam lives in New York (state) and Wanetta Young is in California. Even from a distance, “Support for the creative process flows throughout my family,” said Wasentha.
This art show is a wonderful opportunity for them to come together creatively. The daughters will be showing recent works, while mom Wanetta’s work spans a 15-year period. All told, the women will exhibit over 30 pieces in their joint show.
“A Family of Artists — Mother and 3 Daughters,” will be shown July 1-31, 2016, at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N 4th Ave, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. For more information, visit www.kerrytownconcerthouse.com or call 734-769-2999.