Skip to main content

Tona Wilson

Tona Wilson headshot.jpg

Photo courtesy of the artist

 Interview conducted by Sarah Sanchez, Scripps College '20

With various different formats of presenting art, what drew you to create this piece in the form of an artist's book? How do you think the format of an artist's book best explores/examines race and identity?

In 1996, soon after I began my day job as a Spanish court interpreter, I began to draw and write about my experience in courts, jails and prisons, in a series of sketchbooks. As an interpreter, one has to maintain a completely neutral position, and yet, as a person and as an artist, I of course had my own feelings about the situations the people I interpreted for found themselves in.  To respect confidentiality, I couldn’t go home and tell my friends and families any details.  So I wrote and drew, and even though I was not showing the sketchbooks to others at first, I left out or disguised any details that could identify any of the parties involved. 

After a few years of producing these sketchbooks, I wanted to tell stories inspired by them. Although I have also made many paintings based on or suggested by the sketchbooks, the natural progression for the telling of narratives from them was to the form of a book, using both images and words.  I initially began work on a “non-fiction graphic novel,” for publication (I am still working on that project on and off, and hope eventually to put it into a form that can be presented for publication, and accessible to a larger public). 

Then, after thinking about what could be done using the box or slipcase format, I came up with the idea of  having multiple stories about people in the criminal justice system, specifically incarcerated people, and having each be seen “behind bars” through the window.  As I looked through the stories from my sketchbooks, I decided to focus on the ones that relate to ways that the system locks up immigrants.  (In addition to my experience as an interpreter, I’ve had close friends dealing with immigration issues).

In Stories Behind Bars, the slipcase format allows for a relationship with the characters that is interactive.  After reading the stories, a reader can see a “portrait” of a character in the story both directly and behind bars.  Although there is a strange contradiction inherent in telling these stories in a format that is costly, it might also be argued that the amount of care taken to create a handmade work also affirms the value of the individuals.

In the case of FIRE and ICE, I had seen a video produced by the small group calling themselves “FIRE” on YouTube.  I could find very little information about the group.  The video is their telling of the story; certainly the most direct - and possibly the best – way to tell their story.  But I wanted to create an object in which the juxtaposition of their two “uniforms” – one at each “end” of an accordion book that can be read from either direction – gives them a certain equality of status and credibility that they lack in “real life.”

How would you like your audience to interact with your work?

I like it when the work stimulates questions and the desire to know more. 

Right after finishing Stories Behind Bars, I had a show in which the pages (artists proofs and imperfectly printed ones) were on the walls at eye level: people were reading them together and often discussing them. 

In another show, copies of the four booklets from Stories… were on a table, and people tended to sit down to read them alone, as probably happens at the libraries that own them. 

Only two individuals (as far as I know) have purchased Stories..   as individuals rather than as part of an institution; both are attorneys. 

In 2012, a staged reading of Stories Behind Bars was produced in conjunction with E Equals, during National Poetry Month, co-sponsored by the local Prison Ministry of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY, directed by Chris Silva, with amateur readers from the public, and a question answer period afterwards.  

The tabloid photocopy spreads from FIRE and ICE have been shown in galleries and at other events, and the book has been available for reading at those same events.

In all of these cases, what I hope to have happen is for individuals reading the books to expand their understanding of some issues, and also to see how what they may have only seen as statistics affects individuals. 

How are the central themes/messages of your work relevant to contemporary issues?

In the deeply disturbing anti-immigrant climate we are living in now, both books are more relevant than ever.  Anti-immigrant sentiment and institutional persecution has become much more evident in the last few weeks and months, but it did not emerge out of nowhere: it was already part of the landscape before the election.   The stage was set with legislation such as IIRA IRA and the PATRIOT Act, which I talk about in Stories...  The use of private prisons and the power of lobbyists for them in shaping legislation is only increasing.  I would like to believe that someday what I tell in the books will feel dated and represent long-ago history, but at the moment it is pertinent, and the books shed light both on what is happening right now, and remind us that this is not new. 

What aspects of your race and identity affect your work? 

As a white, non-immigrant woman who grew up speaking English, I don’t pretend to speak for the people whose stories I tell; my direct connection is as an interpreter, a person who is, for the purposes of the job at least, impartial.

And yet, I’m also connected with the stories by my own experiences. As an adult, I’ve been finger-printed and investigated and have stood with other immigrants to Argentina during an amnesty there, waiting to find out if I would be granted legal residency. And I’ve navigated the US Immigration system with a female lover. But in both of those experiences, I remained a white, north american woman. 

Although I was raised mostly in the northeastern US, my family lived in North Carolina when I was in the first and second grade, in the late 1950s. One day, in a department store, I sounded out two words, on two drinking fountains standing side by side. “White,” said one. “Colored,” said the other – I imagined the water would arch from the fountain in a rainbow. Then, my father explained to me the great injustice in those words.

The small northeastern town we moved to from North Carolina was very white, and very protestant. I remember there being one Jewish girl in my class, one African American girl, one Catholic girl, and one Chinese boy. My family practiced no religion, although my mother had been raised as a Quaker. (I remember when my brother at 5 years old was hospitalized, my mother explained to us that she felt she had to write “Protestant” under “Religion” for fear that he might be mistreated if she wrote “none.”)

On Friday afternoons, most of the class left school, for “release time,” which was religious education held at their churches. Only a couple of us stayed at the school. In 5th grade, the two of us who stayed back were allowed to go into the art room, supervised by a remarkable African American art teacher. The individual attention I got from him during those Friday afternoons when I was an outsider, was one of the most important influences on my art.

It would be hard to disentangle the other ways in which these childhood experiences, or many others, have influenced my art-making. I do know that learning to speak Spanish in my early 20s, and living outside of the US for nearly a decade, was important in the expansion of my world and in my awareness. I know that in my job, being a white, US born person makes it easier for me to be, in a sense, a “fly on the wall” in waiting rooms full of sometimes cynical white attorneys.

Most of Stories Behind Bars is telling the stories of other people.  How do you maintain your sense of artistry while being authentic to the people whose stories you are telling?

The sketchbooks were from the beginning both a place to write and draw the stories, and a place to try out different materials (pens, pencils, crayons, paint, used in different ways).  It was important to me to try to convey some of the emotions expressed by the people portrayed, especially ones that resonated in me.  The drawings in the books are shaped, of course, by my own memory, imagination and aesthetic choices, and I don’t pretend to objectivity, but I do hope to be as faithful as I can to what I have seen - at least as I have perceived it.  

What is your process?  Starting at the initial interaction with someone, how do you decide who to interview and how do you transform their stories into the book?

I do not actually interview any of the people in the books. Because of the nature of my job, I never included recognizable portraits of people, even in the sketchbooks, nor did I record details that might make those people identifiable.  What I Have tried to portray is gesture, posture, the look of the courtrooms and other places, textures and impressions. 

My knowledge of people and situations I tell about is mostly limited to observation and to their responses to questions asked by their attorneys, since in my role as an interpreter I am not supposed to provide any words except those spoken by the parties in the case.  There is another layer of knowledge, which is comes from conversations with friends, along with my own experiences. 

What I wrote and drew about in the sketchbooks was determined by how much a particular case affected me, but also by how much time I had that night or in the days that followed.

By the time I came to the point of starting work on the book, I read through the stack of sketchbooks I’d been writing and drawing in for nearly fifteen years, and at that point came up with stories that are really each composites of stories and characters who are composites of characters; in come cases much closer to my own experiences than in other cases.  Each story I told had to be impossible to link to an individual, but also feasible, close enough to my experience to make it essentially True.  

Who do you chose to personally share your books with?  Is it possible to show them to the people whose stories are being shared?  Or do you share the final work of past interviewees as a way to build a relationship with people you plan on interviewing? 

I have not been able to share Stories Behind Bars with people for whom I have translated in the course of my jobs – neither the defendants whose stories I tell, nor the attorneys, judges, court officers, or clerks who are in court.  I have shown it to people whose experiences have echoed those of people and situations in the book – attorneys as well as immigrants.  It is possible that some of the people I’ve worked with in court may have seen the book, whether at a show or on my website, but I have not heard from them.   I would like to be able to work in a different way, interviewing individuals, showing them past books: perhaps if at some point I retire as an interpreter I will be able to do that!

As for FIRE and ICE, I tried to find out who “FIRE” is, in the hopes of contacting them.  I subscribed to their YouTube channel and sent a message, googled them, etc, but found nothing but a couple of articles that mention them.  They may or may not still exist as a group.  I would be interested to know that.  I recently decided to go back to the YouTube video.  It has a lot more views now.  But I still can find no more information.

Are the stories you tell exclusively about real people you personally worked with, stories about real people you have heard, or stories you created that are representative of real people?

I would say they are the third – stories I created that are representative of real people.  Some of the details are based on  real people I have personally worked with, and some on stories about real people I have heard. 

The style and design of FIRE & ICE is very different from the style and design on Stories Behind Bars.  What factors went into your stylistic decisions with these books?

FIRE and ICE is my first artist’s book, and was pretty much a “self-taught” project.  I knew once I found out about the group who called themselves FIRE and saw their “uniform” that I wanted to make a book with the facing covers being simple silkscreens of the uniforms.  I wanted to be able to fit the whole book onto one tabloid size page, so that I could also provide inexpensive “make-you-own” kits.  So it was done using photocopy. 

A lot more went into the decision making process for making Stories Behind Bars.  The idea of making a slipcase with barred window came before the content, or at least before the precise content.  Early in the process, I hoped to have the box contain more individual pamphlets so that more different faces could be shown “behind bars.”  I had a lot of help from artists and interns at Women’s Studio Workshop, where the book was produced, in the construction of the box, figuring out the size of the window choosing appropriate papers and book cloth, and deciding the number of pamphlet/booklets that would be best to include. 

How did you approach your research into immigration practices and discrimination?

Besides my experience in courts and the experiences of friends, I was in contact with several attorneys, and also did a lot of reading, both online and in newspapers and magazines.

What impact do you hope your books have on its readers?  How are you hoping to effect immigration enforcement practices?

I hope that there are some readers who will be able to feel more welcoming and open toward immigrants, and who will understand a little bit better the way the system makes things difficult for them.  I hope that for some people the stories lead to a better understanding of what the term “criminal alien” really means – some people hear that term and don’t realize that it includes infractions – now even traffic infractions and “being suspected of a crime..”

It is more difficult to feel hatred for someone once you have gotten to know them a little, and perhaps telling the stories is tiny gesture against anti-immigrant sentiment.

Unfortunately, I am nearly  certain that I will not affect immigration enforcement policies at all through my books, but if I were to, I would hope that “enforcement” would be infused with more compassion and humanity, that the use of private prisons would be completely eliminated, less unjust reading of the definition of “criminal alien” (and the abandonment of that expression, as well as expressions such as “illegal’s”), end to racial profiling….  and a host of other provisions relating both to immigration enforcement and to immigration policies in general (better and more abundant paths toward legal residency, the DREAM Act becoming a reality, admission of more rather than fewer refugees, etc..)