Arts & Culture

Half a Life: Stephanie Wilde brings together life, death and AIDS in her art

Artist Stephanie Wilde has devoted the last 23 years to the exploration of AIDS and the social issues surrounding it through her intricate drawings and etchings. A collection of several series of her work on the subject is now on display for the first time at Stewart Gallery, 2212 Main St., in Boise.
Artist Stephanie Wilde has devoted the last 23 years to the exploration of AIDS and the social issues surrounding it through her intricate drawings and etchings. A collection of several series of her work on the subject is now on display for the first time at Stewart Gallery, 2212 Main St., in Boise. Idaho Statesman file

This story was originally published Dec. 2, 2006.

In the curved wall of Stewart Gallery’s entryway hang a series of 30 framed pieces by artist and gallery owner Stephanie Wilde.

Each piece contains a test tube vial as a vase for a small flower — a tiny sprig of life, a sign of hope for the future — and a small square drawing.

The detail in each square, in Wilde’s signature style, is remarkable. Acrylic paint, rubbed smooth as glass, sometimes overlaid with gold leaf, and then an image drawn with pen and ink.

The framed pieces draw you into the gallery. This is only the tip of this series — 30 of 365 works, one drawing done each day in 1994 — each dedicated to those who have died from complications from AIDS.

“I started to think of all the people we have lost in the artistic community to this disease,” Wilde said. “The writers, the musicians, the artists: We will never read their words, hear their music, never see their art.”

The entryway only hints at the work that lies around the curved wall. This series is the center point for a body of work that Wilde titles “Half a Life,” a collection of several series of work focused on the subject of AIDS in America and Africa.

35 OVER 23

Moving through Stewart Gallery’s three rooms, you travel through 23 years of Wilde’s life and work. An artist for 35 years, this work represents more than half of her artistic life, she said.

“For whatever reason, the AIDS work has always been with me,” she said. “Every time I complete one of the series I think this is the end of the work. I thought I would pull it all together in this show and let it travel and that would be that, but never say never. I might do this for a long time.”

Wilde draws on the political, the personal and the poetic to create a visual narrative that explores the causes and consequences — physical and moral — of the human toll of AIDS.

“It’s hard for me to even wrap my mind around the numbers of people still effected by this disease. It’s staggering. As an artist I feel compelled to document it.”

All of the series of art on AIDS are now together for the first time, along with Wilde’s work from the last 13 years, which has not been shown publicly until now. She is working to take the show to institutions and museums across the country. Some of the pieces were loaned back by the collectors who had purchased them originally.

BODY OF WORK

All together, the AIDS pieces create a powerful visual epic, said Sandy Harthorn, the Boise Art Museum’s curator and a longtime colleague of Wilde’s. Harthorn curated Wilde’s Boise Art Museum show, “Possessed by the Furies,” in 1998.

“This is a really important body of work from an artist who has already proven herself,” Harthorn said. “In this series, she deals with politics and social issues. The way she works with metaphor and story is unlike anyone else.”

At first blush the meaning behind each rich, tapestry-like drawing is hidden.

“You have to excavate a bit,” Harthorn said. “There are layers of meaning. It’s a very difficult subject, and she executes it with elegance and beauty. You really have to bring yourself to the work like you would a great piece of poetry.”

“The work” as Wilde calls it has taken her from Boise to Africa and back and forced her to explore her own fears and doubts to the point where she taps into the universal themes of life and death and everything in between.

Art and artist

Most of Wilde’s art comes out of her social conscience, a voice that grows louder each year.

“I wish my ideas would stop coming. They flood in very quickly,” she said. “I work every night and on weekends. That’s why you don’t see me at parties and openings. I’m always working.”

Wilde grew up in rural Utah, where her grandparents immigrated to from England to follow the Mormon faith. Wilde never took to the religion but instead followed her own path, she says, and that led her to art.

Wilde met her husband Lane Bune in high school. She discovered art as a career at 19 after they moved to Ogden, where she took a job at a shop that sold leather jackets, records and other paraphernalia.

“They asked me to do a calendar. It was a ‘70s psychedelic thing. Once that came out and I got paid —that was it. Then my journey began,” she says.

She became fascinated with early Renaissance paintings, an influence you still see in her work. She started researching and creating .

She and Bune spent the next eight years traveling to outdoor art fairs selling her work. Then she met a Boise art patron named Bea Clark, who took a liking to her work and made a proposal Wilde and Bune couldn’t refuse.

“She and her husband owned a number of houses,” Wilde said. “She offered us a house to live in and to trade for the work. Then our son was born, and that changed everything.”

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

That artistic journey started as a poignantly personal one. In 1982, she gave birth to her son, Seffan, now 24. He has a rare blood condition that required frequent blood transfusions, starting in the first weeks of his life. At 3, he was diagnosed with Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency.

With each drop of transfused blood, Wilde and her husband and business partner, Lane Bune, were acutely aware of the risks, despite their doctor’s assurance to the contrary. What if Seffan contracted AIDS? What would their lives be like?

That question led her to begin “The Plague Series,” which drew a parallel between AIDS and the Black Death.

“That was the only frame of reference I had in the sense of so many people dying and how people reacted,” Wilde said.

In the 14th century, Black Death, probably bubonic plague, ravaged Europe and Asia, killing an estimated one-third of the population.

“It was astounding the parallels. With all the technology, the knowledge and our sophistication, when it comes to the basic threat of dying, we revert right back to our primitive behavior. It’s really unsettling. Both (diseases) were seen as a punishment from God,” she said, an idea depicted in the piece “Fear.”

The plague analogy fit well with Wilde’s work. Her affection for stylized narrative storytelling and medium lend themselves well to the framework of the Middle Ages.

Rising From the Sea of Blood.jpg
Rising From the Sea of Blood,” ink, acrylic, gold leaf on museum board, a painting in the series “Unlucky 13” done in 1995. It deals with the overwhelming state of suffering and the staggering number of those dying of AIDS in Africa. Idaho Statesman file

INTO AFRICA

When she completed the first series in 1986, Wilde thought she would put the issue to rest, but she watches television while she works.

One night she saw a report on public television about AIDS in Africa.

“There was this beautiful, poignant moment when they talked about the number of people who were dying,” she said. “They were riding on a bus, and the camera stopped on this beautiful boy who was smiling and they showed the number of people who were dying of AIDS in Africa. We weren’t hearing about it here.”

She did five drawings that year about AIDS in Africa, but somehow it didn’t ring true to her sensibility, she said.

“I felt fraudulent. I knew nothing about African culture. Who was I?” she asked. “I knew if I was going to do more, I would have to go to Africa.”

Wilde traveled to Gambia, West Africa, and stayed for one month in 1990. Her experience there transformed her work yet again.

“It just slammed me to the ground, going there and coming back. I came back with a deeper appreciation for my own existence and a deeper sense of grace for the situation in Africa. That continent is dramatically changed forever. I really became aware that I was documenting something important, that no one was really talking about.”

She began yet another series, “Deem the Body Slim,” a reflection of what happens to the body when someone contracts AIDS, she said.

In 1994, she began the “Installation” series, now in the galley’s entryway, which became a turning point for her. During that year her mother died.

“I had never lost anyone that close to me. Feeling that loss took me back to revisit the work again,” she said. “I’m older. The work is more developed. I hope the work has a stronger voice. I’ve experienced great loss, and I’ve lived this experience.”

That sense of loss gave her purpose to re-examine the beginning of her journey, tackling the subject of the “Plague” again and a new African series titled, “Unlucky 13.”

The prints and drawings glow with rich colors -- mostly red, to represent blood, now known to transmit HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The colors came from vibrant textiles she saw in Gambia.

“My experience in Africa made me work harder,” she said. “I had some sort of voice that had to be spoken. That has nothing to do with me. I am documenting this and I better take it seriously because I am having experiences that my work will speak about long after I’m gone. The work has a life of its own now. There’s been a long journey that created this work, and I don’t feel that it’s over.”

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