I first met Wendy Slaughter at a community art class. She was hunched over a canvas meticulously gluing large pills onto a painting of the ocean and cutting the fingers off of blue hospital gloves to be pasted on next. Before I had time to ask about it, she received a call—one that I have come to recognize from the disgruntled way she answers the phone—saying that her access-a-ride was there early. It was a while before I saw Wendy again. Her health is a constant battle and can keep her away for weeks at a time. She always comes back to class, however, her sketchbook and a collection of found objects in tow.
Wendy grew up along the border of Bushwick and Williamsburg and speaks with the authority of a person who knows a thing or two about change. She describes Brooklyn, specifically her stomping grounds, with a candor that is informed by love, weary from experience and marked by appreciation above all else. With very little prompting she will share how things were: Graham Avenue was not the “fashion plate” it is now, it was the place to shop for appliances. Broadway was bustling with mom and pop stores, before many of them left.
On a recent Monday, we were chatting at the McCarren Play Center, the location of the art classes that we both take. I asked about the change and how it makes her feel. “I like Bushwick, I like Williamsburg,” she said thoughtfully, “but I’m seeing so much change. I’m learning more about my neighborhood than what I ever knew. A few years ago it wasn’t so artsy. A few years ago you did not see all these murals popping up, all these little cafes. It’s interesting. Some things I like. I like the murals. When it was open studio day, I actually did go to some of the studios. When I went onto some of the back streets, I didn’t realize there were any back streets in the first place and how colorfully decorated some of them are.” But other things, like the empty lots on Broadway, “are hard to look at,” she said with marked resignation.
Her family was “pretty poor” as she puts it, so she learned about sacrifice and hard choices at a young age. As a child she had a real aptitude for art. She often tells the story of drawing a turtle and sending it to a teen magazine. The magazine called her back with the offer of art classes, but, with the click of the phone, Wendy’s mother let it be known that they could not afford lessons. “That was the end of my interest in art for a few years,” she told me, “but I picked it back up right away as an adult because it never actually left me.”
That interest has nourished and sustained her through immense periods of change. When her career as a social worker was derailed by illness, she gravitated back to that love which had lain dormant for a time. “The four walls were starting to drive me crazy,” she recalled. “ I kept seeing this commercial for an art institute over and over again.” It lodged itself in her brain and she started taking classes as a non-matriculating student, the only way she could afford to do so. She just kept taking classes, first at SVA and then at Hunter College.
Her resourcefulness as an artist is practical as well as aesthetic. When she signed up for a sculpture class at Hunter, she thought, “Ok. How am I going to get materials?” She started looking outside her building, around her apartment, and in the school basement and found such gems as an old clock that she was able to reconstruct.
This magpie instinct transcends the literal object she collects, influencing the way she perceives the world, and the moments she captures in her always-present sketchbook. She observes the world with a discerning eye: it could be the way a man is holding his arm or the expression on a woman’s face as she is watching children play at Burger King. “I just like to observe people. My thinking is this—I’m not in art school anymore, like I would really like to be. Any place you go can be your art studio. Some days I want to go on the train. My home attendant doesn’t exactly agree with that, but when I make up my mind, I’m going. That’s it. I like to sketch in certain places. I don’t have a certain type of person I like to sketch, but there has got to be something about a person that draws my attention.”
It’s a balancing act—being observant and yet blending in. “You can’t stare at a person,” she explained to me. “You’ve got to know when to break that contact. You have to know how to look and then not look. People get weary when they are being looked at.”
While Wendy’s art is highly observational, a great deal of her sketchbook is a cathartic process of recording and expressing her interior life. One such piece, “I Just Want To Be Heard,” quite literally expresses her sense of alienation and the agency her sketchbook provides. It relates to her brother. “I love him dearly, but at times,” she expressed, “we just don’t get along and feel like I’m not being heard.”
“At times,” she explains with a coy smile, “someone will piss me off really badly. And I will literally want to punch them. It’s like, I shouldn’t literally hit that person. But I can tell them off in my sketchbook. I can curse them out if I want to. I can do anything that I want. If I want to punch you in the eye I can craw a picture of punching you in the eye. The sketchbook allows me to be expressive.”
Her sketchbook is raw and at times difficult to look at. Her feelings are laid bare, with a touch of humor and a whole lot of honesty. She tells off doctors, nurses, and people from her dialysis center on a regular basis. She makes her pain known and records the ways in which she feels minimized or overlooked. Here, in this book, she gets to be the hero. It is an assertive reclaiming of her voice in a world that doesn’t often listen.
You can see Wendy’s art on display at Dweebs until the end of September.