Official Notice: Tona Wilson’s Court CodeApril 25, 2018
Almost immediately after passing the exam to be a New York State Court Interpreter, Tona Wilson was called into family court. She’s careful not to divulge the details, but mentions it was apparent to her that the hearing, a custody case, did not quite have a “winner.”
Tona has served as a Spanish language interpreter in the New York legal system since the mid-90’s, translating her own experience into paintings, prints, sketches and one other handmade publication. With a public consciousness so often focused on federal judges who rule on sweeping state or national policies, she pulled her audience’s attention to the courthouse closer to home. This past fall she joined WSW for her second Artist’s Book Residency, also teaching in the Art-in-Ed Program, to make her book Dress Code Strictly Enforced.
When on a job, Tona’s in the company of social workers, prosecutors, judges, and countless others who pass through the courthouse door. She walks us through this portal as well using a blue, spiral-bound artist’s book with screenprinted images and text. On the inside cover we’re met with a metal detector in a room of wooden paneling, drawn from her time in town courts. Page one greets the reader with an officer warning them to turn off their phones.
Fifteen hand-drawn characters—ranging from officials to inmates—are printed and bound in an edition of 75. On the spread’s right side, they are divided into a head, torso, and legs in the style of mix-and-match books. Opposite an image is a sentence the person would either say or hear in court. These sentences become more absurd when creating new combinations of people. Readers can turn the declaration (page not shown here):
“Yes, Sir, ready to take the subject into custody on an outstanding bench warrant,” into:
“And don’t let me perform 100 hours of community service on an outstanding bench warrant.”
Tona’s career as a court interpreter is an indirect result of when she “ran away from art school.” She laughs, then corrects herself. She decided that she was going to work on a freighter, then decided to just travel by freighter to South America. Without knowing Portuguese or Spanish, she landed in Brazil and made her way to Argentina. The first Spanish she learned was Buenos Aires’ slang. The second came from earning her bachelor’s degree in the language.
She found her way back to art with a practice that includes video, stop motion animation, painting, drawing, and printmaking. Much of Tona’s work includes figures; a subsection stems from sketches informed by her court work. Her earlier WSW published artist’s book, Stories Behind Bars (published in 2010), is composed with four pamphlets housed in a handmade box. Together, in handwritten annotation and sketched illustrations, they share a brief accounts of deportation and immigration detention. Lightly fictionalized, the stories to which she testifies are not—for confidentiality reasons—mirrors of specific people.
Unlike Stories Behind Bars, Tona’s lens—not only as an artist but also a court employee—is not entirely evident throughout Dress Code Strictly Enforced. Nearly a contemporary retelling of modernist realism with today’s silkscreen processes and sketched aesthetics, it presents timely references to drug treatment, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and police videos.
On one page, a young woman accused of theft stands with two young children. She’s sentenced to a “shoplifting class”—Tona notes the misnomer, “There is so much absurdity in what they say in court.” These portraits and collected soundbites are likened by the artist to a play. When anyone walks into a courtroom, their identity is determined among a hierarchy of clothing and dialogue. In the back of the book, she presents testimony of how wearing the right shoes or necktie may sway a jury’s decision, or the side effects of wearing a gun belt. Even in this rigid system of power, so much is left to nuance and chance.
There is not a court interpreter among the book’s characters. Were there one, they would relay information, as objectively as possible, between present parties. Here we find the book is not a documentary at all. For her job, Tona feels she has to “decapitate that part of [her] brain that’s judgmental” at work, unable to react to the dialogue she shares. Sketches, and the painting and prints they inform, are her own voice whenever she goes to work.
Leafing through the book, Tona points out that her art practice also helps to answer a question she often is asked: “So, what’s it like in court?”
Tona Wilson works in painting, video and artist’s books. In the late 1990s she worked as a Spanish interpreter in New York State’s courts, prisons and jails. These paths converged when she came to WSW to produce Stories Behind Bars, a a quartet of books telling the stories of immigrants in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers. She has shown video as part of the O+ Festival in Kingston, at Paper City Studios, and at CHRCH Project Space as part of Kate Hamilton’s “It’s a Big World in There,” among other places. She began working in multi-channel video in 2013.