‘Rooted in Me’: A powerful use of collage at at Awbury

by Len Lear
Posted 11/23/23

What makes Yolanda Ward's art so distinctive is that her Impressionistic works look exactly like oil paintings until you get inches from them.

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‘Rooted in Me’: A powerful use of collage at at Awbury


There is no excuse not to see the extraordinary exhibit of the art of Yolanda Ward, “Rooted in Me,” which will be on display at Awbury Arboretum in Germantown through Dec. 19. What makes the art so distinctive is that her Impressionistic works look exactly like oil paintings until you get inches from them and realize that they are actually paper collages.

“That is intentional,” Ward said last week. “There are a lot of collage artists, but I wanted to do it my own way. I want people to think it is an oil painting until they get up close. That usually starts a conversation. I get a big kick out of that.’ 

Ward combines techniques, using paper she has created with water and pulp. She paints and also has created woodcuts and silkscreens. Her art, she says in the show's catalog, is a process of translating memories into collages.

Ward’s work has appeared in juried exhibitions and received an Honorable Mention Award at Woodmere Art Museum's Annual Show, an Abington Art Center’s Paper Arts Award and a Black Music City Grant. She has also participated in sold-out regional shows. Next January, her work will be exhibited at Foulkeways at Gwynedd. 

In her art, Ward has reflected on her relationship with her mother, the impact of the Great Migration, the politics of Black women’s hair, and her faith, which sustained her through a bout with breast cancer. Ward’s white vase series is a metaphor for that medically unsettling journey. In one painting, a vase with beautiful flowers sits on a table amid a foreboding shadow on a wall and curtains billowing through an open window with the breeze.

“Through the darkness, there is always light, You can’t have one without the other,” Ward said in the show’s catalog. “The winds may blow… and they did… Still I stand. maybe a little altered, but still I stand.” 

Ward, 68, was born in Frankford but grew up on Conlyn Street in West Oak Lane. Starting in fourth grade, she was bused to Pennypacker School farther north in West Oak Lane. “I did not understand it,” she said. “We were told it was done to achieve racial integration, but my own neighborhood was always integrated, possibly because some of the white families could not afford to move and buy another house. We were the third Black family on our block. I was always around mixed races. I never thought of it as a problem.

“Our neighborhood was a really special community. Kids came from all around and played with each other. Times have changed so much. So many people are carrying around so much rage now, but bad behavior does not help you. When are we going to wake up and be kind to each other and raise kids with loving kindness?” 

Ward always had artistic talent. After Germantown High School, she studied art at Arcadia University, the Philadelphia Printing School, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and the Philadelphia College of Art. She worked for 35 years in graphics at Advanta and experienced some financial reversals when the company went out of business.  She immersed herself in her art and began making collages.

 Why collages?

“It’s every step I’ve ever taken in my life – my graphic arts background, needlepoint, sewing, knitting and my love of paper,” Ward said. I carted tons of magazines around with me for years, never knowing how I would use them. Now, I incorporate them into my collages. My pieces are getting bigger. One in the Awbury exhibit is seven-and-a-half feet long. I've been working on the pieces in the exhibit since January.”

Ward starts each collage with a sketch, not on paper but on her computer. She had to learn all the various graphic art software for her career in the corporate world, and she finds it more efficient to do the basic composition on a computer, where she can easily make numerous changes. Her subjects include portraits, landscapes and seascapes that call to mind the brush strokes of Monet, Matisse and Cezanne.

Two years ago, after Ward’s breast cancer diagnosis, the artist had radiation every day for two months. “I meditate every morning,” she said. “I got so much out of this experience. It changed me for the better. I would not trade my cancer journey for anything.

“I'm inspired by my work and where it's going,” Ward said. “My spirit is getting bigger. I work all the time. I haven't had a vacation in eight years. My daughter, Erikka Rainey, who lives in Roxborough, is great, and my best friend, Miss Minnie, a 13-year-old mutt, has saved me.”

Stacia Friedman contributed to this article. For more information: Yolandawardart.com or @yolandawardart. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com