A surreal life

The unusual history and art of Ginger Wallace

By Kinsee Morlan originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/19/2007

Ginger and Bob Wallace’s house looks cookie-cutter average from the outside. A freshly trimmed lawn populated by birds of paradise and other exotic plants and trees rampant in their Point Loma neighborhood leads the way to coral-red double doors. The driveway is clean, the Volvo is spotless and the weeds are whacked.

But inside the typical Southern California house-on-a-hill are bits and pieces of eccentricity and silliness–a stuffed alligator and dragon tucked under the piano, something Ginger calls her “nature center,” decorative bugs crawling into candy dishes on end tables and various plastic molds of spilt things, like a fake glass of orange juice pouring onto the loveseat in the foyer and a fake bottle of bright red Revlon nail polish spilling across the top of the piano. Added up, these quirky little tidbits equal the unique taste and extraordinary humor of Ginger Wallace, a distinguished woman known locally more for her art philanthropy than her own body of sometimes surreal, often hilarious, always skillful art.

Ginger Wallace loves root beer and her oversized Chihuahua, Sam, but hates heights and horses. She’s a gentle, polite woman who stands a commanding 5-foot-10, with sharp blue eyes, soft grayed hair, an easy giggle and an uncanny ability to attract attention. Ginger is somewhat of a pioneer for women in art, yet she doesn’t see it that way–instead, she shrugs off any mention of blazed trails or significant female firsts and simply tells her life story through entertaining anecdotes that leave listeners wanting more.

Like the one about the firework. Ginger was living in Chicago, operating her 750 Studio gallery by day, going to the University of Chicago by night and working on a silent film at an old abandoned German expressionist house on the south side of Chicago in her spare time. She and her film crew decided to shoot a firework off, but it was sometime in the 1950s, when big fireworks were new and strange, and the crew feared they’d burn the house down, so they shot it off from the shore of Lake Michigan instead. The spectacle that followed–the flashes, sparks and faces of shocked onlookers–was all caught on Ginger’s Kodak Eastman Model-A 16-mm camera.

Ginger showed the finished film just once at the University of Iowa, but after a man in the audience asked if the purposely surreal and abstract work–perhaps a bit ahead of its time in the Midwest–was the product of a “madman, or an insane mind,” Ginger decided to hide the film and never show it to anyone ever again.

“It’s very primitive,” she says with a shy smile, moving on, without missing a beat, to her next mysterious life tale.

It’s this side of her, the obscure, modest side, that has kept her art and achievements somewhat under wraps. What Ginger sometimes misses in her storytelling are the impressive parts, like how she owned and operated a gallery at a time when most women did little more than get married and have children. She’ll also forget to mention, or rush right by, the fact that 750 Studio was the site for one of the first solo shows of Harry Callahan, the famed modern American photographer, at a time when most galleries frowned upon photography and certainly didn’t consider it fine art. She might even brush off her educational accomplishments–she spread her undergraduate education out at the University of Salt Lake City, the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago and got her master’s of fine art from the Art Institute of Chicago, again, at a time when many women stopped their schooling after the 12th grade.

And unless you’re one of the lucky recipients of Ginger’s creative handmade Christmas cards, you’d probably never realize the gobs of artistic talents pouring from her slender fingers. A long-awaited retrospective exhibition of her work is currently showing at the San Diego Art Institute’s Museum of the Living Artist in Balboa Park.

Ginger Wallace: Her Art, Her Wit and Her Relationships captures, among other things, Ginger’s affinity for feet. Two of the three self-portraits in the show are photographs of her feet-one is a shot of toes peaking out of a can of mushroom soup; the other pictures are of toes, too, this time with the nails painted carefully in the recognizable style of Piet Mondrian.

The show also captures the schizophrenic-like way Ginger moved through almost every artistic medium–from traditional oil and acrylic paintings to ceramics, photography and photo collage, Indian ink drawings, lithographs, etchings, assemblage and fine pieces of metal jewelry, a craft she picked up one summer while studying with the Los Castillos in Taxco, Mexico. Even the wood, resin and leaf Japanese screen standing in the middle of the exhibition is a product of Ginger’s artistic prowess.

But the anchor of the show is the dozens of panels of watercolor illustrations from Ginger’s book, published earlier this year, Extraordinary People: Plus Unique, Above Average Children, a 164-page volume of curious illustrations paired with witty one-liners, like the depiction of her husband Bob, a retired San Diego State University professor of art history, standing on a stool made of human legs, reaching to put the finishing touches on a huge ceramic vase.

“He wanted to make the biggest punch bowl in the world,” laughs Ginger, recalling the ceramics class they took together.

Family and friends are a recurring theme in the book, as are children, who are portrayed in untraditional ways, like the woman pictured in a faux muskrat jacket with a child carefully hidden in its bushy collar.

“I fell in love with children after I had them,” Ginger says, explaining away the book’s tongue-in-cheek depiction of kids as mostly bothersome.

One of the more fascinating qualities of Ginger Wallace–both the show and the woman–is her friendship with like-minded, creative folks and how they’ve fed off one another and, after decades of making art, have helped create movements and push artistic periods. For perspective, the show includes works from Ginger’s personal collection and works by her friends Everett Jackson, Beth Van Hoesen, Whitney Halsted and others.

Ginger points to a beautifully framed Middle Eastern painting hanging in her family room, atop which sits a big-busted doll dressed in a hot-pink sequined dress. “Everett Jackson once called our collection a mix of museum-quality work and junk,” she says, launching into yet another true yet absurd tale from her full life.

“I digress all the time” she says later, apologizing for her fantastical mind.

Ginger Wallace: Her Art, Her Wit and Relationships will be on view at the San Diego Art Institute-Museum of the Living Artist in Balboa Park through Sunday, Nov. 25. www.gingerwallace.org.

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