In chapter 6 of her new book, As I Remember It: A Memoir of Persistence, Tenacity and Humor, Theresa Wanta quotes poet Langston Hughes: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” That chapter is titled “Fulfillment,” and it tells of the longtime Ramsey Hill resident finally becoming the artist she always wanted to be.

Her new book is the fulfillment of another dream. “I wrote the first draft of my memoir in 1986, when I was in my 40s,” Wanta said. “But as they say, life intervened. And every time I picked it up again, there was more to tell—a never-ending undertaking.”

As I Remember It takes readers from Wanta’s childhood on her family’s farm in Wisconsin to Saint Paul where her career as an artist finally takes off. The tale is long and decidedly winding.

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Asked when she first thought that art was her calling, Wanta said, “I always just knew. It helped to win a fire poster contest in third grade and a poppy poster contest in fifth grade.” As she got older, she discovered that she liked to paint and was fascinated by the challenge of figurative art. “It was the 1950s,” she said, “and I liked to do representational art when everyone was doing abstract art.”

Theresa Wanta
Memoirist Theresa Wanta reclines in front of two of her original oil paintings, which hang in her Ramsey Hill home. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“Having grown up in a rural area, I felt isolated to the point where, strange as it may sound, entering the convent opened up a bigger world. Besides, it was the only way I could think of getting a college education.”

In 1956 Wanta entered a convent in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. “I knew there was a bigger world, and I always wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “Having grown up in a rural area, I felt isolated to the point where, strange as it may sound, entering the convent opened up a bigger world. Besides, it was the only way I could think of getting a college education. And the promotional brochure listed ‘artist’ as one of the avocations.”

When she began her work as a nun, Wanta said, “I had to teach, which afforded little time for artwork.” She earned a B.S. in education from Saint Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and taught at schools in Wisconsin and in the South. “But after 22 years I could see the (religious) community was dying,” she said. “Plus, I really wanted to pursue a career in art. I wanted to study art in one of the best schools of figurative art, with instructors who had a New York exhibition record. And I wanted to experience the energy of Manhattan.”

A BFA at 40, an MFA at 52.

Wanta earned her BFA at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1982 and her master’s degree in figurative painting at the New York Academy of Art’s Graduate School of Figurative Art in 1994—at the age of 52. In the 12 years between, she lived in the Twin Cities and held a host of jobs, from graphic design to adult education to a variety of temp positions.

With her master’s degree in hand, Wanta moved back to the Twin Cities and began painting in earnest. She thought she might teach, too, but when she could not find a position, she determined to work on painting full time.

“I began hosting my own exhibits in Ramsey Hill,” she said. “With the magnanimous support of that community, I was successful for years. Simultaneously, I entered competitions where my works were juried in national exhibitions and I now have works in private collections in the U.S. and abroad.”

 

Wanta includes in her memoir photos of her oil and watercolor paintings and a summary of her exhibits in New York, California, Wisconsin and the Twin Cities.

“I wish I had had the opportunity to practice (painting) when I was much younger, when I had more energy and when I assume there would’ve been more opportunity,” she said. “Yet the times were different then and perhaps the opportunities for exhibiting not as common. The advantage of being older was I had a lot of experience working with people and wasn’t shy about engaging them. Also, I had marketing experience, which so many artists lack.”

Artist, be bold.

For her memoir, Wanta said, “I selected events that would provide insights into how I lived, worked and felt and that I thought would be entertaining. At first, I wrote every­thing down. I didn’t see a story arc or narrative thread at the beginning because my experiences seemed so disparate, but that evolved.

“I have a penchant for nonfiction,” Wanta said. “I didn’t want to write creative nonfiction. I wanted every part of my book to be as true as possible. Everything in the book is true, though everything true is not in the book.

“One learns a lot about oneself by writing a memoir,” she said, “personal inconsistencies, patterns of behavior and, in my case, hubris. It helps one gain a perspective on one’s life.”

As a painter, Wanta said, “I like to inspire artists to think beyond the state’s borders, to expose the East and West Coasts to their work and engage with their audience at an exhibition. Often, prospective clients want to buy a part of the artist along with the artwork.”

Wanta’s advice to those who would endeavor to succeed is to take a page from German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness…. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

As I Remember It: A Memoir of Persistence, Tenacity and Humor is available at Next Chapter Booksellers on Snelling Avenue and SubText Books downtown.

— Anne Murphy

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