Upon meeting Lidoña Wagner I am presented with a guide to her book Seed of Imagination: An Ancestral Creative Journey. The guide is one printed page listing themes in the book and where to find them. In the right hand corner Wagner has drawn in pencil a DNA helix.
One strand is labeled “Process of creating Maiden Migrations,” and the other, “My own Ancestral Journey.” She has identified the connecting rungs — the proteins — as “Side pages of Art, Poetry, Musings.”
“I know, it’s complicated,” she says later in our interview.
By then I know it’s not as complex as it seemed at first. It’s just that Wagner is extraordinarily impressed with the history of global migration. The introduction to her book begins by recalling an article she read in Newsweek about Mitochondrial Eve, the African woman from whom all modern humans are descended.
This idea of “one mother” sparked Wagner’s interest and led her on the journey she describes in her book, which is a mix of memoir, art, poetry, art history, travelogue and comparative cultural studies.
In 2010 she did her first DNA test — she has done three altogether — through National Geographic’s Genographic Project, which recently ended. After she received her results she took two trips “pursuing her own ancestral journey,” one of which was to Tuscany, where she did an artist residency.
There she created “Perilous Majesty,” an acrylic and collage on canvas. It is included in Wagner’s book as are other artworks she’s made following “Maiden Migrations.” She is highly interested in the similarity of artistic themes among different cultures and has documented them in her art and writing.
Focusing on similarity among people is important to her.
“I am African,” she states in her book. “I am an immigrant… I am Southeast Asian… I am Mediterranean…”
She writes about being an arrival: “As an immigrant myself, I intend to live with an open heart and mind, relishing the new perspectives each person offers me.”
Wagner sees a childhood move from a rural area in northern Illinois to an industrial town farther south as setting the stage for her own “nomadic lifestyle.”
For the first 30 years of adulthood, Wagner did a lot of volunteer work.
She travelled with “a kind of private Peace Corps” — The Institute of Cultural Affairs — and in India began what she calls “spontaneous journaling.”
“When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” I ask.
She knew ever since she was a child, she answers, but she needed to have something to write about first. Thirty years traveling the globe provided Wagner with that something.
At her home and studio, Wagner shows me an unfinished mandala painting. The outer “fire ring” is complete and she is working her way in. Teaching mandala workshops out of her house, she always makes one of her own alongside her students.
Working with a Tibetan Buddhist structure, Wagner says the fire ring always frames the inner circles. A brilliantly colored heritage mandala is framed on the wall in her living room. She made it after she received her DNA results. The paintings she does with her students are dream themed. People represent their dreams in the “narrative circle.”
Participants meet once a month, and the workshop lasts more than a year.
“It’s a journey,” Wagner says.
Wagner is small in stature but laughs big. She sees the book, her life — all of it — as being part of her journey: the myriad migrations since Mitochondrial Eve, her personal ancestry, 30 years on the road, the passion for writing and the relatively recent (since the early ’90s, after her volunteerism) art practice.
Seed of Imagination is published through BookBaby and is available through Amazon. You can also find it at Seattle’s Fountainhead Gallery, where Wagner shows her art, and at Tsunami Books in Eugene.
What does Wagner want us to get from the book?
She’d like to encourage people to find their own ancestral journey. She thinks such a journey might help us to see — as it did for her — that we’re all in this together.
We all have one mother.
Catch Lidoña Wagner reading from her book, along with “earth songs” by Kathy Marshall, 5:30 to 7:30 pm Thursday, March 12, at Tsunami Books, 2585 Willamette Street.