She was a Kansas housewife who fled a nasty marriage in Wichita, transferring in 1977 to New York Metropolis, the place she carved a Xanadu-like loft, together with a spacious artwork studio, out of uncooked manufacturing facility house on West thirty seventh Avenue. For the following 46 years, she lived in lease-regulated splendor and produced a physique of work that runs the gamut from the spiritual to the profane. In the future in 2015, the artist Robert Attanasio got here to her studio and mentioned, “Why aren’t you better known? You’re like Man Ray.” He dubbed her Girl Ray.
Her title is Sonja Wagner, and at age 85, she’s terminally sick with solely a short while to stay.
You’ve most likely by no means heard of Sonja, as a result of she flew under the radar, didn’t play the sport. Nor did she play effectively with folks she didn’t like, so if she didn’t such as you, you knew it. However she had her loyal patrons, company CEOs within the Midwest and elsewhere and native collectors in New York, who have been keen to pay generally as a lot as 5 figures for her work: summary puzzle work and metallic sculptures; her whimsical “Ruby Leggs” collection, a pair of vibrant crimson lips mounted on an extended pair of legs in excessive heels, gallivanting about New York; serene Buddhas and monks in saffron-coloured robes; and erotic work, impressed by 25 years as an artwork director for pornographic magazines, which is how she paid the payments between gross sales. That’s how I met Sonja — in 1984, once I was employed as an editor at Swank Publications.
Tall and redheaded, she wore the sort of trendy, vaguely avant-garde eyeglasses that made her look the half of an artwork director. On my first day at work, I noticed her standing in someone’s cubicle, explaining the intricacies of a format in a voice so loud and authoritative that I assumed she ran your complete division. However no, she was a freelancer and remained that method, refusing to ever go on employees and quit her independence. And she or he’d quickly be my artwork director for such distinguished fetish rags as D-Cup, Shaved, and Plump & Pink, money-cow males’s magazines that would offer us with a gentle revenue and cozy life as we pursued our outdoors inventive endeavors — till the enterprise started to break down within the face of free Web porn.
On her 81st birthday, someone requested me what Sonja’s secret was. “Drugs, booze, and cigarettes, as far as I can tell,” I mentioned.
It could be incorrect to counsel that the 15 years we labored collectively (and he or she turned often called my “office wife”) have been with out friction. There have been a quantity of years early on once I suppose we might have killed one another, given the chance. As gifted as she was as a graphic designer, Sonja was tough to work with. For one factor, she was dyslexic, which created a constellation of format points too quite a few to recount. (“No, Sonja, you cannot have text flowing from right to left.”) And she or he smoked weed like a Rastafarian, which regularly led to her misplacing essential components of the journal, comparable to the duvet photograph. She swears that one time I used to be so exasperated together with her I jumped into the air and did an entire 360.
However on this planet of “adult” magazines, hiring staff who carry out flawlessly will be an insurmountable problem, and administration was not going to get rid of someone with Sonja’s design abilities. And the writer, Charles “Chip” Goodman, an artwork collector, was a fan of her work, with at the very least one Wagner puzzle-piece paintings hanging amongst his Warhols. No matter her flaws, Sonja and I managed to get our magazines out on time, and because the years handed I grew extra appreciative of her abilities — as a result of in pornography, it’s the visuals that actually matter, and the typical Shaved reader most likely wouldn’t discover if textual content did circulation within the flawed path.
By the top of the ’80s, we’d by some means solid a friendship, and that was once I turned an everyday customer to her loft, a scene that might greatest be described as an ongoing bacchanal damaged up by New 12 months’s Eve events, birthday events, summer season solstice events, and dinner events, the place she served an array of creative gourmand meals from Midwestern to worldwide, together with dishes like bitter-cream mashed potatoes, spicy enchiladas, mussels in mustard sauce, and Turkish stuffed eggplant — in addition to tremendous-robust margaritas that ought to have include a warning label. (Sonja had been supplied work as a chef however wasn’t , preferring to cook dinner up an orgy format reasonably than her celebrated crème brûlée for a celebration of 10.)
Anytime I dropped by the loft, normally with a bottle of vodka, her favourite, there was one thing happening. You by no means knew who’d present up — actors, dancers, teachers, filmmakers, drug sellers, journalists — and what form of intoxicants they’d carry. We’d sit in her studio, surrounded by her paintings (at one level she was portray tornados, some of which have been used to embellish a home within the Showtime collection The Affair), and because the booze flowed and the joints, cannabis, and edibles have been handed round (her hash brownies have been well-known) we’d discuss into the night time. Sonja the octogenarian nonetheless partied like an 18-yr-previous. On her 81st birthday, someone requested me what Sonja’s secret was. “Drugs, booze, and cigarettes, as far as I can tell,” I mentioned.
After I was writing Beaver Avenue, my ebook concerning the porn trade, Sonja was the one “character” who insisted I take advantage of her actual title. She was proud of the best way she’d reworked the schlocky smut we’d created into tremendous artwork. In a single scene within the ebook, our writer, Chip, is critiquing a unclean-letters digest Sonja and I had simply completed assembling. As gross sales figures had confirmed repeatedly, readers wished tales about incest, and Chip demanded that there be a major quantity of such letters in every digest. On this explicit one, he didn’t perceive from the title, “The Mom Swappers,” that the letter concerned incest. What Sonja mentioned to him appeared to seize the essence of her persona: “Is something wrong, Chip, dear? Didn’t Bobby and I put enough incest into your filthy little book?” So did the malapropisms to which she was susceptible. “I went to the eye doctor yesterday and he didn’t find any guacamole,” she advised me one night time. “Do you mean glaucoma?” I requested.
In late 1992, Chip offered his porn mags to a New Jersey printer, who’d rapidly transfer your complete employees to Paramus and use the magazines as fodder to maintain his presses operating 24/7. Inside a matter of weeks, we realized we have been now not editors and artwork administrators. We have been as a substitute meeting-line employees cranking out probably the most dismal form of low-funds pornography at an more and more frantic tempo for a proper-wing bigot with an inclination to scream — he’d finally be sued for age and intercourse discrimination. Within the demoralizing environment of that office, Sonja and I bonded like troopers in a foxhole. My workplace spouse turned one of my closest buddies.
Although I fled Paramus after seven years, Sonja endured till 2009, when, at age 71, she returned to the loft to create artwork full-time. And now, in her closing days, although she calls herself “the dying idiot,” there’s no disappointment or remorse. “I had a good run,” she says.
That she did, and I used to be lucky to play an element. ❖
Robert Rosen is the writer of Nowhere Man: The Remaining Days of John Lennon. His newest ebook is A Brooklyn Memoir.
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