by Beverly Aarons
A faceless young woman in a white “number 3” jersey rests her unseen hand against her hip — behind her a running track fades into the distance. A large brimmed hat sits stylishly slanted on a church lady’s head, and a young girl lugs a book bag into a mysterious hallway — she’s flanked by a man wearing a white armband. These “Iconic Black Women’’ paintings by visual artist Hiawatha D., are just a few of many that greet visitors at the Wonder of Women Gallery (WOW) in Pacific Place shopping mall (600 Pine Street, 3rd Floor, Seattle, WA).
It’s a far cry from what the space used to be: A busy Victoria’s Secret filled with shelves and drawers of lingerie. Today, the space is airy, yet cozy and tranquil. There are plush sofas, candles, a fireplace, and the gentle sound of streaming water pulsating from the miniature waterfalls pressed against the walls and corners of the space. Photos of young, smiling Black women border a declaration: “Dear Sista, I see you.” And everywhere a visitor might glance, words of inspiration, encouragement, and reflection are found: “Black Love,” “Legacy,” and “What does Black love mean to you?”
For Veronica Very and Hiawatha D., the married founders and owners of WOW Gallery, Black love is standing in your personal power, knowing your worth, seeing yourself (and each other) for who you really are — in stark contrast to the distorted narrative pushed by mainstream society. WOW Gallery is a place where Black women can see themselves in the many images that line the walls of the space and where they can share (and bear witness to) their “stories of wonder.” Being seen is a foundational purpose of the gallery, Veronica said, because in their everyday interactions, Black women are often made invisible by casual assumptions others make about their lives. She shared the story of how she was “invisibilized” while working as an executive assistant organizing large delegations of women from all over the world. Other people didn’t try to connect to her. If they had questions, they didn’t ask her — even though she had the answers. It was as if she wasn’t there.
“You become a part of the decoration,” Veronica said. But she refused to spend any time trying to prove herself. “I don’t take a lot of time to convince people. I don’t preoccupy myself with that. I let them catch up.”
Veronica and Hiawatha grew up in Seattle. They didn’t know each other, but they both have firsthand experience existing as a Black person in a mostly white city.
Hiawatha was often the only Black kid in class in his West Seattle neighborhood. He didn’t have a single Black teacher from elementary through high school, but his artistic excellence made him visible despite the racism he faced. Classmates, teachers, family, and the wider community could see him as an artist. And that visibility and his artistic achievements earned him a spot at the prestigious Burnley School of Professional Art.
“I felt validated because I was going to this art school that was supposed to be one of the best art schools in Seattle, but I was still Black in that school, and I was different from all my white art classmates.”
Some of his classmates didn’t miss an opportunity to remind Hiawatha of that difference. When Hiawatha was around 17 or 18 years old, he was paired with a white student to draw each other’s hands. As they carried out the exercise, the student told Hiawatha that she thought his dark hands were ugly. There were other experiences like this — othering comments and expressed feelings of discomfort with his Blackness — even from people he had considered friends.
“They [white people] treated me different because I was Black,” Hiawatha said. “This is my experience being a Black person in a predominantly white city. White people don’t really consider you. They just want you to do what they want done. … That was a learning lesson for me as a young Black person — to know that it’s important for us to see ourselves, and me as the creator, me as the artist, it’s my job to produce those images of us.”
Today, he typically creates figures without limbs and/or facial expressions to “evoke conversation and questions … and create an invitation for introspection, provocation, healing, and transformation.”
Veronica sits in a chair across from Hiawatha. She plays footsie with his calves. Our conversation takes place in a small office in the back of their massive gallery and event space. There’s an artist-in-residence room, one office over. And across a narrow hallway are large storage racks that house an excess inventory of sweatshirts, books, and other products WOW sells.
Hiawatha and Veronica pointed out similarities in their life journeys: Both had 18-year marriages end in divorce, both are natural caretakers, and they share a lifelong passion for creating healing space for Black people — it’s the reason they get up in the morning. But their union in marriage and business almost didn’t happen.
In 2012, Veronica had a slip and fall that forced her to relocate to the Maryland area where she recuperated at a cousin’s home. And Hiawatha didn’t know it, but he was on a slow and steady march to death’s door.
“Dad, something’s wrong with you,” his adult son said while Hiawatha was visiting him in Portland. “You don’t look well.”
“That kind of hurt my feelings a little bit,” Hiawatha explained, but those words may be what saved his life. He had spent three years caring for his ailing mother, and then his sister, so any lethargy could have easily been attributed to the exhaustion the average caretaker might experience. But his son’s words pushed him to see a doctor.
When Hiawatha stepped into his physician’s office, Dr. Gray took one look at him and said, “Don’t go home, go straight to E.R.” She would later tell him, “When I saw you, you scared me. I thought you were going to die.” His kidneys were shutting down — he had diabetes.
It was a wake up call for Hiawatha — he had loved ones with undiagnosed diabetes who died quickly and unexpectedly despite seeming healthy on the surface.
Our conversation shifted gears. We inched closer to the moment they met and when the trajectory of their lives would shift.
It was October 2014 when Veronica arrived in South Africa — her first journey to the “motherland.” She would take walks on the resort grounds which had Italian-inspired art deco architecture — tons of marble, pools of water, and many garden fountains.
One day she arrived at an atrium which housed a large water fountain. The fountain’s water first poured into a small catchment then streamed through a narrow canal where it finally flowed into a much larger pool in the center of the atrium.
“I stood there in this narrow pool in between [the two spaces]. And the water, it represented for me the waters that we passed over to come to America,” Veronica said. “And what I saw was a connection between Americans and Africans, African Americans and Africans, and the water being like a bridge. And so what I knew was that instead of organizing delegations of women who didn’t look like me, I was supposed to organize delegations of African Americans and connect them to their ancestry and people who look like them and vice versa.”
That vision was the seed from which Wonder of Women International (WOW) would eventually be born — an organization designed to “create sacred spaces for Black women.” Veronica would go on to create “healing retreats and event experiences” across the United States and South Africa. And in 2016, two years after her vision in Africa, she would meet Hiawatha who was experiencing his own transformation.
“I won’t say I was in a sunken place, but I was in a stupor,” Hiawatha said. He had lost his mother’s home after her death and during his health and financial crisis, he was mostly focused on graphic design just to pay the bills. “I was definitely on the rebound trying to heal myself physically and mentally.”
He was living at his niece’s house in Renton, Washington, and working out of the garage when Veronica called. She needed a graphic designer for her branding consulting company and he needed the money — a perfect match.
“Weren’t you supposed to be here an hour ago?” Hiawatha said when Veronica arrived late for their first appointment.
Veronica chuckled as he recounted the story. Hiawatha had a traffic court appearance later that day and it was a long journey to get to Seattle by bus. He was going to be late.
“He left me in the driveway,” Veronica adds with a little smile, “and he just walked in the house.”
Hiawatha eventually went back to her, apologized, and explained why he was so upset. Veronica offered her own apology and a good reason for her tardiness — she was ministering to a friend whose son was murdered. He understood. She offered him a ride. And he opened up about his own struggles.
“He just downloaded his life,” Veronica said of their ride to traffic court and their happy hour conversation afterwards. “He shared about his past relationships. He shared about his journey. He shared about his children. So that’s kind of what happens also in my work. So it wasn’t so surprising for me.”
For his part, Hiawatha said that he had been “closed down” for a long time — after so many personal hurts in his own life. But he felt safe with Veronica, especially after she told him of her work ministering to those in emotional pain.
“She showed me that she was a good person,” Hiawatha said. “She was considerate, she was a community person, and she cared about more things than just herself.”
But there wasn’t a love match right out the gate — it was a slow burn. They worked on Veronica’s branding materials and Veronica’s budding vision for WOW which would eventually fully converge with Hiawatha’s fine art work.
There is some debate between them about when their relationship began to shift from business to friendship to romance. Had he given her an invitation to see his Black Love Collection at EMP (now MoPoP)? Veronica said, “yes,” but Hiawatha doesn’t remember it that way. Did love interest compel Veronica to invite Hiawatha to a rally in Portland for Black mothers who lost sons to violence? “It didn’t have nothing to do with interest,” Veronica insists.
But what is clear is that the rally allowed them to see each other in a fresh and tender light. “That was the first time I saw a tear come from Hiawatha’s eyes,” Veronica said. She had helped organize this rally for the same woman she had consoled the day she met Hiawatha for the first time. And Veronica’s speech at the rally moved him.
“When Veronica talks, she’s able to connect the physical and the spiritual,” Hiawatha said. “In her voice of compassion and passion, she’s able to touch a nerve. … I was moved because I do care about Black folks. … We need to be serious about us. We need to be concerned about us and we need to work with us.”
Wonder of Women Gallery is located at Pacific Place at 600 Pine Street, 3rd Floor Seattle, WA. Gallery hours are Thursday–Sunday, 12–7 p.m. Admission is $25.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article listed WOW Gallery as the “Women of Wonder Gallery.” This article was updated on 01/25/2022 with the correction that the gallery is actually called “Wonder of Women Gallery.” This article was also updated on 01/25/2022 to clarify that Veronica Very has created healing spaces just across the United States and South Africa, not in China as previously stated.
Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.
📸 Featured Image: Veronica Very reminisces about the many women she says received support and healing in the WOW Gallery space. (Photo: Beverly Aarons)
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