By Joanie Juster–

Leslie Ewing’s resume reads like a roll call of activism and social justice movements of the past four decades, with leadership roles at NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, AIDS Emergency Fund, Breast Cancer Emergency Fund, Under One Roof , Lyon-Martin Health Services, 1993 March on Washington, Queer & Present Danger, the Marriage Equality Movement, the Pacific Center for Human Growth, the National AIDS Memorial, and more.

And all the while, as she led movements and guided nonprofits, she drew cartoons that reflected the times and the communities in which she lived and worked.

Now, for the first time, she has mounted a public exhibition of her cartoons, at the Rockridge Café in Oakland until October 26. Created over a period of nearly four decades, the exhibition consists of more than three dozen cartoons that capture the spirit, challenges and quirky humor of the era. Its cast of characters chronicles the political activism that has driven Ewing’s life, while exploring both the humor and humanity found in movements around sexuality, gender, race and social justice.

Raised in Orange County, Ewing said she started drawing in elementary school. “As Pete Seeger once said, ‘Plagiarism is the root of all creativity!’ I first learned by tracing characters in coloring pages or comics, then modifying them slightly to create new ones, then I invented stories and “illustrated” them.

She then studied art design at Occidental College and UCLA, working her way through school in the shops of Disneyland. Her design background has taken her to merchandising design, product selection and visual presentation, and for over 20 years she has consulted for theme parks and attractions and represented manufacturers. While living in Nevada, she canvassed to promote the passage of the ERA. Moving to northern California, coming out and falling in love with Rebecca LePere, who became his partner for 20 years, were all part of a life-changing journey that led to increased participation to militant movements. Moving to the Rockridge district of Oakland at the start of the AIDS crisis, they saw a growing awareness of the need to render service, but they did not know anyone with the disease. As Leslie recounts, Rebecca asked, “Whose fault is that?” We need to stop waiting for an invitation and introduce ourselves!” And so they began to appear.

Training in civil disobedience, then volunteer work, led to leadership positions in movements and organizations. Ewing became known for her effective and strategic leadership skills, guiding with a steady hand, her drama-free demeanor, and her focus on the mission. And throughout it all, she continued to chronicle the era in her cartoons. Even in the most difficult times – losing friends to AIDS, Rebecca’s death from breast cancer in 2001, and Ewing’s own battle with cancer – Ewing continued to draw.

She told me for the San Francisco Bay Times“Those of cancer are powerful because cancer is powerful, I guess. And, these cartoons aren’t afraid to poke fun at cancer. Cancer is something that affects most of us in one way or another and we shouldn’t be afraid of it, even though it can kill us. Matt Sharp once said to my partner Rebecca, “Hit hard and hit early! when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Ten years later, while doing chemo and radiation for uterine cancer, I took my iPad to treatment and sketched while I joked around with the nurses watching over me. Humor was my contribution to the treatment plan.

Ewing’s work has been featured in community outreach literature and in local publications, including this publication, the San Francisco Bay Times; The Sentinel; and New lesbians. He has also been featured in numerous underground commixes and community-oriented anthologies. In 2015, she collected her favorites from the start with a sequential story called It’s getting bitter (available on their website). She is now (very) casually working on a follow-up that reflects her status as an elder, It gets brittle. The timing of the current show is largely the result of time off during the COVID isolation. “I kind of started thinking about it in terms of ‘If not now, when? I am 73, after all,” she said. “It’s the first time I’ve shown them and I see it as a learning opportunity.”

Many of his fellow activists now write memoirs of their lives and times. When asked if she had ever considered writing a memoir, she said her cartoons were a testament to her life and work in activism. “The cartoons are my memories of many of our lives at certain times under certain circumstances,” she explained. “I think I have about 300 designs drawn between 1984 and today.” She added that the need to keep the wording brief in cartoons provides a discipline that helps refine and focus its message.

Ewing’s cartoons can be viewed at the Rockridge Café during business hours, 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. daily through October 25. It is located at 5492 College Avenue, a few blocks from the Rockridge BART station. She announced her intention to be at the cafe every Saturday during the show’s broadcast around 1 p.m., to greet viewers. For more of his work: www.leslieewing.com

Joanie Juster is a long-time community volunteer, activist and ally.

Posted on September 22, 2022