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    Political Cartoons of LGBTQ and Social Justice Activist Leslie Ewing on Display for First Time

    By Joanie Juster–

    Leslie Ewing’s résumé reads like a roll call of activism and social justice movements of the past four decades, featuring leadership roles at the 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 much more.

    And during all that time, as she was leading movements and guiding nonprofits, she was drawing cartoons that reflected the times and communities in which she lived and worked.

    Now, for the first time, she has mounted a public exhibit of her cartoons, at the Rockridge Café in Oakland through October 26. Created over a period of nearly four decades, the exhibit consists of more than three dozen cartoons that capture the spirit, challenges, and quirky humor of those times. Her cast of characters chronicles the political activism that has been the driving force of Ewing’s life, as well as exploring both the humor and humanity to be found in sexuality, gender, race, and social justice movements.

    Raised in Orange County, Ewing said she started cartooning in grade school. “As Pete Seeger once said, ‘Plagiarism is the root of all creativity!’ I first learned by tracing characters in coloring or comic books, then changing them slightly to create new ones. I would then make up stories and ‘illustrate’ them.”

    She went on to study art design at Occidental College & UCLA, working her way through school at Disneyland’s shops. Her design experience led to merchandising design, product selection & visual presentation, and for over 20 years she consulted with 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 her partner for 20 years, were all part of a life-changing journey that led to increased participation in activist movements. Settling down in the Rockridge district of Oakland at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, they found an increasing awareness of the need to be of service, but they didn’t know anyone with the disease. As Leslie recounts, Rebecca asked, “Whose fault is that? We need to stop waiting for an invitation & show up!” And so, they started showing up.

    Civil disobedience training, then volunteer work, led to leadership positions in movements and organizations. Ewing became known for her effective and strategic leadership skills, guiding with a firm hand, drama-free demeanor, and keen focus on the mission. And throughout it all, she kept chronicling the times in her cartoons. Even through the most difficult times—losing friends to AIDS, Rebecca’s death from breast cancer in 2001, and Ewing’s own bout with cancer—Ewing kept drawing.

    She told me for the San Francisco Bay Times: “The cancer ones are powerful because cancer is powerful, I guess. And, these cartoons are not afraid to make fun of cancer. Cancer is something that touches most of us one way or another and we shouldn’t be afraid of it, even though it might kill us. Matt Sharp once told my partner Rebecca, ‘Hit hard and hit early!’ when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Ten years later, when I was doing chemo and radiation for uterine cancer, I would take my iPad to treatment and draw while I joked with the nurses who watched over me. Humor was my contribution to the treatment plan.”

    Ewing’s work has been featured on community outreach literature and in local publications including this publication, the San Francisco Bay Times; The Sentinel; and Lesbian News. It has also been featured in many underground commix and community-oriented anthologies. In 2015, she collected favorite ones from the beginning with a sequential narrative entitled It Gets Bitter (available on her website). She’s now (very) casually working on a follow up that reflects her elder status, It Gets Brittle. The timing of the current show is largely a result of having time on her hands during COVID isolation. “I kind of started thinking about it in terms of ‘If not now, when?’ I am 73, after all,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve ever shown them and I am treating it like a learning opportunity.”

    Many of her fellow activists are now writing memoirs of their life and times. Asked if she had ever considered penning a memoir, she said that her cartoons stand as her record of her life and work in activism. “The cartoons are my memoir of many of our lives at certain times under certain circumstances,” she explained. “I think I have around 300 cartoons drawn between 1984 and the present.” She added that the need to keep the wording brief in cartoons provides discipline that helps hone and focus her message.

    Ewing’s cartoons can be viewed at the Rockridge Café during business hours, 8:30 to 2 pm daily through October 25. It is located at 5492 College Avenue, just a few blocks from the Rockridge BART Station. She has announced plans to be at the café each Saturday during the show’s run around 1 pm, to greet viewers. For more of her work:

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

    Published on September 22, 2022