Greensboro’s Ronda Szymanski cuts to the heart with her spirited collages
By Maria Johnson
Photographs by Amy Freeman
Anyone else would have seen the publication for what it was: a full-color arts and culture magazine packed with stylish fonts, catchy headlines, fetching photographs and comely advertising.
Ronda Szymanski saw that — and something else hidden in the pages: an angel.
An angel named Ariel. In a garden.
Szymanski (pronounced sha-MAN-ski) sketched her vision on a wooden panel, then flipped through the magazine and snipped the raw ingredients of the collage that resided, for the time being, in her head.
A smiling face.
A sandaled foot.
Folds of fabric.
A golden halo.
A pair of butterfly wings.
Clusters of roses.
Banks of greenery.
She pasted down the background first, then went to work on the angel.
But this was no pious affair. Szymanski punched up her heavenly hostess with clippings of words and images that blended from a distance and brought a smile upon closer inspection.
A whole fish and a close-up of a cat’s tongue tucked into the angel’s skirt.
A wee sketch of a cowboy hanging out by the roses.
A book slapped with the word “Gratitude”.
“It’s a go-with-the-flow process,” she says. “I can’t know what I need until I get there.”
In the end, Szymanski decided that Ariel — a figure from Christian and Jewish mysticism — was more holistic than holy.
“She turned out to be more of a faerie — whimsical and playful . . . Maybe she lost her religion,” Szymanski muses with a spritely smile.
At 55, she reads much younger than her age in her denim shirtdress and bright white Keds. Her frosted blonde hair is mostly contained in a top knot, but a few wisps have busted out — or been allowed to free-range — to frame an oval face set with blue-green eyes.
She’s a familiar sight in Greensboro art and civic circles. A Junior Leaguer, she has served on the boards of the symphony guild and opera company.
Others know her from her Greensboro business, Salt & Soul, a wellness spa that offers hydromassage (a massage chair filled with warm, pulsing water), an infrared sauna and halotherapy.
Trending around the country, halotherapy is the practice of going into a salt room or “cave” in hopes of boosting respiratory health.
“Halotherapy is used in medical centers in Eastern Europe for COPD, asthma and even cystic fibrosis,” says Szymanski, who launched her business in 2021, mid-pandemic, and rebooted with a second grand opening last month.
For halotherapy, Salt & Soul customers enter a white room that suggests a salt cave; Szymanski and her husband literally threw a fluffy salt-rich coating onto the walls to create the effect.
Then clients step over beds of pink Himalayan salt and recline in zero-gravity chairs.
“They’re like lawn chairs,” Szymanski explains. “They take the weight off your spine.”
Soft instrumental music plays. The lights are low. If customers want, they can cuddle with a soft blanket as they breathe aerosolized salt.
“I like to say a little blessing that people get what they need in the salt room,” Szymanski adds. “If that’s a nap, that’s OK.”
She displays a few of her collages at the spa. Following the salt theme, those works evoke the seaside. A Soft Landing is an abstract harbor scene, heavy on blues and whites with a wink of red.
“That’s to symbolize drama and passion,” says Szymanski. “It reminds me of the coast at the Mediterranean.”
She hopes to use her shop to exhibit the work of other artists, as well as her own not-so-beachy pieces, which she stows at her home, a ranch house on four acres near Summerfield.
Szymanksi leads the way to her basement sanctuary like a tour guide, weaving past pockets of the practical (bunk beds, old refrigerator, exercise equipment, her husband’s coffee roaster) and the meditative (candles, pillows, icons).
Szymanski’s tiny studio — where the cutting and pasting happens — is a collage itself, a salad of cork boards and finished works surrounding a folding wooden card table that she bought at Costco about 20 years ago.
The square surface has functioned, at various times, as kitchen table and dining room table. Now, it’s Art Central, layered with scraps of paper that Szymanski has snipped from a motherlode of city magazines stacked in a blue plastic bin.
“This is my palette,” she says with a wave of the hand. She is watched over by the kindly countenances of her subjects.
“There’s an elephant. There’s Gandhi. Here’s the Queen,” she says, picking up a portrait of the recently-deceased British monarch, who is vibrant in a fuchsia hat and suit.
The image appears to be painted, thanks to Szymanski’s skill at laying down snippets printed with various colors, textures and patterns.
Her first-ever work is propped nearby. It’s a solemn rendition of the Virgin Mary titled Joy of All Who Sorrow.
Szymanski did the piece in 2009, when she lived in Texas and worked as a life coach for a man with mental illness. They took an art class together at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The assignment was to make a collage. A fan of Byzantine icons — Szymanski and her husband, Chris, were married in an Eastern Orthodox Church — she choose the Virgin as a symbol of love and forgiveness. The work is grounded with hellish scenes and figures at the bottom. Higher up, Szymanski glued words of hope and direction.
“It’s the story of my life,” she says. “It was about healing and overcoming the sorrows of your past.”
Her classmates loved the work. Szymanski kept going. A piece called “The Fall” shows Jesus in the Garden of Eden, alongside Adam, Eve and the serpent.
Never mind the biblical timeline, she says, Christ represents the presence of God in the garden.
She entered the collage in a show, won a special merit award and collected a $250 prize.
“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I am an artist,’” she says.
Today, she finds inspiration everywhere, whether it’s in a book about iconography, in her backyard chicken coop or in her pen of Nigerian Dwarf goats.
Animal portraits are among her most popular works.
“I love nature,” says Szymanski, who was born on a dairy farm in rural Illinois. “I’m a Midwest farmer’s daughter.”
She also considers herself perpetually spiritual, but not necessarily religious.
“My religion is love, and my journey is to seek the path that will get me the closest to that,” she says. “It’s a long journey.” OH