CHRISTMAS DAY FIVE YEARS AGO
Richard J Van Wagoner
Those who follow my blog know I exploit my father's absence. Always filled with Christmas surprises, he died five years ago today. I have invited him to visit me from the dead to object to my featuring his art as part of my blog and revoke the license his estate gave me. So far he approves, I suppose. Until that visitation, I hope my writing complements rather than sullies his work. Unless I quote from him, the words are mine, not his, and any interpretation of his work I may suggest is just that, a suggestion. I am presumptuous enough to believe he would mostly approve of my combining his work and my words, even if he disagreed with my point of view. That I think is more important than what I think.
Everybody’s dad did something for a living. Evan’s dad was an architect. Scot’s dad sold Electrolux vacuums. I had no idea what the other Scott's dad did, except coach baseball and fish. Mike and Mark's dad taught high school science. Steve’s dad did something “civilian” at Hill Air Force Base. Kevin’s dad sold guns at a sporting goods shop. My dad painted pictures. He taught others about painting pictures at Weber State. He was extraordinary but I had no capacity to understand or appreciate it. Dad died just shy of his 82nd birthday on Christmas day 2013. At 60 I am beginning to understand and appreciate what a remarkable gift dad was and gave and continues to be and impart to the world. He explored and interpreted the world with expanding conceptual and visual wisdom. His evolving talent was borne of and sustained with deep introspection and a relentless struggle for meaning.
Dad often discouraged us from choosing art as a profession. While he knew I was safe from that life of struggle after taking his basic drawing class, his advice, I believe, was informed by at least two underlying themes. First, earning a living can be difficult. Second, tied to the practicality of the first is the more complex struggle between and among intrinsic and extrinsic meaning, relevance, purpose, self-definition and -determination and external forces, art for the sake of art, art for public consumption, art to educate, art as political statement, art . . . . He never solved the problem except to concede the tension enriches the experience and, with few exceptions, the outcome. In the end, he erred on the side of self-reflection and -determination as his art revealed highly personal and intimate growth and introspection.
Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 24" x 48", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1962, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust*
Among my earliest memories is dad’s conversion of the attached garage into a studio at the 6th Street house in Ogden, Utah. He replaced the south-facing garage door with a horizontal sliding glass door. He constructed large plywood shelves with high, thin vertical spaces for painting storage. He built an adjustable art table using a wooden door which he hinged horizontally, about chest high, to the east wall next to the plywood shelves and linked hanging chains to bolts that extended from the outside corners. He hung florescent lights from rafters. He installed a tall, thin electric heater between the shelves and hanging table for the winter, and protected the exposed plywood next to the heater with a slab of asbestos. He attached particle board on the west wall for hanging hand tools from various-shaped metal hooks.
We used a square-mouth shovel, brooms, brushes and rags to clean the cement floor of the thick layers of oil, dirt, oil-soaked sawdust and “cat-sand” that had accumulated over the years down the center of the garage floor. Dad was unhappy that my friends and I could not rid the floor of all oil stains, even with copious amounts of gasoline as a solvent. He gave it a try, without much more success.
His studio was strewn with easels, small tables on rollers, metal tool boxes, surplus military ammo- and fishing tackle-boxes filled with metal tubes of paint, quart-size wide-mouth bottles jammed with brushes and oily rags, palates with gobs of oozing paints in various stages of hardness, plastic buckets for water, sponges, cans of thinner, stand-alone lights, a wooden box-set of drawers for cataloguing his hundreds of slides, step ladders, a screen and slide projector, and saw horses, power saws and routers. The studio doubled as his work shop for framing and cutting mats, along with general carpentry, rough and otherwise.
He built a sculpture-stand that occupied the north end of the studio, near the swinging screen door that led to a small patio and into the back yard. With about 18 inches of concrete he cemented a six-inch metal pipe vertically into the center of a metal garbage can as the base, and bolted a three foot square table-top to a flange at the other end of the pipe. The table top was of three-foot lengths of pine 2 x 4 with the four-inch sides standing upright and glued and bolted together. Dad purchased about 20 different types and sizes of wood chisels and carving tools and rasps, along with several sizes of wooden mallets. The owner of a local orchard delivered a large cherry stump to the front of the garage in a small front-end loader. Dad somehow maneuvered that stump into his studio and up and onto the sculpture-stand where it stayed for the next ten years or so. He spent much of what little spare time he had chipping away at that stump, turning it into a strangely dark erotic sculpture of four intertwined figures in agony and death. He sometimes listened to an AM radio which, over time, became a boom box, FM and cassette tapes.
On a Saturday, I’d watch dad prep his watercolor paper by taping its perimeter to discolored, water-warped plywood, quarter inch, and “wash” the paper with clear water using a sponge, a real one from the ocean. He would prepare two or three at a time. Once the paper dried, at least over night, it was ready. Or, I’d watch him begin and complete a watercolor in one sitting, usually a landscape and usually a wet-wash. Sometimes he’d prepare a canvas, a more complex task that required a wooden frame he would build and dress with cloth, staples and coats of white base to stretch and seal the canvas. Or I’d watch him hone, with hammer and chisel, the sinewy limbs of skeletal figures as they dragged the weeping woman and her partner to further despair.
His relationship with the sculpture grew sour. He dismembered the figures with a saw. Only a few pieces survived the fire.
My father had two masters degrees, at the time terminal degrees in his areas of specialization, studio arts and printmaking, from University of Utah and Utah State University respectively. He taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate subjects which included demonstrations from time to time. He often conducted demonstrations in the classrooms at the Art Department, but sometimes he'd escort a group of students to some scenic area, carting along a stool, paints, brushes, a jug or two of water, rags, a board with watercolor paper and an easel. The students would stand in a half circle behind him and, with some skepticism, watch for the next couple of hours as he sketched an outline of the subject matter with pencil and then applied paint.
Sometimes the subjects weren't all that scenic to the lay eye. The result of one such demonstration, among my favorites of his watercolors, is below. When I graduated college he asked which painting I wanted as a gift and this is what I chose.
Untitled, Watercolor, 19" x 21", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1980, Courtesy of Helen Bero-Van Wagoner and Richard A. Van Wagoner**
Together my parents embarked on a transformational journey. My youngest brother’s private barter with god hadn't worked: he returned from his Mormon mission just as gay as he’d left. Recognizing the truth in this truth, my parents engaged in an advanced form of self-directed conversion therapy, not calculated to change their son but to exorcise from themselves the received homophobia fueled by procreation theocracy and sectarian over-againstness. They, not their son, would become the converted. Richard and Renee renounced ex-gay Mormon ministries. They vowed their son mustn't be encouraged to identify as or be converted to un-gay. Renee compartmentalized sexual orientation from the other Mormon abominations. Indeed, she and my father provided a well-intended but imperfect sanctuary through Family Fellowship for Mormon members of the LGBT community. Renee passed away in March 2016, having "endured to the end," convinced the Mormon Church got everything right except one. In contrast, Richard was more broadly destabilized by the religious and social hostilities surrounding his son’s gayness. He entered a period defined largely by that disorientation. Don’t misunderstand: when he passed on Christmas 2013, he remained in the faith, albeit somewhat wiser. Richard's first of many pieces from that period:
In Search of the H Gene, Watercolor, 48" X 36", 1994, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust
In Search of the H Gene was included in Watercolor Now, the 1993 Fourth Biennial Exhibit of the Watercolor USA Honor Society in Salt Lake City, an exhibition at the Salt Lake Art Center. Given some of Richard’s writings on the subject, I believe the painting is a visual expression of the beginning of his mourning process, his deconstruction and efforts to rebuild those portions of his belief system he came to understand were deeply flawed.
Dad didn’t verbalize much. When he did have something to say, it was usually poignant and succinct. He became more and more unabashed in communicating and revealing himself and his evolving struggles through realism, impression and abstraction. He taught his children through example that every concept and conflict was worthy of robust examination.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com