A PORTRAIT OF A FATHER AS AN ARTIST

My father would turn 85 on March 14, 2017. Rather than discuss politics, geopolitics, the existential crisis or the Chaffetz Embarrassment 1/435, I dedicate this post to my father. I will dedicate a future post to the extended period in which he centered his work in American urban realism.

This early self-portrait is included in a previous post, Apocalypse Soon, lastamendment.com (iii). I republish it here.

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 24" x 48", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1962, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**

For those who follow this blog, you realize I am exploiting my father’s absence. He cannot object to my displaying his art unless he visits me from the dead and revokes the license I received from his estate, something I welcome. Until then, 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, however, 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. Scott’s dad sold Electrolux vacuums door-to-door. I had no idea what the other Scott’s dad did except he coached our little league baseball team which was what I cared about. Steve’s dad did something civilian at Hill Air Force Base. Kevin’s dad sold guns at a sporting goods store. My dad painted pictures. He taught others how to paint pictures. He was an art professor at Weber State College (later University) for some 40 years but continued to teach and paint after taking emeritus status. Within months of his death he expressed his belief that his most important work was ahead of him.

I had no capacity to appreciate my father’s talent. He died just shy of his 82nd birthday on Christmas day 2013. At 58 I am only beginning to understand and appreciate his important legacy. He explored and interpreted the world with expanding conceptual and visual wisdom. His evolving talent was borne of and sustained with a relentless struggle for meaning, a strong sense of empathy and a fair dose of skepticism which grew as his world turned from black and white to gray.

In earlier posts I published a few pieces of his work. I reproduce some of them below.

Untitled, Watercolor, 21.5" x 29", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1970, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust, published in lastamendment.com (viii) (TRUMP REVERSES BEARS EARS!)

Untitled, Oil on Masonite, 22" x 28", Richard J Van Wagoner, 2010, Courtesy of Stephen C. Clark, published in lastamendment.com (viii) (TRUMP REVERSES BEARS EARS!)

Galileo’s Recantation, Watercolor, 42" x 51", Richard J Van Wagoner, 1995, Courtesy of Angela Moore, published in lastamendment.com (ii) (MONDAY NIGHT MASSACRE)

La Femme Qui Pleure Two-and-a Half, Oil on Masonite, 48" x 20", 1993, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Helen Bero-Van Wagoner and Richard A. Van Wagoner, published in lastamendment.com (vii) (PENCE: “‘CHOICE’ IS NOW LIMITED TO VICTIMS OF LEGITIMATE RAPE”)

Sheparding, 46.5" x 36", Oil on Canvas, 1999, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust, published in lastamendment.com (iv) (PENCIVE TIMES: “MAKING AMERICA STRAIGHT (OR AT LEAST CLOSETED) AGAIN”)

In Search of the H Gene, Watercolor, 48" X 36", 1994, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust, published in lastamendment.com (iv) (PENCIVE TIMES: “MAKING AMERICA STRAIGHT (OR AT LEAST CLOSETED) AGAIN”)

Touring Silicon National Park, Oil on Canvas, 48" x 32", 1999, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust, published in lastamendment.com (viii) (TRUMP REVERSES BEARS EARS!)

My father discouraged his children from choosing art as a profession. After I took his basic drawing class, he knew I would heed his advice. That advice, I believe, was informed by at least two underlying themes. First, earning a living for many artists, most artists, is difficult. Second and tied to the first is the more complex struggle between and among intrinsic and extrinsic value and meaning, self-definition and external influences, art for the sake of art, art for public consumption, art to educate, art as political statement, art as a commodity, art as . . . . He never solved the problem except to concede the tension enriches the experience.

Among my earliest memories is dad’s conversion of the attached garage into an art studio at the 6th Street house. He replaced the south-facing garage door with a horizontal sliding glass door. He constructed large plywood shelves with tall, thin, vertical spaces to store paintings. 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. He could adjust the height and angle of the table with two heavy chains he bolted to the wall by linking the other ends of the chain to bolts that extended from the table’s outside corners. He hung florescent lights from rafters. He installed a tall, narrow electric heater between the shelves and hanging table for the cold months, and protected the exposed plywood next to the heater with a slab of asbestos board. He attached pegboard on the west wall for hanging hand tools from various oddly shaped metal hooks.

We used a square-nosed shovel, brooms, brushes and rags to clean the cement floor of the thick layers of oil, dirt and oil-soaked sawdust 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 the oil stains, even with copious amounts of gasoline as 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 containers 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 mix and hardness, plastic buckets for water, sponges, cans of thinner, stand-alone lights, a wooden box-set of drawers for cataloging his thousands of slides, step ladders, a screen and slide projector, saw horses, power saws and routers. The studio doubled as his work shop for matting and framing paintings, along with general carpentry, rough and otherwise.

Many people knew he was a painter, but few knew he also “threw pots.”

And he sculpted. He built a sculpture-stand that occupied the north end of his 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 constructed of three-foot lengths of fir 2 x 4, with the four-inch sides aligned 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.

In a front-end loader the owner of a local orchard delivered a the stump from a large cherry tree with thick protruding branch stubs. Dad somehow maneuvered that stump from the front of the garage 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 sculpture of four intertwined figures.

On a Saturday, I’d watch him 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 overnight, it was ready. Or, I’d watch him begin and complete a painting in one sitting, usually a landscape and usually a wet-wash watercolor. 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 Gesso to stretch and seal the canvas. Or I’d watch him hone, with mallet and chisel, the sinewy limbs of two skeletal figures that clung to a weeping woman and her partner in a fluid orgy of anguish.

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

My father didn’t verbalize much. When he did have something to say, it was usually succinct and poignant. But he became more and more unabashed in communicating and revealing himself and his evolving struggles through realism, impressionism and abstraction. He taught his children through example that most every concept and conflict is worthy of robust examination. Over time his rigidity in a received belief structure loosened, resulting in consideration and internalization of a deeper and more personalized code.

*My brother the fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to lastamendment.com. To his credit Robert did not follow my father’s advice.

**My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed nearly 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 lastamendment.com are hers.