A PORTRAIT OF A MOTHER AS AN ARTIST’S MUSE
Renee, Oil on Canvas, 18" x 24", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1962, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Shortly after her nineteenth birthday Renee became the lifelong muse of a visual artist, her husband Richard. She passed on March 10, 2016, just shy of her 83rd birthday, May 7. Our family often celebrated her birthday and Mother’s Day together, the latter of which was all that mattered to her. Glimpses of her beauty, personality and character, and Richard’s interpretations of them, are revealed in art for which she was his fascination and a primary subject for over 60 years. She may protest my sharing a few of his paintings of her, so I extend her the same invitation I gave my father: please visit me from the grave to voice any objections. She was not shy about sharing her opinions which were many and seldom in doubt. This early portrait of her could not be more descriptive.
Renee was the oldest of three children, a sister and brother. Her mother was a homemaker and sometimes substitute teacher in the Ogden City School District. As grandmother and substitute teacher Arlene Nelson Hodgson, a recent descendant of polygamous stock, was tough, short on patience, direct. Students of teachers for whom she substitute taught always hoped for their teachers’ speedy return. I kept our relation from my classmates. When she substitute taught my classes, Arlene didn’t let on to avoid the appearance of favoritism and I didn’t let on to avoid the ridicule of my classmates. Renee’s father Robert Hodgson was an architect. I knew him more as a sportsman and “gun” collector who owned more than 100 firearms by the time he passed away, possessions he cherished as beautifully machined works of art. Many were engraved prototypes from Browning Arms, a Utah company just up the canyon. Renee grew up in a home where meals of wild duck, pheasant, goose, grouse, venison, elk, trout, walleye, were common. Growing up in and around this environment Renee was never squeamish, although her inexplicable fear of spiders was notorious. While not her preference, Renee could bait a hook, gut a fish, clean a duck. One time she donned rubber gloves and took a putty knife to the crisped kittens that had climbed onto the metal plate at the bottom of the water heater to get warm. When Rob had pet snakes and lizards of various types and sizes, she loved them, held them, fed them mice and rats and crickets and nursed them to health from time to time.
Renee in the Park, Oil on Canvas, 49" x 66", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1980, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Renee was organized, goal-, schedule- and agenda-driven, verbal, prompt, precise, busy, well-read — qualities she worked to instill in her children. She kept the family finances, budgeted, paid the bills, reconciled to the penny, worried over money on an art professor’s salary, kept the kids on schedule. Saturday mornings she prepared “chore lists” for each of her children commensurate with their ages and abilities. We dreaded them as we were not released from hard labor until we checked off each item and she verified, to her satisfaction, the completion and quality of the work. In the beginning this ritual left us little time with friends. Efficiency was a skill we learned quickly.
Renee committed her life to family, faith and the outcast. She had the capacity and courage to set aside those portions of her faith that came in conflict with her commitments to family and others, especially those she viewed as vulnerable. She bore five children, two daughters and three sons. She and Richard reared them within the Mormon community to which they devoted their time, energy, money and beliefs until the end of their lives. Church every Sunday. Family Home Evening every Monday. Primary and MIA (Mutual Improvement Association) on Tuesday. Tithing on gross income, including one penny for every dime I received for clipping the grass. Monthly fast offerings for the poor. Supper together every evening preceded by kneeling family prayer for which we each took our turn. Nothing short of Eagle Scout awards (largely earned by her) and missions for the boys. Renee took every opportunity to share her certain knowledge about Mormonism, the eternal truths and direct access to the mind and will of God to which Mormon leaders had an exclusive line.
Untitled, Oil on Masonite, 19.5" x 14", circa 1971, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust
This painting of Renee and her youngest child Nick is, in my view, more than a depiction of motherhood. It reveals Renee’s candor, comfort, selective defiance. Renee did not breastfeed her first three children. She began with Rob in 1964. Breastfeeding during the 60s and early 70s, as now in some intellectually challenged circles, was tolerated only in private. Renee did not suffer well those who feared or shunned the sight (or idea) of breasts in this context, those who feared some moral contamination of themselves, their children or husbands, those who considered breastfeeding somehow sexual, unnatural or uncivilized, or something that must remain out of sight. She was, after all, married to an art professor whose reverence for the human form and condition manifests in his artwork and teaching (as a professor he often taught the Life Drawing courses which employed undraped models, both men and women). Renee became a militant breastfeeder. She breastfed wherever necessary or convenient, including in church, especially in church, “in your face, your problem not mine,” often but not always with a blanket for cover.
Untitled, Oil on Masonite, 35" x 46", Richard J Van Wagoner, 2013, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Over a couple of decades Richard decided this painting was “finished” before returning to make changes, often abrupt, sometimes subtle. This final iteration which he completed only months before his passing is in dramatic contrast to earlier versions and from my lay eye appears considerably more complex. I have no explanation for its evolution or why Richard chose to revisit this painting in particular. If Richard visits me from the grave, I’ll ask him. One guess is that as he gained greater insight into Renee’s growth, depth and complexity, he grew dissatisfied with its composition.
Her evolution is perhaps best exemplified by her response to her youngest son’s coming out. I explained in a prior post my brother’s private barter with god. It didn’t work, meaning 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. This commitment to her son and the exceptional proficiency with which she compartmentalized were fully realized in the dismay she expressed because my fiancé and I were living together without the benefit of marriage. When we pointed out that Nick and his partner lived together without the benefit of marriage, she retorted that they had no choice because neither the state nor the church permitted them to marry. She and my father made their home a well-intended and well-attended sanctuary for Mormon members of the LGBT community through Family Fellowship. When their son was subject to “excommunication” or “disfellowship” by that loving Church Court, Renee and Richard appeared as witnesses, testifying on his behalf, informing those lay clergy, among whom my father had previously served, that the Mormon Church had gotten this one wrong — that their son had not made a choice to be gay, and that their son, who was extraordinarily gifted, brilliant, compassionate, giving and loving, was entitled to the same fulfillment these church judges enjoyed via love, companionship, and sexual experience and expression.
Taking a Trip with Renee, Oil on Masonite, 24" x 32", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1990, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
And, finally, Renee, who could not sit still, did not travel well by car.
*My brother the talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to 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 lastamendment.com are hers