GLIMPSES OF THE WORLD THROUGH AN ARTIST’S EYES*
18 DECEMBER 2021
Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 24" x 48", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1962, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
I post something in remembrance of my father this time of year. He died Christmas day 2013.
Included here are several bold paintings of his with lay commentary from a son whose father strongly discouraged his children from becoming artists. Of his children I most heeded his advice
Of his few self-portraits, the one above is my favorite. It hangs in a bedroom at my brother Rob’s house in rural Washington, on the west side of the Cascades along the banks of the Skagit River, where he and my mother lived for the last stretches of their lives, very near where they both are buried. He found beauty in most things, subjects others often found mundane, drab, or even unsightly. In lush northwestern Washington he could not have escaped beauty had he tried.
Dad didn’t verbalize much. When he did say something, it was usually poignant and succinct. Through realism, impressionism, and abstraction, he became more and more unabashed in communicating and revealing himself and his evolving struggles. He taught his children through visual example that every concept and conflict was worthy of robust examination.
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, sometimes subtle, often abrupt. 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 complicated. I have no explanation for its evolution or why Richard chose to revisit this painting. I speculate that as he gained greater insight into Renee’s growth, depth, and complexity, he grew dissatisfied with what, to his trained eye, was its conceptually opaque composition.
The Quest, Oil on Canvas, 31.5" x 24", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Renee was the subject of many of Richard’s paintings. This one, suggesting a “long or arduous search for something,” while beautiful remains a mystery to me.
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 more than a depiction of pure motherhood. It reveals Renee’s candor, comfort, and selective defiance of authority and patriarchy. Renee did not breastfeed her first three children. She began with Rob. Breastfeeding during that era, 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, 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 life drawing classes which employed undraped models). Renee became a militant breastfeeder. She breastfed wherever necessary, convenient, or to make a point, including in church, especially in church, in your face, often but not always with a blanket for cover.
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.
You see, my parents together 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 purport to change immutability and thereby destroy 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 which, from her vantage, were many. Indeed, she and my father provided a well-intended but imperfect sanctuary through Family Fellowship for Mormon members of the LGBT community to help bridge an untraversable expanse. 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. Please don’t misunderstand. When he passed on Christmas 2013, he remained in the faith, albeit somewhat wiser.
Christy, Oil on Panel, 24" x 18", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Jillian Cambridge**
I recently posted about my sister Christy. She passed away suddenly in August this year. Her children are planning a weekend of celebration for January, complete with a traditional Navajo sweat lodge, which I’ll be attending at their gracious invitation.
Our father’s advice not to become artists was informed by at least two underlying themes. First, earning a living for most artists is difficult. Second, tied to the practicality of the first is the more complex struggle among motive, meaning — both extrinsic and intrinsic, relevance, purpose, self-definition and -determination, external influence, and value. He never solved the problem but reconciled with himself that the tension enriches the experience and, with few exceptions, the product. In the end, he erred on the side of self-reflection and -determination as his art revealed highly personal and intimate growth and introspection.
A couple more paintings of his children:
Kelly and Nick, Oil on Canvas, 66” x 47”, Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa. 1977, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Morning Flight, Oil on Panel, 32" x 48", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
*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. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November 17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists is not, however, for the faint of heart.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. 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 artwork. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers.