Jim Wagner has survived a decade of travail--a conviction for aggravated assault, the violent death of his teenage son, bouts with alcohol--and prevailed. Through the turbulence, art has been his constant boon companion. It has served as a balm, an outlet for his grief, a direct connection with his unconscious, an activity to occupy his hands and his mind.
His work has covered a broad range of subjects and media, from painted, antiqued furniture, to decorative ceramic wall lamps; from bright and gay oil paintings of pretty ladies in New Mexico landscapes, to wood constructions in handmade coffins that tread the terrifying, exhilarating metaphoric territory between new growth and the fresh kill. Sometimes the work has been good, sometimes okay, sometimes extraordinary. But he has never stopped working. Throughout, Wagner has exhibited a singular, individualistic style of rendering people, animals, and landscapes. Created with expressionistic, apparently quick gestures, every element in Wagner's art has personality. Fish think. Hills feel. Old adobe houses have personal histories.
With his big white beard, spontaneous and sanguine manner, Wagner seems at once older and younger than his 44 years.
Our conversation took place in his Taos studio, located in two bays of what was recently an auto repair shop. A score of brightly painted trasteros--yellows, pinks, greens--made the space fairly bounce. Saws and sanders stood here and there, oil paintings were stacked against walls and hung over broken windows. This was surely a work place, and we felt the artist on a tear, ricocheting with confidence from project to project. Just prior to our arrival, Taos artist Earl Stroh had stopped by for a visit. Wagner was excited about their meeting.
Tell me about Earl Stroh's visit.
Well, I got back into painting with oil about six months ago, after two years of not painting. I'd been painting on furniture, but that was all. So I started thinking that I wanted to get serious about oils. I've always been afraid of them. Over the years I've sold them all, and at reasonable prices, but I never felt satisfied with them. I've worked with Earl before, years ago. I really respect him. I hadn't seen him in a long time, so I called him up, and every once in a while he stops by and gives me a critique. The first time, he sat me down and said, "You've got to get away from the cutesy-pie stuff," the chickens and clotheslines, that kind of thing. "You've got a lot of serious stuff," he says, "and you're not lettin' it out. You're hidin' it with all the happy crap." And it doesn't have to be morbid. I needed to hear that, and I needed critiques on composition, which I'd lost working on furniture so long. But this is the time for the changeover. I've got the furniture thing covered.
But working with Earl...first of all, I'm complimented that he'll work with me. What he says is right, you just know. If you're going to paint in oils, you've got to work at it. Otherwise, it's like somebody said, it's like fast food. Fast art. I was falling into that trap, trying to do a painting a day. You can do that, and sometimes you get that first shot visually, but if you really look at it...
It doesn't hold.
Right. I want to take whatever time it takes to get it done.
What do you think you'll be painting in the near future?
I don't know. [Thoughtful pause] Let me show you a couple I've started. [He goes out to his truck and returns with three small landscapes.] I've been living in Ranchitos [just west of Taos], and it has this magnificent view, and I've been working off that. I'm concentrating on shapes and composition. First I have to get my act together, but what I'm after is that feeling of New Mexico, the real New Mexico. I also want a kind of realistic abstraction--it's a hard thing to explain. You look outside, and you see a house and a tree, and they're identifiable. I want to paint them totally different, but so you still can recognize them.
You've been through a lot of changes in direction during the ten years I've known you. You've done the paintings of beautiful women in fields of flowers, right through that very serious show of colored drawings after the death of your son...
Yes, that was about as serious as I've ever been. And then I did the show of frogs and watermelons. And it just went on. It's like those things just floated. Now, it's the oils. That's what I want to get serious about.
How did you happen to get interested in furniture?
Don Gardner [a Taos builder] brought these doors over to be decorated, and I really got into it. I've always loved the Spanish-American furniture, and I decided to take it a step farther, and I started making trasteros, then chairs and other things. It's a takeoff on the old styles, like a bit of history that never happened. People come in here, and the stuff looks like it's been around for ever. It's the antique everyone's always wanted to find, but it never was! I've done that on purpose. The best compliment I've had, someone said, "Boy, I bet you
You've painted animals on the furniture, flowers and some religious imagery, haven't you? Based on the old retablos?
Yeah, but now I want to get into some contemporary furniture designs, simple and easy to do. You know, things don't have to be hard to be good. But I want to stay with the furniture. I can't paint all the time, either. And this time of year, I have to fish, too,
You paint animals so often--what's your connection with them?
I worked on a farm as a kid, I've always liked chickens and ducks...and fish! I was out the other day, working this pool in the river near my house. This fish rose and he looked at me--huge! It's hard to get those big ones. I dropped my fly, and he just settled back to the bottom. All you can do is switch to the exact opposite fly. I did that, and I got really excited, and I flipped it out there, and it hooked on a branch above the pool. I jerked it off and it splashed. No way. I got to thinking about it at home, and I thought, hell, if I'd caught it, my fishing would have been over for the year. It was probably the biggest fish that had ever been in that part of the river! I've let some big ones go. There's a certain--I swear to God, Steve--there's a certain look in some fish's eyes. I get a little twitchy, and I let 'em go.
Do you fish a lot?
Yes, but it's slow now. You only get about a half hour a day because the water is real low. But the furniture's a good way to break up the painting. It'll take time to get everything working right, but this is the first time I've ever had a game plan.
How did you get involved with art in the first place?
In the third grade--I'll always remember this--I had a teacher who would come in on Fridays and teach art. One day, I was drawing the ballerina, and I got down to the bottom of the paper, and I had to bend her leg across. I asked the teacher about that, if it was all right to do that, and she said, "You can do anything you want to with that piece of paper." I'll never forget that. Then in the sixth grade, I hurt my knee and I had to stay in at recess, and they gave me some watercolors. I started to get a whole bunch of attention, and I got to go to college art classes. I took all the classes I could until high school--I didn't want the guys to know what I was doing. It was not cool.
I really got into it in college, at San Jose City College, which had a dynamite art department. My dad wanted me to be a teacher, I wanted to be an artist--I decided that in the sixth grade. I had a real flash. Agnes Martin was a good friend of one of the teachers in the elementary school, and she'd always come out here and visit Agnes Martin [who lives in Galisteo], so I always heard about her, living in mud huts and doing paintings in New Mexico. After two years of college, I decided if you want to be an artist, you've got to go where it's happening and do it. So I came out here and started doing it.
How old were you?
Twenty-two. That was 1962.
What was that vision you had in the sixth grade?
Well, it was more than just art. It was like a bright light. I had it happen to me once in prison, too. It was just like a bright light, inside your head, and it said, "Everything's all right. You can do anything." And that was the art thing.
Has it been hard, being an artist?
No. Looking back now, it seems that nothing's been hard. Isn't that amazing? I know I could have done it a lot easier. I was a drunk, but I came out of it. That sort of thing...it makes you appreciate things. It gives you a value system. I'm not bitter. Everything's easier, because I don't take things too seriously.
What do you attribute it to? Some people crumble, some don't.
I was way down, I hit bottom. I don't know what did it. Well, I do know that when I was in the detox center, I got down on my hands and knees and prayed, walked out the next day, and haven't had a drink since.
Maybe it was the vision in the sixth grade.
Yeah, it's faith. I knew everything was going to be all right.
How has Taos changed in the last 22 years?
A whole lot. The money thing.... People take money real serious! And the thing about fast food, fast art. There are some serious, heavy-duty artists here, but there's also a whole new group that's into the hype thing, and it's like the son will be able to take over the business when the father dies. It's produced like that. I want to do a cartoon--the artist has his arm around his son's shoulder, and there are all these canvases around and brushes, and he says, "Someday this will all be yours." What's going to happen--all these corporations got into buying art, and that set it off. Everybody went out and bought art, right, and they spent thousands of dollars on stuff that in, I don't know how many years, isn't going to be worth diddly-shit. It's going to be garage sale material. When that comes down.... Now, buying art is like the stock market. You buy Western art by the square inch.
[The sun was close to setting, and Wagner was fidgeting with a short length of leader he'd found in his pocket. We adjourned to the Rio Pueblo.]
This fly is a grasshopper. There are a lot of them jumping into the stream right now. Fishermen are more competitive than artists. I've got to be real careful about what I say. Don't tell anybody where we are.
[Throughout the balance of our discussion, Wagner worked a deep hole under a rock face, popping the fly onto the surface, letting it drift, whipping it off, dropping it back, without success.]
Have you got any advice for a young painter, fresh out of art school, who, like yourself, moves to Taos to become an artist?
Learn how to fish first, before you come. I spent a lot of time learning to fish here when I should have been painting. And bring your gear with you. If you're going to be an artist, you'll never afford the prices they charge for the stuff here. [We walked down the stream, and Wagner picked up a long flat rock and deposited it in his creel.]
What was that for?
My rock collection. Each time I fish, I pick up a rock. Someday I'm going to label them, "Found this rock on August 21, on such-and-such stretch of the river." I keep 'em in an old white case with a glass front. It's like each one is authentic, like it might be something important. Someone comes into the house and says, "What's this?" I say, "It was here when we moved in."