COME HOME REVEREND ALBERT WAGNER
by Joseph Clark
Originally published in the CAN Journal
Rev. Albert Wagner believed in redemption. A minister and self-taught artist who began preaching and painting at age 50, he expressed this belief in both the form and material of his work. He proclaimed he had been called by God to turn away from sin and give moral and religious instruction through his paintings and sculpture. His depictions of biblical scenes, episodes from America’s tortured history, and confessions of his own shameful misdeeds all contributed to the challenging, prophetic vision Wagner believed it was his task to spread. His creativity and piety could not be untangled from each other. As his daughter Bonita Wagner Johnson said, “God and art saved Albert from a world of sin.”
Not only the content of his paintings, but even his materials expressed belief in transformative restoration. His sculptures were made from what he called “objects from the alley” — found objects which had been discarded or had outlived their original use. What might have been garbage was given elevated purpose in pieces like “A Black Cat Coming out of a White Bag,” in which a bowling ball bursts from a sack. It represents Wagner’s call to fearless, public testimony on behalf of the good and the right.
Wagner’s family, with assistance from the Northeast Shores Development Corporation, is attempting to establish a museum that would present his work and the story of his life. The proposed location is a foreclosed house on East 156th Street. Given the Reverend’s preoccupation with uplifting fallen things, it is perhaps appropriate the seat of his legacy might reside in a fixer-upper.
The three-story, white house is not very welcoming now. Its windows are drawn, and the front door is blocked by a sheet of plywood. A swing set stripped of swings stands guard over a back lawn which never received an autumn raking. Stray cats use the empty garage as a temporary shelter. However, steps are underway to turn the abandoned site into a living monument for the region’s most important outsider artist.
The property is one of three acquired by NSDC using a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace, a national partnership of creativity-oriented philanthropic organizations. The effort, along East 156th Street in Collinwood, is known as the “Lotus Project.” Its aim is to expand the neighborhood’s arts district by reclaiming abandoned properties.
Alenka Banco, NSDC’s business development specialist, said that NSDC currently serves as the museum’s fiscal agent, but it has always been their intention to hand the reigns over to the Wagner family. But before that can happen, Banco said she would like to ensure that the museum is sustainable. To that end, she connected the Wagner family to legal help working to structure and establish the museum as a legal entity–perhaps a non-profit, or a foundation. NSDC is also planning a fund drive.
Though Banco said it was too early to say how the drive would be conducted or when it would take place, she said that donations can already be made to Northeast Shores with “Wagner Museum” noted in the memo or paperwork.
Funding would help ensure that the house is up to code and support planning for how the museum’s space would be used.
But once this is done, organizers will be faced with the challenge of filling that space. Since Wagner’s passing, his work has been spreading away from Northeast Ohio. It had originally been planned that Wagner’s legacy would be kept where he made it, in his Lakefront Ave. home in East Cleveland. Before his 2006 death at age 82, he covered every wall from basement to attic with paintings. Its floors were covered with more sculptures than sticks of furniture. Even its exterior became an expression of enthusiasm with purple paint, found-object sculptures, and homemade signs reading “COME HOME ETHIOPIA” and “JESUS LOVE YOU.”
However, Wagner’s poor health in his final months prevented him from preparing a will, leaving his home vulnerable to liquidation. In 2012, Wagner’s children approached Gray’s Auctioneers to manage an estate sale. During that auction, according to Gray’s CEO Serena Harragin, 93 percent of a collection of 800 works from the home were sold.
ear the end of his life, the Reverend estimated he had made about 3,500 works; but now a comprehensive inventory is impossible. Even before Wagner’s death and the auction, his collection was in constant flux. Wagner often sold works right off the walls, and his longtime friend Gene Kangas, an emeritus art professor at Cleveland State University, recalls that most of the sales that he witnessed were undocumented.
Though collectors from around the nation and world bought Wagner’s work, most of his sales were to a small set of local buyers. The reverend’s work came to their attention by word-of-mouth referrals. His appreciators were not organized, and did not coordinate any sort of tribute after his death.
In 2008, One Bad Cat–Tom Miller’s documentary about the artist’s life and work–was greeted with generally favorable reviews. That same year, Banco curated an exhibit of Wagner’s work at her Convivium 33 Gallery. Since then, the larger Cleveland art world has periodically turned its attention back to Wagner, as when several of his works were included in a 2013 group exhibit on Rust Belt art at MOCA Cleveland.
Some of Wagner’s most important works are accounted for, but already claimed–such as those collected by Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, MD.
Wagner Johnson estimates that her family retains about 150 of her father’s works. Though many of these are sketches, some are significant autobiographical paintings, including “Those Last Days with Albert,” “Water Boy,” and his first work, “Miracle at Midnight.” Wagner Johnson said that it was too early to say which of the family’s works might be displayed at the museum, and which would be kept private.
She also said she would be willing to look beyond her family’s stores. The museum might request loans from institutions who have collected her father’s work, or even buy back major pieces, Wagner Johnson said.
Even though she wants to do justice to her father’s life story, Wagner Johnson said that it was not her plan to try to bring everything back. No single museum could possibly live up to Wagner’s hopes for his own legacy. He had wanted his art and its message of renewal to be planted “on the four corners of the Earth.”
Wagner Johnson recalls that during the auction, she was both sad to see the Reverend’s work scattered across continents, but satisfied to see it reaching more people than ever.
“It overwhelmed me of course, but the better part of me knew this was his dream,” Wagner Johnson said.
For Wagner, being able to connect moral, theological, or social ideas to the narratives of particular lives is what gave his work both artistic and vital power. For Wagner’s legacy to be transmitted without losing much of its original impact, it must be tied to the details of his life. The meaning of the art grows in the context of the artist’s biography.
“It was important that his art get out, and [that it] told a story that was important,” Wagner Johnson said.
Wagner Johnson said she, her father and her family all wanted the Reverend’s work to have both global reach and a local presence near his home. Creating a Wagner museum –if it becomes reality–is an opportunity to accomplish all that.