Triumph turns to grief

Artist Rory Wagner battled between brilliance and debilitating pain

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Rory Wagner was a self-taught painter of Taos with a photographic memory, inestimable talent and, perhaps, a tortured soul, all of which contributed to the phenomenal impact of his work.

After Wagner received the 2006 Governor's Award for excellence in the arts, one reviewer wrote that his style was reminiscent of early Dutch portraiture á là Vermeer.

"Vermeer, Caravaggio - there was such a brilliant side to him," said Wagner's former wife, Taos artist and gallerist of Studio 107-B, Máye Torres about her late ex-husband Rory Wagner.

Torres said it's taken years of dealing with the grief. Wagner died of a self-inflicted gunshot in 2010.

She went for grief counseling in Canada and ultimately moved to the West Coast for a while to avoid all the well-intentioned commiseration. "Everyone kept coming up saying, 'I'm so sorry … ' - all meaning well," she said, "but just bringing up the pain all over again."

Wagner was so brilliant, she said she's often wondered if creativity and madness went hand-in-hand.

"Or was it toxicity from the paint?" She still wonders. "He had to lick his brushes to get the effects he wanted," she said of his famous meticulous detailing; cadmium paint and others are notorious for heavy metal.

"But a doctor treating his broken back - seven crushed spinal vertebrae, probably from his seizures - said there was[sic] no heavy metals in his system," she said regarding a convalescence he was not supposed to recover from, much less ever walk again, during their two-year marriage. "But he did," she reports somewhat triumphantly, because she never gave up, and he participated to the point where he did indeed walk again, and he even started painting again.

Wagner suffered from an increasingly debilitating seizure disorder, Torres explained. He claimed he had some seizures since childhood, but they grew more devastating in the last years of his life. That, coupled with not taking his seizure and antidepressant medications, all compounded with severe alcoholism, seemingly put him on a path to ending it all.

""It wasn't just me who was traumatized and devastated," Torres said. "He had a big following of people who loved him - even though he could be a butt-head. He was a great, creative being, and sometimes he hated his talent. He didn't like the pomp and show that the artist has to put on about his work, like at openings."

"Your grief comes up because you care so much," she said. "When you've done everything you can to help that person, it still hurts."

Gallerist-artist and best friend Rob Nightingale found Wagner a few days after he died. He said it's taken a number of years to deal with it although it still haunts him. Mostly he says he's angry about it all.

"First it was shock and surreal for me," Nightingale writes in a text about Wagner's death. "Guilt. Anger. People assuming things about him and his death that weren't true. Trying to set things straight. Issues certainly came up personally and were kept down … a video goes off in my mind of that day when prompted. Not a good thought. I have my thoughts on why. I feel I understand and he's in a better place."

"Maybe this is some kind of closure," Nightingale said about the Taos Historic Museum benefit and sale of Wagner's work, hanging through Sept. 4 at the Blumenschein Museum gallery on 222 Ledoux St. "I was thinking about Rory, that he never had a museum show, and it's about time, dang it. No one's going to reach out and say, 'Let's have a show for Rory!' So that's how it happened."

Torres' backstory on how Wagner developed his hyperrealism was due, she said, to when he was stateside and scrounging for cash - that's when his real studies began. As part of the Rising Paper Co. family, Torres said Wagner spent time in Mallorca, Spain, then a hotbed of American and English expats, "surrounded by all these creative people on this fabulous island."

"He moved back to his birthplace, Florida; and then to Baltimore, Maryland, with a woman who supported him. He got this apartment in a black neighborhood and he had this huge Afro at the time, so he totally fit in - and a guy asked him to do forgeries of Rembrandt, Vermeer, all the greats - for $100 a piece. So he got paid to learn," Torres said, laughing at this ingenuity so typical of Wagner.

Son of World War II pilot Harry Wagner, Torres said Rory's father was very angry that Rory wasn't more athletically devoted. "But in fact, he entered the Olympics to compete in the butterfly stroke, but ultimately, he became a self-taught painter. He really loved to paint. He'd take six weeks to two months to do a piece."

Torres and Wagner challenged each other's artistic edge. "He called me Torres cuz he couldn't pronounce my first name!" she said, laughing. "He would get really pissed off at me for things I'd say about his work."

When asked to sum up his longtime friend in a quote, Nightingale recalled Wagner's famous self-deprecating humor. Wagner once told him, "I'm pedantic and insufferable. Ask anyone."

Nightingale said Wagner's passion for perfection often led him to destroy work, only creating six to 12 canvases a year of his signature larger-than-life quality.

"Each face demands your attention with those incredibly luminous eyes," Nightingale says. "Wagner's faces transcend the ordinary and explore the nobility of our human potential."

After the application of titanium white over multiple layers of sanded gesso, Wagner sketched his subjects onto canvases he stretched himself. He blended complex skin-tones by rubbing pigment into the canvas.

"He often joked that he rubs instead of painting," Nightingale said, adding that some people "accused" Wagner of airbrushing to get his effects.

"That used to make him furious when he heard that," Nightingale said, noting that Rory used small double-aught brushes to get the authenticity of beadwork and feathering. He said it took him hours and hours, day upon day, to complete every one of them.

Switching to indigenous peoples in the mid-'80s, Wagner researched in depth the smallest details, fascinated by the commonalities of tribes located thousands of miles apart in different regions of the world.

On the back of one painting, "The Myth of Lazarus," a 50-by-72-inch acrylic on canvas. Nightingale recorded Wagner's June 2002 comments about the piece, commentary typical of Rory's painting process:

"Let's see … about 20 years ago or so, R.C. Gorman and I met Buffy St. Marie and Russell Means (an Oglala Lakota activist for the rights of American Indian people) at (Gorman's) home-gallery on Ledoux Street in Taos. To say that Buffy was impressive would be an understatement. What an amazing and wonderful person she was! I have not seen nor heard from her since that day, which I regret sorely. Gorman and I found Mr. Means somewhat less than memorable; that is the kindest thing we could say concerning the man.

"I am still not sure of the context in which the subject came up, but Ms. Marie spoke of Lazarus and the myth that he should be the sole beneficiary of Jesus's mercy. She spoke words that sounded to me like a poem or song. Words that I found unforgettable and have been thinking about occasionally ever since: As the dark horse watched/ The beautiful man died./ As the painted crow watched/ The beautiful man arose/ Like Lazarus long before.

"Buffy St. Marie is a pureblood Cree from Canada. The young man in my painting is Plains Cree. There are differences, but I can consider them minor and secondary to the point. The bead patterns on the 'headstall' and breechclout are of Cree design (although subject to interpretation by the artist). The moccasins are Sioux, which would have been common among many Plains tribes. The hair-plates are copper discs. The various beads are trade, some Venetian, some Russian. The feather on the pony is from a morning dove. The crow's head is painted red (the color of power ) with white dots (hail marks)."

"So it's really important that people come see the caliber of art produced by Rory Wagner," said Taos Judge Ernie Ortega about his lifelong friend.

"I miss Rory's kind and gentle soul," Ortega said in a text. "But he was also fiercely independent and would not compromise on how he lived or died. I will give him a big hug on the other side. As for death itself, John Donne said it best," Ortega concludes: " 'Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and Dreadful, for thou art not so.' "

Wagner's dangerous moods and uncompromising integrity might have been difficult for art brokers while he was alive, but it adds more depth to appreciating the exquisite sensibility of his art, and that will live on forever.

An exhibition of works by Wagner titled "Traditional to the Obscure" opened Friday (Aug. 3). It is on view now through Sept. 4 at the Blumenschein Home and Museum, 222 Ledoux Street in Taos. The show is a benefit for the Taos Historic Museums. For more information, call (575) 758-0505 or visit taoshistoricmuseums.org.

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