The soul of a five-year-old boy dwells within the body of a 79-year-old East Cleveland man, and together they create art from what others might call junk. The Reverend Albert Wagner claims that his child-like work is inspired by heavenly messages, but his themes are rooted in the real world. For almost three decades, Reverend Wagner has attracted international visitors to a museum filled with stories of hope and redemption. ideastream's David C. Barnett recently paid a visit.
Lakefront is a street like many in East Cleveland, lined with big, old houses that have been subdivided into multiple family dwellings. But one home immediately grabs your eye: The striking three-story structure is adorned with bright colors, religious symbols, and other cryptic imagery. The front yard features a sculpture, cobbled together from cast-off bits of wood and metal. Above the porch, a sign proclaims, "Welcome Home Ethiopia". It's a greeting from the Reverend Albert Wagner. Oberlin Art professor Johnny Coleman recalls the day he first stepped onto the porch and under that sign.
Johnny Coleman: There is a beautiful glass window in his door and a sign that says "Welcome" on that glass. I think he was probably inside, the door was cracked, I knocked... "Come on in!". I walk in and he's at the base of the stairs in the next room, and the man is dressed head to toe in black. At the time he was probably in his mid-70s... I think he's in his late 70s now. Shook his hand... we introduced ourselves. Everywhere I could see, everything that my eye rested on ....in the front room.... in the hallway that I entered into the house through... in a room that was kind of a sitting room at the front of the house.... the kitchen.... the stairs.... the ceilings ... the walls.... The floors. Everything is covered with work. Every piece of work has his time and his investment of the kind of divine message that that piece contains. But, it isn't like one, and... "Man, that's elegant!" It's just... everywhere. Every inch of wall space - everything is covered.
Covered with paintings and more sculpture created from found objects, such as a tree trunk, riddled with nails. There's a lynching depicted in metal, and an epic depiction of Moses guiding his people through the parted waters of the Red Sea.
Albert Wagner: God has given me a little talent, but the wildest imagination. I don't search for it. It's just there.
Reverend Wagner's worked is internationally recognized. It's been featured in the New York Times and Life Magazine. The Reverend is part of a movement called "visionary" or "outsider" art - a sometimes hard-to-pin-down category that includes various forms of folk art, created by untrained artists, who are driven to their work by obsession, or in Albert Wagner's case, divine revelation.
Johnny Coleman: What it is, is an artist who is called. And you're called - usually by angels, or by faith that reveals itself to you in a number of ways - to express that faith, to demonstrate that faith in deeds. To preach the gospel, to take the Word to the people.
As a trained artist, that's about as much as Johnny Coleman is willing to say. He doesn't totally understand the creative impulse at work here, but he likes the results.
Johnny Coleman: He has incredible formal skills. He's in his late 70s now. He sleeps in his studio. His bedroom has canvases lining walls, in various stages of completion. Objects that are going to be worked into sculptures. Sticks... pieces brought in from the alley. He works all the time. He's never not working.
Reverend Wagner was one of the featured artists at the 1995 opening of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. His work has been displayed in a number of local galleries, including Spaces, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Dead Horse, and Headfooters - a new venue that specializes in the work of "outsiders" and "visionaries".
In the Reverend's case, the first vision came as he prepared for his 50th birthday.
Albert Wagner: Always had a big party, had a lot of people coming over, so I had to get the place ready for them. I went in the basement and there was a board on the floor, which shouldn't have been there. With paint cans on it, but guests were going to be all over the house, so I had to move this paint cans off the board. And when I picked up the board, with the paint that had dripped off the can, I know it couldn't talk... but it talked.
Ever since that paint-flecked board spoke to him, Albert Wagner has referred to his artistic awakening as "The Miracle At Midnight".
Albert Wagner: Everything that I wanted to see and do was in this. It all come out. That's why I call it the Miracle at Midnight. Something happened to me that night. It was God's calling... like an angel.
His East Cleveland home is by turns a workshop, a museum, and a community center. It's a regular stop for busloads of art students from around Northeast Ohio, who spend the afternoon trying to take in the Reverend's prolific output. Some works contain social messages about race relations, and some are ruminations on personal relations in his large extended family.
There is also a weekly Sabbath service held in the basement. Reverend Wagner's pulpit is a chair behind a raggedy set of drums that he uses to lead his neighborhood congregation through words and music that reflect his passion for preserving community in trying times.
Johnny Coleman: He lives on the east side of Cleveland. So, he's surrounded by black folks. Black folks without money, in these structures that are really beautiful, but falling down. It's a gorgeous area. But, it is an area that's been... the resources in much of Northeast Ohio have just been eliminated. And people are struggling.
Like many preachers he has a bag of sermons, he improvises upon them, and the message is: there's still a way. You make a way even if it's from no way. It's on you and you will have help. Everybody's heart is in it. He's a Pentecostal shouter. And he's on that drum set.
Albert Wagner has made his way out of no way. His work invests discarded objects with meaning. And while that meaning may seem obscure at times, it is crystal clear in his basement on Saturday afternoons. It's a message about maintaining hope and dignity against all odds. It's a message that is summarized in a sign upstairs that reads: "A Nation Shall Rise".
Albert Wagner: I don't mean "rise" because we'd have better weapons or somebody's afraid of us. That somebody would respect us. They would be afraid to say anything around us, because of the person you are. Rise above evil, fear and hate. Rise because I'm willing to forgive somebody, I'm willing to help somebody, do something. That's the rising.
In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3.