An artist who complained that everyone he drew ended up looking like him was told, “That’s what makes it art.” Every true work of art is a self-portrait, someone said. It’s not the worst definition of what distinguishes art from other uses of the same materials and techniques. One Utah artist who makes a point of it, though, who wants everything she paints to be, and to be seen as, a self-portrait, is Rebecca Wagstaff. Her list of subjects she identifies with says a lot about it: “I paint pottery I own and have lived with, ‘treasures’ my daughters bring to me, fruit from my backyard (and my childhood), flowers, assorted poultry and weeds that grow in my yard, and objects I have picked up while walking out in the hills.” Even more telling is her description of how she chooses: “I don’t look for things to paint, but rather paint what becomes — usually over time — compelling and necessary for me to paint.” In other words, she doesn’t casually let her eye alone choose, but waits until a subject has become a part of her awareness.
An astonishing example that combines several of Wagstaff’s interests also shows a level of care in execution that underscores her attachment to the subject matter. Its title, “The Meaning of Flowers,” recalls a much-neglected but not completely forgotten dialect, the “language” of flowers. For many years, specific blooms were known to carry precise meanings: the gift of a white lily told the recipient “My love is true,” a red fuchsia meant “I like your taste,” while a poppy replied “I am not free.” Interpreting these twin stems, each with an individual flower, growing out of a hand-made clay pot and sitting on a much-used metal stool might seem a challenge, but it’s worth a try. Without insisting that there is one right way to assign a meaning, the two blooms on the same plant suggest twins or family members, but could also be taken for a husband and wife, who share a structure that supports life — the leaves, air roots, and so forth. The pot could represent the choices made together, like where to live and how to organize a home. The rusty old stool could stand for the larger past: ancestors, cultural contributions. Each of these elements is rendered with painstaking accuracy, and even the room where we encounter the flowers, the world in which it prospers (the difficulty and accomplishment of which will be appreciated by anyone who has tried to cultivate orchids), is meticulously limned so that the light towards which the plant grows brings a sense of increasing space that climaxes in the light reflected from the wall at top.
There are things in life that are so important they are often spoken of as “non-negotiable.” Other things may be nice to have, but are ultimately expendable. In “Humming Birds,” the four birds, three open Tiger Lilies, and three buds are all dynamically balanced around the lily plant, an arrangement celebrated by a drawn circle that also divides the background. In “Pale Pomegranate on a Pedestal II,” an entire geometric structure surrounds the solitary fruit. Wagstaff, however, denies that such figures determine where she will place her subjects. They don’t give birth, so to speak, to the compositions they ornament. And in a classic example of the “rules” of still life, in “Tangerines in a Row” the fruit are arranged on a shelf in a way so as to make clear that they are there to be painted, nothing else. Five of them are whole, one is half peeled (with the peel dangling below the shelf, where it ends in a hanging curl, and at least one other one left incomplete, a former presence revealed by a peeled half at one end and a single section at the other.
These things are all in the nature of tangerines. If they could go further to decipher the nature of her choices, no doubt her audience would find themselves blessed with an insight about Rebecca Lee Wetzel Wagstaff: not just what she enjoys painting, but what it is about her that makes it so. The evidence is that flowers and birds are the way they are because they prosper from being seen. While seeing may be indirect in her case, is it any different for the artist who paints them?
Rebecca Wagstaff, David Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Mar. 11