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Interview: Roger Wagner artist, Bloxham speaker

15 February 2013

'You can't rejoice in goodness without becoming aware of all that opposes it'

There is a great deal of evidence from all over the world that the origins of art are religious. As human cultures have developed, however, art has acquired many other roles - not all of them positive. Even so, that original purpose can never, perhaps, be completely discarded.

There is always light and dark in my work. Rejoicing in God's goodness, and protesting against evil are two sides of the same coin. You can't protest against evil unless you can conceive of something better. You can't rejoice in goodness without becoming aware of all that opposes it.

The balance may vary in different pictures, but, as in the Bible, both aspects are always there. Even in the Song of Songs there is a sense of "the little foxes that spoil the vineyard"; even in the Lamentations of Jeremiah there is the memory of "mercies new every morning".

Fra Angelico may have been the person who influenced me most. I think of the day I first set foot in the monastery of San Marco as the beginning of a new epoch in my life. It happened twice, actually: once when still at a school, and once, when I'd left school, I went back. It's hard to put into words. . . I was just aware of some quality in those paintings, which I couldn't at first put my finger on, but knew I wanted, or wanted to know more about.

It was the first thing that brought a sense of personal connection with the Gospels - which I'd studied, but never seen that you could enter into them in that kind of way. Something art could do which I'd never envisaged before.

Richard Harries [Lord Harries of Pentregarth, former Bishop of Oxford] came to the first exhibition I did, at the Ashmolean in 1994. And he lived round the corner from me in north Oxford.

At Bloxham, we'll be talking about 20th-century Christian imagery: each choosing pictures alternately.

The most recent among my choices is Tom Denny's Thomas Traherne window, in Hereford Cathedral. It's wonderful, and Tom taught me how to make stained glass.

My painting Menorah was originally inspired by a train journey from Oxford to London, in which I saw the smoke drifting from the chimneys of Didcot Power Station, under a sky that looked like the arch of a great cathedral. For the 20th century, smoke from a crematorium-like chimney has one terrible association, but the arch of the sky seemed to frame it like some great religious moment.

It resulted in a series of paintings in which I tried to make sense of that collocation. Then someone noticed that the towers, from the angle I had painted them, lined up in the form of a seven-branched menorah. Once I had realised that the towers could symbolise both the presence and the absence of God, they seemed to require a foreground that did the same - and that could only be the crucifixion. The picture was painted for a retrospective exhibition at the Ashmolean, in 1994. Fourteen years later, the museum acquired the painting, and it now hangs on permanent loan in St Giles's, Oxford.

All my pictures begin on a tiny scale. Some stay like that, others grow into seven-foot canvases. For most of my career, I have generally painted in oils; but in the last few years I have been exploring other media, like mosaic, ceramic, and, most recently, stained glass.

I started training as an artist while reading English at Oxford. I drew at the Ruskin (where I now do some teaching), and then studied for three years at the Royal Academy School of Art.

The first ambition I remember was to drive a red double-decker bus down the King's Road. The second that I recall was to be an international man of mystery.

The first thing that almost always grabs my attention in a work of art (or fails to do so) is some formal quality, a colour harmony, or an impression of composition - the sense of something shaped and formed sparkling in the random flow of ordinary life.

There were three sermons that had a deep impact on me as an undergraduate. The first was when I accidentally got trapped in the Oxford Union, and found myself listening to the evangelist David Watson. The second was when I voluntarily went to hear Michael Ramsey speaking in my college chapel. The third was when I heard Jackie Pullinger speaking to an audience of street people, in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral, about her experiences in the Walled City in Hong Kong. I was very much inspired by seeing the extraordinary changes in people's lives.

The most important choice was to ask my wife, Annie, to marry me, when she came back from working with St Stephen's Society in Hong Kong. This was started by Jackie Pullinger in the Walled City, that extraordinary city halfway between British and Chinese jurisdiction, which become an astonishing centre of the Triad gangs. She started working with the drug addicts, and that grew into a great work. A lot of drug work is now with younger teenagers in Hong Kong. Annie goes out there every two years or so, and I go out more occasionally.

My biggest regret was not asking her 20 years earlier, before she went out to work there - but then many lives might not have been rescued that were.

It would be nice to be remembered for some wonderful thing that one has not yet done, or else for some good deed that one has forgotten. Although I hope, of course, that some of my work will survive, once it's finished it feels somehow separate from me.

Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations is perhaps my favourite book. Having said that, read- ing Traherne sometimes feels like drinking liquid gold: it's so rich it can be managed only in small doses.

There is stretch of landscape, to one side of a road that winds from the Maltings at Snape to the quay at Orford, which I have been captivated by since I was a child. It is the source of many of the pictures in the current exhibition.

I've just finished translating the third book of Psalms [Psalms 73-89], and by the end I was greeting the short ones with a cheer and the long ones with a groan - though that had nothing to do with their content. While those overflowing with praise are more obviously attractive, I found that, when you dig down into the motivation of the more bitter, vengeful psalms, they turn out in their way to be equally moving.

It's a project I started ten years ago. At the time, I'd been very interested in the Song of Solomon, and realised I needed to learn Hebrew. I then got distracted by the idea of doing Psalms. I wanted to do the illustrations partly because I needed some way of getting into the psalms, to focus my attention. The illustration would emerge from that process. I have eight or so different translations in front of me, but there's no one modern translation I'm completely happy with - no one ancient one, either. I did it first just for myself. Whether anyone else likes my translations or not remains to be seen. I did an illustrated translation with wood engravings; then, more recently, the second book, which also had paintings, was part of the Ashmolean exhibition. I've just finished the third one, and it'll be exhibited next year in March, in London.

My Hebrew? I wouldn't say it's good . . . good enough. I learned it more than ten years ago now - that's one of the nice things about living in Oxford. I just went along to a class at the Hebrew Studies Centre, and the tutor had only two undergraduates; so he was absolutely delighted to have a third person to join. Translating the psalms meant I've kept it up since then. The only way I can do the books at the moment is as hand-bound artist's books; so they're quite expensive; but eventually I hope they can be done in a more affordable format. The next book is quite short, but the one after that is quite long, and contains Psalm 119.

I tend to get irritated when I lose things. Unfortunately, I am congenitally untidy, which means that I lose things more than I should. Fortunately, my wife is very good at finding them.

I am happiest in my work with a large blank canvas at the beginning of a big painting, and when I paint the final stroke at the end.

For me, the centre of prayer is thanksgiving. I can never do enough of that.

If my Italian were better, I should like to be locked in a church with St Francis of Assisi. As it is, I would only really want to be locked in a church if I was doing some work there, in which case I would prefer the company of a fellow artist. Any of those who took part in the Regensburg exhibition would be fine.

Roger Wagner was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. His illustrated talk, with Lord Harries, "Christ in Modern Art", at the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, is at 10 a.m. tomorrow (Saturday); tickets £10. His next exhibition is at The Gallery in Cork Street, London W1, from 30 April to 10 May.


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