The Resurrection of Reverend Albert Wagner
With the pledge of a remarkable gift, the long-awanted, much-anticipated Reverend Albert Wagner Museum is set to become reality in September, 2023.
At age fifty in the mid-1970s, the Reverend Albert Wagner experienced an epiphany during which an old board splattered with house paint spoke to him and delivered what would become his lifelong mantra: “God is going to plant my feet on the four corners of the earth as an artist.” And so it was. Over the next three decades, the Reverend would create upwards of 3,500 works of art. He used many of them to transform his East Cleveland home into a living museum.
To address his staggering portfolio as a whole is difficult if not impossible. The Reverend sold his work to a vast array of admirers in order to make ends meet. The dissemination continued after his 2006 death, most notably via a large auction in 2012. Regardless of where the works are today, Wagner’s art and philosophy have become legendary in the way only folk art can, particularly when it comes from the heart and grows organically.
An effort to amass the Reverend’s works, either physically or digitally, is underway in order to populate a unique museum that’s scheduled to open on September 1, 2023, the seventeenth anniversary of the Reverend’s death. It will occupy an unassuming single-story commercial building at the corner of Aspinwall Avenue and East 152nd Street in South Collinwood. Previously home to Atlas Brush and before that Pontings Florist, the 4,300-square-foot structure will soon transform into one of the most intriguing addresses in this classic Cleveland neighborhood.
“This is his dream,” said Wagner’s daughter Bonita, who is president of the Wagner Museum Board of Trustees. Her faith runs deep, both in her father’s legacy and those working to resurrect it. “God is telling people to do this,” she said. Earlier stories in CAN Journal documented the vision and progress toward the realization of the dream.
Enter Cleveland arts advocate Alenka Banco, who is donating the Aspinwall Avenue building to the nonprofit. “We want people to come and kind of be startled by this little black box,” she said. Banco and husband Alan Glazen are currently living in the building, but moving plans are well underway, as are plans for its next iteration. “We’re talking about wrapping the building with [the Reverend’s] photo because it’s visible from East 152nd.”
In addition to a collection of Wagner’s work and video/images of the artist, tentative plans for the museum include a visiting artist gallery and independent coffee shop. “It’s gonna be kind of funky,” said Banco, who is launching fundraising efforts for what she imagines will be a “boutique” museum experience. “It’ll grow into what it’s supposed to be just like his house grew into what it was supposed to be,” she said.
The launch of the museum will follow another celebration of the Reverend’s artistic legacy: a solo exhibition at the Cleveland History Center is scheduled to open on September 22 in a space that previously housed a film for the center’s Women and Politics exhibition. Like the organizers behind the South Collinwood effort, the History Center will take on the significant challenge of approximating the Reverend’s Lakefront Avenue home and art gallery—or at least the feel of it.
“The idea is to simulate the aesthetic of his house and studio in East Cleveland, and that means a very cluttered installation with artwork literally covering the walls,” said Dennis Barrie, director of experience design at the History Center, adding that the show will be an appropriate preamble to the museum’s opening. “It’s an exciting preview of Wagner’s work,” he said. “It really hasn’t been seen in a formal way in some time.”
Born to poor sharecroppers in 1924 in Bassett, Arkansas, Wagner moved to Cleveland in 1941, eventually married, and became a successful businessman before immersing himself in art and turning his East Cleveland home at 1743 Lakefront Avenue into a museum. He filled it with his work and welcomed just about anyone to come in and experience it.
The Reverend’s work caught on, garnering local and national attention. “It wasn’t just the art,” said Bonita, “it was the man.” In the late 90s and early aughts, Wagner landed in the likes of The New York Times and Life magazine. The house served as the main set for a 2008 documentary, One Bad Cat, which chronicled the artist’s career as well as his last days.
Local art aficionados relished the singular venue as well. “It was like walking into a museum, but an off-kilter museum,” recalled Amy Sparks, senior editor at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “It was like walking into someone’s brain in a way,” she said. “Every object was a work of art. There was no furniture.”
Not surprisingly, students came from near and far to tour the self-styled museum and meet the man behind it. Johnny Coleman, artist and associate professor of studio art and Africana studies at Oberlin College, often brought students around. He and the Reverend became longtime friends.
“We cannot look at a single image of the Reverend’s and get the whole picture,” said Coleman in One Bad Cat. “He’s a preacher, contradictions and all.” And those contradictions bloomed like a kaleidoscope all around the Reverend’s life.
Religious themes, violence, and contrast all loom in the Reverend’s work, which includes mostly paintings and some sculpture. It features a parade of religious figures such as Moses, Adam and Eve, Noah, Ishmael, and droves of nuns as well as earthbound men and women.
For example, Ethiopia (mixed media on canvas, 63 X 50.5 inches, undated) depicts a collection of regal portraits rendered with clear definitive lines. One figure dons a headdress while a sole tear rolls down the cheek of another. Conversely in the frenetic America Yesterday (mixed media on chipboard, 45.5 X 40 inches, undated.), a gang of White men assault Black women. Save for the porkpie hats perched on the men’s heads, all of the figures are naked. The brush strokes are less controlled. They feel tortured, almost as if the technique is driven by the pain and violence of the subject matter.
But there is also a sense of humor in the Reverend’s work. A Black Cat Coming out of a White Bag includes a bowling ball emerging from a white satchel. The ball wears a look of surprise courtesy of the finger holes. Other efforts recall his childhood. A pastoral scene unfurls in Water Boy, wherein a sole figure carries buckets of water through meticulously-detailed cotton fields—much like the work’s creator did as a boy in rural Depression-era Arkansas. Conversely, Mississippi Mud depicts White on Black violence including rape and lynching amid figures smeared with blood and tears. Once again, the brush strokes are as tormented as the subject matter. Longtime Wagner friend Gene Kangas, who also co-authored the 2008 book Water Boy: The Art & Life of Reverend Albert Lee Wagner, commented on the work. “When he lived in Arkansas, he lived in Mississippi county,” said Kangas, noting that the title Mississippi Mud does not reference the state of Mississippi and its fraught history, but something much more personal. “He’s talking about his birthplace, and the kinds of stuff that went on there.”
While the artwork inside 1743 Lakefront Avenue was cluttered as Barrie described, it was also painstakingly displayed and curated by the artist. “He’d tell you how to walk through [the house] because he had everything hung a certain way,” said Bonita. The house, however, wasn’t just about the art. It was also a church, namely People Love People House of God, and the congregation’s self-ordained Reverend Albert Wagner delivered sermons in the basement, mostly to family and friends. He often held court in his bedroom, which also served as his studio. The kitchen was, well, a kitchen.
“There was always a pot of beans on,” said frequent visitor Sparks.
“There was always a huge pot and there was always big whole onions in ’em,” added granddaughter Tammy Wagner. “He used to make corn bread and macaroni salad to go with it,” she said. “It was the best thing you ever tasted in your life.”
Perhaps the recipe was a holdover from his days at Kosher Town, a restaurant the Reverend had on Kinsman Road where he delivered more than food. “He had this bull horn, preaching up and down Kinsman,” said Bonita, adding the locals were hungry for more than the word of God. “He would feed them big pots of beans,” she added.
His businesses included other restaurants and gas stations, but the most notable venture was Wagner Brothers and Sons Moving and Storage. “He had a contract with the FBI and one with welfare,” said the Reverend’s eldest daughter Lateefah Wagner Hasan, who worked for the company. “That business was thriving.”
So was the Reverend. The father of twenty was by all accounts a family man and devout servant of God. “My father always took care of all twenty children,” said Bonita. He also inspired devotion. “Why I followed this man is because—not because he was my grandfather,” said Bonita’s daughter Tammy, “it was because things he told me were true and when I didn’t do something he told me to do, I saw the results and they weren’t good. When I did do something he told me to do, I saw the results and they were good.”
His granddaughter continued: “I knew that he was following the guidance of God. That’s why I followed him.”
The Reverend had sixteen children with wife Magnolia, two daughters with Bernice Upshaw Daniels, and two sons with Lena Calloway. While he and Magnolia never divorced, she eventually kicked him out. “My wife Magnolia, the other woman and the other-other woman and all our children knew about each other,” said the self-admitted sinner and womanizer in Water Boy. “In all, I hurt a lot of people. I do hope that God has forgiven me for all my sins and all the women that I have ever went to bed with, for it was many. For it was an addiction.”
The “hurt” Wagner references extended beyond his wife and mistresses. In One Bad Cat, Calloway recounts a tumultuous encounter. “What made me try to kill him? When I found out he molested my daughter,” she said, adding she tried to run him down with her car as he bounded up a set of stairs. “I got angry cause my car wouldn’t go up the steps. I backed up and tried to go again,” she said. While the Reverend survived Lena’s wrath, he was convicted of a felony, the sexual imposition of a minor—Calloway’s daughter from a previous relationship—for which he was given probation.
After that paint-splattered board spoke to him, however, the Reverend left all the womanizing and business behind in order to realize his divinely-inspired art.
One Bad Cat brings viewers inside the house on Lakefront, but the film also leaves the curious aching for more. Over the next year, the History Center and the forthcoming museum will aim to fill that void with haunting re-creations of Wagner’s unique home and living museum. Perhaps his work will speak to us with the wisdom and love we so desperately need in these turbulent times.
From Johnny Coleman: “The Reverend was a living breathing articulation and demonstration of an Afro-Atlantic tradition applied to the place where he was from and the place where he was living, and of the redemption and the hopefulness and the ongoing critique that an elder can bring to his community.”
The author extends her profound thanks to Bonita Wagner Johnson, Lateefah Wagner Hasan, Tammy Wagner, Alenka Banco, Johnny Coleman, Gene Kangas, and Amy Sparks for the invaluable information and interviews they provided that made this article possible.