The Wagstaffs: A simple life in art

By Dawn M. Aerts

Iron County Today

When Clay and Rebecca Wagstaff focus on their artwork it is often seen through the lens of a simpler time and place. Both are fascinated with the principles of symmetry, the geometric staple of composition, and finding balance between inspiration and nature.

Their work will be displayed at the Frontier Homestead Museum at part of the Folk Life Fest June 22 and 23.

While Clay is best known for detailed graphite under-drawing, using random, multiple layers of colored glaze and capturing the simple but reflective landscapes, Rebecca sees her Still Life painting as akin to a self-portrait with interesting subjects that ‘turn up’ in multiple, re-occurring ways.

“I paint pottery I use and live with,” said Rebecca of themes, “Sometimes that can be a hummingbird nested in a walnut tree, weeds, flowers, or the simplest objects I pick up on a long walk in the hills.”  She is also known to choose a formal composition, with focus on the subject in a meditative way.

“I am fascinated by ‘sacred geometry’ and use a straight edge and a compass to make patterns in the background, many of which appear as a passage-way or transition to me.” Over the years, both have shared time in a studio and home full of brushes, canvas, book-binding projects, formulas for handy skin remedies and violin music.

“Clay is a contemporary landscape painter who is always drawn to the meditative aspects of art.”  As artists, they craft a life of creativity. Rebecca is known for developing a line of artisan soaps, a beeswax bar lotion as an old remedy for dry skin, and a traditional Pine Gum salve known to be helpful for cleaning abrasions, cuts and preventing infection.

“The Gum Salve is made here from locally gathered Pinon Pine Pitch, organic virgin olive oil and Utah beeswax,” Rebecca said of the history-based recipe, “The salve has been successfully used for hundreds of years by Native American’s, Pioneers and Pilgrims, which we call our ‘Miriam Adelia’s brand.”

They live in a Great Uncle’s house (George Wilson) and work in a studio built from the ground up with materials gleaned from the 2002 Olympics.  Her ancestor, Miriam Adelia Riding or ‘Aunt Dee’ as she was affectionately known, was a 1900s-era midwife in Garfield County.

“While growing up I was drawn to painting and the arts, but in high school it also seemed compelling to study the field of obstetrics, where I pursued a medical degree at Brigham Young University.”  But her early courses in watercolor, oil painting, and the art of book-binding mostly changed her mind.

“I apprenticed with Arno Werner — a retired German immigrant in his ‘90’s who had worked for decades as the head of Book Conservation at Harvard’s Houghton Library, in Connecticut,” she said. “After that year was up, I returned to BYU as a student, and was hired by the Art Department to teach traditional, book-binding, by hand.”

In those years, Clay Wagstaff pursued study at Utah State University in print-making before transferring to BYU where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, (BFA) Print-Making and Lithography; then a Masters of Arts at University Artists and Scholars, Califorina State University, Long Beach (1988); Master of Fine Arts in 1990.

According to Clay, “As a painter, I enjoy offering a ‘modern take’ using old techniques, mathematical principles, and grid work… and I generally work in a Series.  When I’m satisfied with the details, I return to apply multiple glaze layers until I have the mood, or feel, of the landscape just right.”

Their paintings have been featured in numerous invitational and juried exhibitions and art shows with landscapes and still life work recognized for their meditative and symbolic themes. “With the compositions, it’s all carefully considered,” said Clay of his painting, “And that’s a big part of my focus.”

They have lived for over 20 years next to the extraordinary landscapes near Bryce Canyon.

“I don’t really look for things to paint but instead paint what comes (to me) over time:  things that seem compelling and necessary for me to paint,” said Rebecca of her work. “I don’t calculate the composition, but paint intuitively.  So, the elements are symbolic… they appear in life, and I find that I must feel my way through.”

When she is not focused on painting, she often turns her attention to book-binding projects.  “In painting, there is always something that invites me to take notice. If it is a hummingbird, I’ll photograph that, and observe for a time, and I’ll find a connection with that in a symbolic way.”

Their rustic studio is surrounded by quiet landscapes.  “I’m drawn to paint the simple scenes, the meditative elements I find in trees or mountains or fields,” said Clay of his work.  “There is inspiration from travel to other parts of the country: I love the high desert, but I return to the oceans — time and again.”

Both are known to reflect an Asian sensibility, while sharing a lifestyle that has given way to a more contemplative approach to art.  “It’s a family endeavor. With homeschooling, we’re not tied down. It can be an adventure with opportunities for art along the way.”

Photo Caption:  Clay and Rebecca Wagstaff share a love of tranquil lifestyle, and oil painting with their daughter, accomplished violinist Miriam Adelia, at their rural homestead in Utah. Photo by J. Aerts



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