Blue Greenberg: The ‘real deal’ at Outsiders Art gallery

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 12:18 PM

“The Work of Reverend Albert Wagner:  Collection of Wesley & Missy Cochran of LaGrange, Georgia,” Outsiders Art & Collectibles, 718-C Iredell St., Durham, through March 16. Hours are Friday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.


Sometimes an accident happens and it changes a life. 

That was the case for Albert Wagner, (1924-2006) who called the moment the “Miracle at Midnight.” 

As he recounted the story, paint accidentally fell on a piece of scrap board and the beauty of the colors and patterns reminded him of his boyhood fascination with making things. 

Mud, paper and cardboard were the stuff he used as a 5-year-old; his mother would encourage his creativity by wishing she could send him to art school. In an interview for a book about his life and his art, he marked that moment as a new beginning.

Wagner’s life was a rags-to-riches-and-back roller coaster before the “Miracle.” He had run a successful moving van business and, for a poor boy with a basic third-grade education from Arkansas, who had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, at the beginning of World War II, he had more money than he had ever seen in his life. The money went to his head. He joined the wrong crowd, adopted multiple identities and hit bottom. He had a wife, two other households and 16 children.

He was 50 when the “Miracle” moment made him realize he did not like the person he had become and he was determined to change. 

He returned to the church, became an ordained minister and began to make art.

In his paintings and sculpture, Wagner speaks in the naïve, folk art style of the outsider artist. His themes are stories of the Bible, family, friends and neighbors. He never had formal art lessons but his painted figures gave him strength and peace and ultimately a way to make a living. 

Today he is a major figure in the world of outsider art.

In the 1980s, he was discovered by Gene and Linda Kangas. They helped arrange a show at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum and an award-winning documentary. They also wrote a book about him.  His largest painting, composed on a large drop cloth because he could not afford expensive canvas, is the story about Moses and the Red Sea. It’s in the permanent collection at the Visionary Museum.

The 20th Century promoted primitive art, children’s art and folk art to a place of importance because artists believed this work was free of the influences of industrialized societies and therefore pure. This was one of the philosophical concepts of the Enlightenment. The artists, always looking for new ideas, began to borrow the look of the outsider, hoping somehow to reach the essence of art. 

Today fine art and outsider art have merged and separated, but the outsiders make up a serious chapter in the study of the history of modern art.

Recently, Wagner’s children decided to take their dad’s art and divide it into parcels to be auctioned. The paintings in the Outsiders Art & Collectibles show were bought by the collectors Missy and Wesley Cochran from La Grange, Ga. This is the first time the paintings have been seen in a public space.

The show’s star, which has pride of place in the gallery and is on the announcement card, shows a woman and a man with a bent neck floating in a blue space; two children cling to the man’s legs. Most of the images have two or three characters and seem to be families doing things together. There is one painting of a woman, perhaps a portrait, in a blue dress, with muscular arms and a determined look. 

Gallery director Pam Gutlon has named her “super woman” for inventory purposes; there are only two titled pieces in the show.  

One, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” appears to be about a father figure and two children. The father, who wears a white suit, seems to be disciplining them. He has one by the scruff of the neck. The dark slashes on the child’s face look like tears. In the background is the suggestion of a wall and paint drips like rain.

The characters in many of the paintings play an undefined ball game. There is the man with a bent neck bouncing a ball while a small boy looks on, and another one where a figure wears a crown and throws something at the two others.

In a composition with three figures, one floats while the others seem involved in a conversation. The faces are red and one wears a red hat; the color has no apparent meaning but does catch your attention.  

The Cochrans are not typical collectors; he is a stonemason and she is a school teacher. They love art and spend every extra dime buying it. Their collection includes 38 Andy Warhols. These Wagner images are their first foray into outsider art. Gutlon said she was excited to get them and pleased to be able to offer them for sale as individual pieces.  She talked a lot about today’s outsider artists and said she feels the test of the true outsider is one who has a story to tell and the only way is to draw it. 

She believes Wagner is the “real deal.”

We watched the documentary film about the artist which includes the three major women in his life and his children. Wagner, however, dominates the story and rightly so. He tells the camera over and over about his evil past, and how he worked to change. His philosophy, which is something we can all take to heart, cautions us to “be aware of the past, face your mistakes, don’t blame others, move forward towards a better time, believe and dream.”


Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.