Raleigh artist Ollie Wagner’s studio is filled with old books, magazines and his latest flea market finds.
Among the most recent treasures: a collection of composition books dating to the 1940s by Raleigh public schools student Monroe Gardner and a folder labeled “Picturs (sic) of Airplanes Collected by Monroe Gardner.”
Wagner, 36, who has a studio at downtown Raleigh’s Artspace, draws on those airplane pictures, sheets from those composition books, and imagery pulled from mid-century books and magazines for artistic inspiration. He is fascinated with the notion that we are surrounded at all times by these images, especially from the advertising world.
“There’s how life really is,” Wagner said, “and how life is sold to us.”
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For his art, he takes images for, say, Sunbeam bread, Cadillac cars and other ephemera and glues them to a sheet of plywood, sands the layers and paints illustrations over them. He turns images that have distinct meanings into a collage that is open to interpretation.
His pieces may look simple at first, but the layered images invite exploration, which is appealing to those beginning to appreciate art and compelling to connoisseurs, said Shana Dumont Garr, a former director of programing and exhibitions at Artspace.
“I love art like that – it has this mass appeal,” Garr said. “... If you are ready for more, there is more going on. There’s a critique. It’s just not in your face.”
What pays the bills
Wagner prefers not having to rely on his art to pay his bills and has supported his creative work for years by taking part-time jobs. In doing so, he said, he doesn’t feel pressure to create or change his artwork to be more attractive to buyers.
“Having a full-time job where I’m not dependent on selling my work makes my art better,” Wagner said.
After Wagner graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, he received a bachelor’s degree from the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Washington, D.C., and a master’s degree from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. While in college, he had worked at museums on exhibit design and art handling and would teach art at local colleges, including Barton College, Johnston Community College and William Peace University.
A few weeks ago, Wagner stopped teaching at William Peace University to take a full-time job as a lighting technician at the N.C. Museum of Art.
“Having security is better for me,” he said.
He’s figured out how to get to his studio on a regular basis, working a few hours every night.
“I find if you are consistent, it’s easy,” Wagner said. “If you aren’t, it’s not.”
What feeds the soul
Wagner knew art was his future from an early age: “I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do.”
His mother, Catherine Connolly, is a painter. His uncle, Pete Connolly, is a musician in the Chapel Hill band Birds and Arrows as well as a visual artist. Connolly, 50, remembers a young Wagner visiting his art studio and trying his hand at reverse painting on glass, a complicated process for adult artists.
“As a 12-year-old, he seemed unintimidated by (it),” Connolly recalled.
Even now, Pete Connolly said, his nephew really enjoys the process of making art.
Wagner enjoys finding the raw materials that inspire him: a box of papers and diaries at an estate sale or old magazines at the flea market. He also enjoys the process he’s created to make his art, which was inspired by a screen printing class he took in college. Afterward, he had to figure out a way to emulate it, because he no longer had access to the equipment. That’s how he started layering images, sanding them and painting illustrations on top of them.
He loves taking these familiar images and offering them in a new way for viewers to interpret. “I get a lot of interpretations of my paintings back to me,” said Wagner, which is fine by him.
See the artist’s work
An opening reception for a show featuring artist Ollie Wagner’s paintings is scheduled 6-10 p.m. May 15 at the former Raleigh Nehi Bottling Co., 3210 Hillsborough St.
The artwork will continue to be on display there on May 16 and 17 and by appointment May 18 through 22. This is a show for Peregrine Projects, a Raleigh-based artists’ group. Painter Luke Miller Buchanan’s works also will be on view.
Wagner has a studio at Raleigh’s Artspace, which is open 6-10 p.m. on First Friday.
Info about Wagner’s work: owagner.com
Info about Peregrine Projects: peregrineartprojects.com
Once a month, we share the story of a local artist hidden in plain sight. You never know what talented person may be waiting tables at your favorite restaurant, sitting in the office down the hall, or even working as a cashier at the grocery store. Meet them here.