Travels With Charley

With Apologies to Steinbeck and Stagg

ISSUE Magazine: October 2012 | Story by D.J. Kava

JOHN STEINBECK WROTE ABOUT his 1961 tour of the US with his dog named Charley, and Charles Stagg was also called Charlie. After a couple of years, I once asked him, “Everyone calls you Charlie, is that your preferred form of address?” He replied, “I like being called Charles.” For the next decades I always announced my approach to his woodland studio with, “Ahoy Charles.” At his memorial service all of his relatives called him Charlie and so it gets sprinkled in this narrative.

I first met Charles Mitchell Stagg in 1983, shortly after The Art Studio, Inc. opened at Neches and Milam in Beaumont. I didn’t like him, only seeing a freeloader drunk. After repeated invitations and others’ encouragement I finally visited his studio in Vidor, Texas. My eyes revealed his habitat vision better than any of his previous explanations and we slowly became friends.

In ’86 I spent an evening with Charles setting his Dishman show and heard years later how offensive the leftover wine and beer bottles were. Most of the artwork was six sided but he had already recognized that three sticks saved half the wood and visually filled space nearly as well. Six sides were used only on small pieces thereafter. My 172 stick hex piece was from that show. Back then he was pricing at $2 a stick.

November that year, helped repackage the Dishman pieces into his group show with Greg Busceme to introduce the newly restored Kyle Building in downtown Beaumont.

After that I saw his exhibit inventory as a community asset. That prompted my decade volunteer career as the TASI curator of the Art@The Airport initially with the Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce. Charles was the featured artist.

At this time he had a domed house with the rounded mud wood stove and the 35- feet triangle tower. It had either five or six low floors with chainsaw hewn steps between and at the top, which was about eight feet to a side, and had aluminum flashing to intensify the sunlight on his pot crop. Familiar with aviation I chastised his stupidity on how easy it was see from the air. After harvest he didn’t do it again. Charles told his brother-in-law it was his experiments in solar energy. This tower later rotted and fell. I had minor influence on its replacement that survived the fire.

It is hard to recall when I was talked into helping with the tower replacement dome. It was after the time I gave him the government surplus Neches River red curved glass channel mile markers.

When I arrived he had a large row of sticks in a circle covered head high in concrete with a ladder propped up on a half inch cotton cord wrapped around them. His instructions were to wrap more rope around higher up and pull the cone shape tighter. “Stand on the rope.” After trying various approaches and we finally succeeding in wrapping and tightening the sticks only then realized I was standing on just that damned cord 12-feet off of the concrete and a long way from the ladder. I immediately returned to terra firma. This was before he put the inside braces. His inclusion of the river markers at the top continues to provide a dramatic light show whenever the sun shines.

In 1989 Charles asked me to help in the installation of “Oblique Mystique” show in the atrium of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas. This consisted of three 25 to 30-foot triangular towers made of pine boles, the central stem from his property in Vidor. He always like to use the “Bole” term, I think to see if you were really paying attention since it’s not normal vocabulary. It was the best wood and the pine bark beetle was killing thousands of local trees so it made sense to harvest them before death.

We had long wires, piles of different size sticks and scaffolding on the floor. Charles knew theater. The café always seemed to be full, with customers tromping over the moving wires sliding over the terrazzo to enter. We spent most of the week building, short days but always during the lunch hour, finishing professionally on time.

During the installation I recall one joke I played on the desk woman Patsy Brittian. She would be working away with her head down and I’d yell, “Look Out” and drop a clattering stick on the floor near her desk. A couple of days later got away with another “OHHH SHITTT” and the joke was over. Charles gave me a small mounted six-sided sculpture with a painted deer hide shrunk over it. (Memo to heirs: Remember that it was my week’s pay when you put it on the $2 garage sale table.)

In 1993 we updated the Jefferson County Airport display, hanging from the ceiling a large 18-feet branching stick with 2.5-feet diameter trumpet shaped colorful attachments. These were made of 8-10 stiff wires, string and toilet paper wrapped and painted. It had some sort of galactic name with each funnel/flower representing a Black Hole in the universe. It hung until the county changed airport managers and ending 12 years of Art@The Airport.

I always tried to keep one of Charles’ pieces on display. These included a couple 16-feet Rholplex impregnated canvas collages done a decade before in grad school. One day, while installing one that had a series of newspaper obit type photos, it was laying on the floor and a passenger walked up to ask Charles why he had a right to use his relative’s photo. He said, “I looked down and said Mr. So and So, he was a friend of my father.” The nameless relative even to Charles left satisfied. Later he confided that was the only photo that he could identify by name. I’m certain that those large paintings were consumed in the ’06 fire. But long before that we wandered off on other adventures.

Charles Stagg and D.J. Kava, above. 

In 1994 I helped Charles finish a 20-feet-tall large bottle shape structure on the campus of North Harris County Junior College. He already built it and we put the final masonry cement coating on it. The remarkable thing about this trip was the Trinity River was in flood and a runaway barge damaged an I-10 freeway bridge closing it, severely disrupting traffic. I was thinking things can’t get much worse, then a pipeline broke and the river caught on fire.

1995 TREE OF LIFE, BALTIMORE

I had a bullet proof, dependable ’81 Ford F-150 and took up Charles’ invitation to go to Baltimore to build a three-story sculpture in a new museum. They would pay gas, so we took off on our grand tour mooching nights with my weather and car friends and, after installation, with his art friends in Pennsylvania. Starting off we had spare time in Little Rock and ironically attended an “Outsider” art exhibit of mental patients. He noted, “I’m considered an Outsider.” After stops in Indianapolis and Capon Bridge, W. Va., we rolled toward Baltimore.

It was autumn, the leaves were changing to red and orange and country was dwindling from mountains to hilly. It was a two-lane road coming around a curve, the bluff in front was covered with color and the sign flashed Potomac River, but it was just sparkly water running over rocks only a couple of hundred feet wide and we soon zoomed to the left. The 14-year-old truck handled pretty well but a bit loose; Charles never complained while we hustled through the Appalachians.

After installation (we were later mentioned on NPR as coming up only for a night at Hooters), Charles took me to visit his friends in the Philadelphia area. It was a rush to see the Interstate signs and the New York City skyline on the right with Philly straight ahead. Our base was the North 12th Street home of his old grad school professor Harry Anderson and companion Smokie Kettner. We stayed on the third floor but made him sleep in another room because he snored. We made a trip to Bucks County to the Anderson antique farmstead and visited several artists. We visited nearby Jack (ceramist) and Rena (weaver) Thompson’s house perched on the edge of scary county road. Then a cold night with glass blower Jim Harmon and designer Winnie Helton in their rose quartz stone house. Back in Philly we visited the painter Tom Steigerwald and a forgotten visiting glass blower.

Then one night Charles took me to a rough part of town to a singular building on the whole side of the block. The multi-story apartment had only one remaining heavily-armed resident on the third floor. We picked up one of his grad school “deposit boxes.” Only recently I would find there were several. Smokie said she had one and Harry two but they didn’t know about this fourth one. They were all the same size and screwed together and the contents were a mystery to the holders. [AMSET is suspected to have this fourth box’s contents.]

We rolled home stopping at only one hotel in Virginia and then with the widow of one of my weather friends in Montgomery. The ironic part of this trip occurred when I got home. All during the trip I toted the unneeded heavy toolbox into secure spots. Arriving at home I was tired and decided to leave it in the truck box only to have it stolen in broad daylight in the Albertsons’ parking lot while buying groceries.

The Baltimore piece was disassembled and shipped back to him and later purchased for about $15K. Charles would not rebuild it again (probably because his shoulder was bothering him), but the money kept him going for several years.

In ’98 he had a gig to display at the Houston Art League Courtyard. We stayed at his nudist friends who were not at home (shucks!) and Charles broke their window A/C in a remote room full of art. He left a note parking lot. We had some scaffolding on site with plenty of sticks to build something tall. When we got above the single story rooflines everything became unstable. We talked a lot about guy wires to nearby roofs. We were building in a developing tropical depression and quit as the winds increased. The weather was crappy for days. I didn’t return to help Charles and he set up several smaller things. I consigned a few of my copper wire ladders to their gift shop and it is one of the few consignments that didn’t lose, break or steal something.

RITA REPAIR ’05

In September 2005, Hurricane Rita passed near his studio, damaging the corrugated roof severely. A volunteer Houston group came providing metal and helped replace the tin nearly to top where the supporting structure was missing. John Fulbright recalls standing on top of a bucket that was sitting on a board top of two other buckets on another board. His description was “amazingly scary.” Charles and I cut and pasted the missing wood logs and tin up near the circular hole in the center. John was right — it was scary and dangerous.

’06 FIRE


It was about three days after the August fire before I visited. John Fulbright and his daughter also arrived. It was before the Vidor Fire Marshal declared “Unknown Cause.” My mother’s early Stanley miter box on loan melted and disappeared, but I had two ‘80s red clay faces hanging on his front wall for years. “Hey, can we find the pieces? I can glue them back together as memorial or something.” They hung about 8-feet up the wall and stirring the ashes found both, dirty but remarkably intact. They appeared in my ’09 30-year retrospective as “Refired Clay”.

In the last years I spent less time with Charles, dropping cans occasionally or he would stop by and
pick them up. Involved with Margo Holst at the Bolivar Peninsula Cultural Foundation gallery, we booked him for a June 2008 show of his plywood paintings that were priced in our successful $2-300 range. After booking, he sold one for $1,200 and re-priced everything to that level. We stayed at Margo’s beach house the night before the show when a fire broke out two doors down. Awakened by a dog Margo yelled, “Everyone come here quick.” Then later in retelling she complained about being surrounded by naked men. Quickly attired, we were watering her downwind roof before the local volunteer fire department arrived and knocked down the blaze. There were no $1,200 sales.

I knew Charles for 29 years. Thankfully Margo and I were able to visit him only a few hours before he died. He taught me how to fill space. He was a tax-dodging, cash-only monumental artist, a subliminal teacher, a piss-poor businessman and a great friend. The key turned off on my Travels with Charlie on February 20, 2012 and I tear in typing this final farewell.

Thanks Charles, it was a helluva ride.

 

COMMENTS