Richard Hagerty’s ‘Way of the Cross’ a meditation on suffering and search for truth – Charleston Post Courier

Posted: February 23, 2020 at 12:52 pm


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Eventually, he knew he would do this: paint the Stations of the Cross.

After he retired in 2016, at age 65, from the Medical University Hospital as head of plastic surgery, Richard Duke Hagerty dove in, recalling his childhood and conjuring all that he learned in the Far East. It took more than four years to complete the Via Crucis cycle, which hangs inside Circular Congregational Churchs bright Lance Hall through May 12.

Fourteen surrealist images, 3 feet by 2 feet and framed by Robert Newton with wood that mimics the cross, portray the arrest and torture of Jesus, his long plod to Golgotha, his crucifixion and deposition, and his ascension to Heaven. The paintings, a meditation on universal suffering, are arranged so viewers can view them in succession or simply stand contemplatively in the middle of the space.

Hagerty also created a bold Last Supper featuring Apostles with abstracted expressions and the central figure of Jesus, robed, blue-faced, staring out at the viewer.

In his work, one detects elements of Pablo Picasso and Jean Miro, of Hieronymus Bosch, of Salvador Dali. His version of surrealism might be labeled sophisticated Naive art, for Hagerty is entirely self-taught, yet he makes vivid work of intricate detail imbued with symbolism and poetry. It conveys an ever-growing accumulation of experiences and ideas informed by his travels; his interest in Buddhism, mysticism and other forms of spiritual exploration; his active dream life; and a unique view of the world.

Richard Hagerty adds detail to a pointillist painting he's working on at his home studio on Tuesday Feb. 18, 2020, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

In his most fruitful artistic moments, Hagerty thinks of himself as a conduit who paints more with his brain than with his hands.

The secret and the joy of real creativity is learning when and how to get out of the way and let the process take over, he said. Then it becomes bigger than yourself, and then not yourself.

For a while he quit signing his pictures. Too much ego involved, he thought. But his wife, writer and poet Barbara Hagerty, thought that omitting a signature might make selling the paintings a bit troublesome. So Duke figured hed put his dyslexia to good use and sign them backwards.

When he retired from medicine, he was wary of the human tendency to avoid severing all ties to something one loves. Surgery defined him for decades. Hagerty became known for his charitable work around the world fixing cleft palates and other deformities. And his travels introduced him to other cultures. He was fascinated by Southeast Asia and became a student of Buddhism, thanks in part to a beloved interpreter, Mito, with whom he always worked when visiting Vietnam.

So to quash temptation, Hagerty tore up his medical card, like Corts in Mexico burning all the ships so nobody could get back, he said.

The Via Crucis ("Way of the Cross") was his first big project after he retired from his day job.

I have always wanted to do the Stations of the Cross, he said. I was raised Catholic and always intrigued by the pageantry and mysticism.

Richard Hagerty's paintings depicting Stations of the Cross hang inside Circular Congregational Church's Lance Hall in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Each lifespan includes a certain number of moments impressed so forcefully upon ones consciousness they leave a lasting mark. One such moment for Hagerty was Good Friday at St. Marys Church when he was perhaps 12 years old. Morning light streamed through the windows into the sanctuary, illuminating the smoke from burning incense. The procession featured colorful costumes, capturing the imagination of the young boy.

It was an experience imbued with grace and flair, stimulating Hagertys nascent aesthetic, emotional and spiritual sensibilities. And it represented safety from the difficult world outside, where his severe dyslexia made his school days nearly impossible to endure.

Another moment impressed in his memory: Hagerty was in Vietnam around 1990 to teach local doctors how to perform corrective surgery for cleft palates when Mito took him to visit an old monastery surrounded by a dry moat at the bottom of which lumbered an enormous old tortoise.

The monk accompanying them pointed to Hagerty, then pointed to the tortoise, his gestures clearer than any words could be: You are the tortoise.

Hagerty understood instantly. Like the giant creature below, confined to a mote that limited its view, Hagerty was similarly inexperienced yet able with time to discern that much lay beyond that which his senses could perceive.

And so he studied Buddhism, began practicing meditation, explored the science of the mind, learned about Carl Jung and his theories of synchronicity, universal archetypes and the collective unconscious. He scrutinized figures in mythology and folklore, such as the birdman and bull; he mined the Bible and contemplated its stories; he delved into numerology seeking connections to the divine; and he stared in the face of contemporary crisis environmental degradation, political turmoil so he might find sources of inspiration for his dynamic paintings of the mind.

He was the tortoise, stretching his neck, seeking answers, answers that led to more questions.

When it came time to paint the Stations of the Cross, he began with a storyboard and a color wheel, sketching his compositional and figural ideas across long sheets of paper. And he contemplated the meaning of sacrifice and suffering, the various roles of women, and the ways Eastern and Western thought intersect.

It was so intense! he said. A psychological minefield.

Richard "Duke" Hagerty in his studio explaining how he created an initial storyboard for his Stations of the Cross series. Adam Parker/Staff

To escape the explosive terrain, Hagerty retreated to family and friends. He sought intellectual exercise with Gary Smith, a magazine writer and Charleston resident who, using a different set of tools, delves just as deeply into the human psyche.

They met in 1986, when Smith needed a bit of melanoma removed, discovered they shared an interest in excavating truth, and decided to play tennis together. After a year or two of athletic fraternizing, Smith learned that Hagerty was reading Friedrich Nietzsche.

And I love Nietzsche, he said.

So they started meeting once a week for philosophical conversations. They would read the same book, mark it up, then discuss it and how it related to their lives.

That became a long-time practice together, Smith said.

Then, reading about the workings of the mind, they decided to investigate the impacts of meditation, to turn the lamp inward. One retreat led to another, and another. They talked about how the ideas they explored together found their way into Smiths profiles, and into Hagertys paintings. They deepened their friendship.

Hes a very instinctive person, Smith said. He feels things. Even though we do a lot of intellectual spade work, it doesnt come out the end of the paintbrush in any kind of intellectualized way. It comes out through blood and tissue and the strangeness of human mind.

About a decade ago, the two friends decided they would play music together. They taught themselves how to play guitar. They learned some covers, then started writing songs. They formed a band called Post-Life Crisis. Now and again, they get a gig.

Richard Hagerty keeps a collection of his notebooks inside a drawer at his home studio Tuesday Feb. 18, 2020, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Circular Church, said he was impressed by Hagertys imaginative work.

I was immediately drawn to the colors, the tone, and the dreamlike effect of the work, he said. Spending more time with it, symbols emerge, as do memories and questions. In this way, walking through the exhibition is a wonderfully contemplative experience.

Though on view during the Christian season of Lent, the work really is universal, Rutledge observed, encouraging people of all faiths and philosophies to visit the exhibition.

Dukes art really resonates in our historic space because the space itself is filled with memories, dreams, and reflections, as Jung said. ... In religion, we use stories and symbols, music, art, and poetry to express what we cannot ever fully say. Im grateful to Duke for what his artwork evokes about the human condition.

Hagertys artwork perhaps is an outward extension of his inward meditation, which requires discipline and concentration, he said.

The subject matter of this series can cause discomfort, but it can also stimulate the imagination, he said.

The thing I learned through all of this is that I want a personal experience," Hagerty reflected, citing Nietzsche.

If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, have faith, the philosopher wrote. If you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.

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Richard Hagerty's 'Way of the Cross' a meditation on suffering and search for truth - Charleston Post Courier

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February 23rd, 2020 at 12:52 pm

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