Three Generations of Asturian-American Painters


About Art Zoller Wagner (1952 -  )

"Who's Spanish?"

A few years ago while I was talking about my being Spanish, my father frowned and asked, "Who's Spanish?"

It's a fair question.

My grandparents immigrated from Asturias, an area of northern Spain, so I'm the third generation to live here in the US. In what way am I Spanish or Asturian?

Art in his climbing tree, Linthicum, MD, spring 1960

Art in his climbing tree

I spent hours in this tree.
Linthicum, MD
Spring 1960

Ethnic Fog

In my first draft of this page, I said that I didn't give much thought to ethnicity when I was a child. After considering that statement for several days, I realized this was inaccurate.

No, the truth is that as a child I was in a fog about my own ethnicity and clumsily aware of others' ethnicity.

Art & David Newcomer outside Art's "fort," Linthicum, MD, May 30, 1959

Art & his friend David Newcomer with Art's "fort"

One of my many building
projects, this structure had
a hole in the roof into which
a license plate slid as a
door. I used to be able to
climb through that small
Linthicum, MD
Spring 1960

I remember, now with deep regret, joining a group of classmates on the playground in taunting a friend of mine with a chant. At the time I wondered what the chant meant. I thought that it might have an ethnic element, but decided that it had more rhythm than meaning. In retrospect the taunt didn't address ethnicity at all, although that memory does demonstrate that I was thinking about my friend's ethnicity. Using child logic and knowing that his father's name was "Phil," I concluded that he was Filipino. He was Italian-American.

In fact, a deluge of "polack" jokes made it impossible for me--or any child of the 1950s--to remain unaware of ethnicity. Ethnic jokes like these are instrumental in forming our impressions and prejudices about entire groups of people.

Carnival for Muscular Dystrophy, Linthicum, MD, August 10, 1963

Neighborhood Carnival for Muscular Dystrophy

This event, organized by
Art with help from many
neighbors, raised funds to
fight MD.
Linthicum, MD
August 10, 1963

Ethnic Prejudice

Two of my classmates in first grade were Greek. One was a boy with whom I secretly identified because the teacher treated both of us abusively. This student's infractions were little things like coming to school with jelly on his face, the result of his eating breakfast on the bus. I found the harshness with which the teacher criticized him very disturbing.

I vaguely remember the students talking about how much the teacher hated this boy. I assumed she abused him because he was Greek. But how did I know that he was Greek? If the teacher or a parent hadn't pointed out his ethnicity, how would any of us would have known?

I never considered the possibility that ethnic prejudice might be the reason she treated me equally poorly. I thought of us as "Americans," not members of a minority ethnic group. But I was. Just look at those big brown eyes all four of us have! I look like a young Pablo Picasso.

Wagner family, c1958

Big brown eyes

Wagner Family
from left: Hap, Joel, Honnie,
Joyce, Art, & John

Only recently did I learn of the ethnic prejudice that Asturian immigrants to America had experienced. Some Americans viewed Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, and other Mediterranean immigrants as "vermin," a "garlic-chomping" underclass. The hatred was sometimes obvious. In the 1920s, for example, the Ku Klux Klan sent threatening letters, marched, and burned crosses in attempts to scare Spaniards into moving from their homes in Anmoore, West Virginia.

My father was aware of the prejudice. He appreciated his father not interfering when he asked my mom, a dark-skinned Spanish girl, to marry him.

Conga jam, Druid Hill Park, Balitmore, MD, March 25, 1962Conga Drum Jam

One of my favorite
childhood memories was
this Sunday afternoon jam
session that we happened
upon accidentally.
Although music wasn't part
of my childhood home
experience, it became an
important part of my
adult life.
Druid Hill Park
Baltimore, MD
March 25, 1962

As American as Frozen Pot Pie

In the mid to late 1940s, my mother must have decided--perhaps unconsciously--that she would do better in life if she identified as "American" rather than "Asturian-American" or "Spanish-American." In addition to not talking about her Spanish ancestry, she spoke no Spanish to us when we were children. Even when her father Emilio came to visit, she spoke to him in English.

I didn't have much contact with my grandpop, but I do remember two details from one visit that marked his being of a different culture. The first was that he really wanted some beer in the house--something that had never happened in our teetotaling Methodist home. My mom wouldn't buy it for him, so we waited in the car while he went into the store. The second was the way he ate apples: he would pull a penknife out of his pocket, neatly peel the skin, and then slice off a wedge, which he would eat before slicing another section. As a kid who just bit into apples, his process seemed very measured and elegant in comparison to mine.

Hap, Art, grandpop (Emilio), & Joyce, Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD, October 7, 1960

A visit from my grandpop

Hap,Art, grandpop (Emilio),
& Joyce
Naval Academy
Annapolis, MD
October 7, 1962

One way in which I did have regular contact with my grandpop was that his paintings (and my mother's) hung on the walls of our home. The realist tendency of my adult work no doubt arose from my studying these paintings as a child. Even as third or fourth grader, I can remember my surprise and delight at having drawn a large picture of a rabbit under a bush that really looked like a rabbit under a bush. I wasn't sure how I had done it, though, and I usually wasn't able to draw with that degree of realism.

In my childhood home, meals were often inspired by the recipes and ads in Better Homes and Gardens magazine: Jell-O, instant mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, spaghetti, tuna fish salad, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, meatloaf, angel food cake, and even frozen pot pies. There were, however, a few subtle carry-overs from an Asturian/Spanish diet. We probably ate more soups, stuffed olives, dried beans, rice, and fish than most Americans.

Visiting my aunt Mary Louise & uncle Arnold Guedes in their store, Elizabeth, New Jersey, August 12, 1965
Visiting my aunt Mary Louise
& uncle Arnold Guedes in
their store

Because my aunts and
uncles had moved all over
the US, we missed out on
seeing our relatives
frequently and building
better relationships.
Elizabeth, New Jersey
August 12, 1965

Ethnic Identity as Prideless Burden

My last name was "Wagner," so as a child I assumed that I was ethnically German. In reality, I was more Asturian than German because my father was only half of German descent, whereas my mother was fully Asturian Spanish. Once ethnic identity slips into fractions, how do we assign names to our identities?

As I child I never gave a thought to my being part Spanish. I can't remember ever talking with my parents about my mother's roots in Asturias and Spain. Perhaps we carefully avoided acknowledging any ethnic heritage out of a desire to blend into the mainstream. At the very least, we clearly weren't as interested then in genealogy and ethnicity. We didn't even know the origins of my father's mother, Annie Cokeley Wagner. We were surprised years later to learn that she was Scottish, English, and Irish, and related to Lady Godiva.

Honnie Amor Wagner, nursery rhyme illustration on wall, 1960s

Little Bo Peep

Honnie Amor Wagner
painted this and other
nursery rhyme illustrations
on our bedroom wall.

Believing I was German led to troubling thoughts. Ethnicity was an indelible burden. Early in high school, I read several books on wars the United States had fought. What did it mean if I was German and my country had struggled with the Germans twice? Was it bad to be German? Was I a "dirty Kraut?" What was it like for my father's father, John Robert Wagner, to join the US Army and fight the Germans in WWI?

Even after experiencing all the negative images of Germans in war movies, books, and comic books, I still thought of myself as German. When I signed up to study French, I worried that I was betraying my German origins.

Camping on vacation to Montreal World's Fair, August 1967

Camping on vacation
Montreal World's Fair

We traveled to the South,
New England, the West
Coast, & West Virginia on
family vacations.
New York State
August 1967

See America First

I studied psychology in college. Toward the end of college, my interests leaned tentatively toward art. I took a few art classes, then backed away. In 1976 I got married and entered Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.

One of the conditions for marriage that my then wife, JoAnne, insisted upon was that I go with her to Europe. I resisted the idea, saying "I'd rather see America first," a reference to patriotic auto advertisements with a jingle that said, "See the USA in a Chevrolet." Earlier in our relationship JoAnne had told me, "The only thing wrong with you is that you aren't French." Given her strong feelings for French culture, I knew there would be no negotiating over her demand. I agreed to go to Europe, hoping that she'd change her mind later.

Seeing America First with the Wagner family, Sequoia National Forest, California, 1968

Seeing America First
with the Wagner family

Our biggest family
adventure was a month
long vacation in California
& the Southwest.
Sequoia National Forest
California, 1968

In 1977 my parents visited Europe and Spain for the first time. My mother came back excited about having met her Aunt Lola, Uncle Pepe, Uncle Jesus, and many cousins. Suddenly, Spanish words peppered her speech. Chick peas, for example, became garbanzos with the Castilian th sound for the z, and rice became arroz. She began cooking Spanish recipes: gazpacho, paella, and arroz con pollo (chicken and rice flavored with olives, capers, and saffron). My mother was thinking of herself as Spanish for the first time in her adult life.

My parents' example loosened me up, so in 1979 JoAnne and I made our first trip to Europe. We spent about a month in France, and a week each in England and Germany. We hadn't planned to visit Spain, but begrudgingly accepted when a French friend insisted on taking us to Barcelona for an overnight. We didn't know any Spanish, so our attempts at ordering food in Spain were disappointing. I remember being surprised and disgusted when the "meal" I ordered, judias a la cubana, turned out to be green beans topped with a fried egg. I was glad to get back to France the next day.

Art in a cloister in Avignon, France, June 1979

Art in a Cloister

The modulated light,
quietude, & antiquity of
cloisters attracted me.
Avignon, France
June 1979

Toward the end of the trip, I began thinking about ways I could stay in France. The magic of being in a different culture with such old buildings, rich stores of art, and wonderful sights and tastes had an irresistible hold on me. I asked JoAnne if she'd mind if I stayed behind when she returned. She wasn't amused. I returned with her, but my dreams still roamed Europe. I had become a "See France First" kind of guy. Spain was still not on my radar screen.

A Beret takes me from Ché to L'Artiste

JoAnne's Aunt Xenia had given us a French beret as a creative wedding gift. I had needed a hat, so it became mine. That's when the daydreams began. At first, I drew from 1960s imagery, envisioning myself as "Ché Guevara, Revolutionary," as I clomped around campus with my WWII "Ike" jacket, beret, and boots. After our trip to Europe, though, I became "Frenchy, L'Artiste." Sure, it was silly, but it really happened. Hats are props that support the roles we choose to play.

JoAnne (wife) in the Louvre, Paris, France, 1979

My then wife JoAnne (wearing a red bandana) in the Louvre

Studying ancient & modern
masters firsthand in the
museums of France &
Germany reawakened my
interest in art as a career.
Paris, France
June, 1979

Seeing so much spectacular art in France had reopened me to being an artist. I began visiting Washington, DC's amazingly rich art museums, which were just minutes from the seminary. Then, as soon as I finished seminary, I started taking art classes again.

Soon, we had moved to Iowa to be campus ministers, and I was working on a second B.A. in Art. Studying art history brought me into contact with Spanish culture. I was especially taken with the paintings of Juan Gris and Joan Miró. Identifying with these artists and knowing that my artist-grandfather was Spanish, my ethnic identity shifted from German to Spanish. My French beret became a Spanish boina (tam or beret).

While studying art, I took a year of beginning Spanish. After finishing my degree, JoAnne and I moved back to Maryland to look for work. Hoping to become a journalist, she networked and interviewed for jobs. On a lark, she had also applied for a Masters in English as a Second Language program. When she got an acceptance letter offering a scholarship and stipend to study ESL in Chicago, we were stunned.

Art dressed as the Headless Horseman, October 12, 1963

The Headless Horseman

My goriest Halloween costume
didn't look as scary as I had
hoped. My mother helped me
create this one. It won a prize
in the local Halloween parade.
October 12, 1963

Hold onto your Boina

Having just moved all of our possessions east, it seemed crazy to move back to the Midwest, but if she got the MA, we'd have a ticket to live in Spain. We decided to take a gamble: we would make a light move to Chicago and then, immediately after her graduation, go to Spain. This is when I discovered that to feel most alive, I need to hold a dream and work toward making it come true. My new dream was to experience the culture of my grandparents for myself.

The year in Chicago went quickly. JoAnne finished her degree and my painting improved to the point that I felt like a painter. Lourdes Fuentes, a friend from Spain's Basque area, encouraged my growing Spanish identity. We left for Madrid in August of 1983.

In Madrid I'd often be walking down a sidewalk when I'd think, "I'm HERE!" I'd laugh aloud at my good fortune. Then I'd look around to see if anyone was looking at me like I was crazy.

Fruit & vegetable shop, Moratalaz, Madrid March 1984

Fruit & Vegetable Man

This friend used to joke
with me about selling "conejos de Avila" (rabbits
from Avila). His family was
from Avila, so anything
good came from Avila.
I loved being able to shop
for food by walking around
my neighborhood.
Moratalaz, Madrid
March 1984

Many aspects of Spanish culture were different from the life I had known in the US. I particularly liked the fresh fruits and fish, the regional cheeses, the recipes using dry beans, the ability to walk to do my shopping, the plentiful public transportation that went almost anywhere I wanted to go, the many free or inexpensive flamenco and ancient music concerts, and the many top-quality art exhibits.

After getting settled in, I was painting regularly and loving the results. In subtle ways, my work was influenced by the art I saw in Madrid. I was especially interested in the very old altarpieces in the Prado and some of the contemporary Spanish psychological realism I saw in Madrid galleries and exhibits. Some of my work combined these ideas.

Art's studio in Moratalaz, Madrid, May 1984

Works in Progress

Art's Studio
Moratalaz, Madrid
May 1984

El Abono (manure): Culture Shock

After the first couple months of bliss, we went into culture shock. I was particularly unhappy with the public behavior of some Spaniards. If I was carrying something heavy, a Spaniard who was blocking the sidewalk while talking to a friend would be unlikely to move aside. When it rained we had to keep an eye out for other people's umbrellas, to avoid getting an eye poked out. After JoAnne's coat got burned, we also learned to watch for smokers gesturing with cigarettes, especially on the steps out of subway stops. Young people, especially males, frequently smoked on subways, trains, and buses in spite of the signs saying "no fumar."

Levantar la Persiana, oil on canvas

Levantar la Persiana

A painting done in Madrid.
Art Zoller Wagner
oil on canvas

Some of the norms for acceptable physical contact between strangers were also disturbingly different. Once when I was on a bus which stopped quickly, a matronly woman with a heavy shopping bag leaned into me with all her weight in order to brace herself. She was killing my back, so I flicked her away with my butt. Incensed, she loudly called me grosero (an ill-mannered or vulgar person).

Bondad (goodness, kindness)

After a while I realized that Spanish public behavior was as heartwarming as often as it was irritating. Some of the shop keepers, for example, were especially friendly and helpful.

Victor and Orchia in their herbolario, Moratalaz, Madrid, March 1984

Shopkeeper Friends

Victor Múgica Robledo &
Orquídea Vicente Pérez, in
their herbolario (health
food store).
Moratalaz, Madrid
March 1984

Once when we were preparing a trip to Barcelona, I went across town to the bus station to buy tickets in advance. I had underestimated the cost, so I didn't have enough cash. To my surprise, the man behind me just handed me the equivalent of several dollars.

Another time when JoAnne was getting onto a crowded bus, she couldn't get her leg in the door before the driver closed it. She cried out in English, "My leg!" Concerned passengers told the driver what was wrong and gave her a seat.

Abono (manure, especially as fertilizer) can be bondad (goodness), too.

Old Men and Me

In 1980s Spain, you could pick out the Americans because they wore hats. I didn't identify with Americans, but I was one of the hat people. A Spanish artist would have worn all black or all white, but no hat. Since I was the only guy under 60 wearing a boina, I might as well have worn a t-shirt saying "I'm not from here!"

Levantar la Persiana, oil on canvas

Boina and Bull

Art, wearing a boina (beret),
is leaning on a replica (?)
of Celtic-Iberian bull
sculpture in stone.
Avila, February 11, 1984

During our stay, we visited my cousins in Avilés twice. I was impressed with their warmth and their incredibly good cooking. Our first visit was at Christmas. To our surprise, the Christmas meal was fish! My cousin Ramona walked us around to meet all of my cousins and aunts and uncles. My second cousin Maribel and her husband Manolo took us for walks in Avilés and Salinas, and drives around the nearby towns. Manolo demonstrated the traditions associated with Asturian hard cider.

Jesus Menéndez Conde with scythe, Avilés, Asturias, December 1983

Jesus Menéndez Conde

My great uncle, sharpening
the blade of his scythe, is
wearing the madreñas or
zuecos (wooden shoes)
which are typical of
San Cristóbal, Avilés
February 11, 1984

Did I experience something of what my grandparents had left behind? Yes.

Was I Spanish? Yes and no. Although I had hoped to blend in, I knew I hadn't. Moreover, living in Spain had made me particularly aware that I carry a deluxe set of Puritan cultural baggage.

On the other hand, when we returned to the US after two years, we went through a reverse culture shock for a month. Americans seemed loud, pushy, and ostentatious with their wealth. I had become "third culture," stuck in a netherland, feeling neither Spanish nor American.

We spent the next fifteen years working and earning more graduate degrees. Finally, in 2000, JoAnne and I returned to Spain, to visit family and learn about the Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures which existed in northern Spain and western France.

Reconstruction of a Celtic Hut, Castro de Campa Torres, Gijón, Asturias, June 2000

Reconstructed Celtic Hut

Art standing before an
example of a Celtic
round hut in a settlement
dating to the 6th and 5th
century BCE.
Castro de Campa Torres
Gijón, Asturias
June 6, 2000

Spending several weeks in Gijón, Avilés, and Oviedo gave me a new affection for the hardworking and sociable people of Asturias, the mountainous green terrain, and the Asturian foods and music. I felt so profoundly at home that I began considering myself Asturian-American.

While in Gijón, we met an American who was living in Asturias and supporting himself by freelancing as a technical writer for US companies. This was a eureka moment in which I realized that there were a number of ways that a person like me could spend more time in Asturias. I had been talking with Asturian galleries about selling my paintings. Meeting this stranger had shown me that I didn't have to find a Spanish source of income. I could telecommute or just visit more often.

Working on this Web site and another for the Asturian-American Migration Forum has made me much more aware of Asturian history and language, and of the experiences of my grandparent's generation. When I see a photo like the one below of my grandpop with his arm around me, a Neil Young song, "Old man, look at me now, I'm a lot like you are" runs through my mind. I wish I had known grandpop better, but in many ways there is a glimmer of Emilio in my own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Old patterns repeat themselves down the generations.

Seeing America First with the Wagner family, Sequoia National Forest, California, 1968

Grandpop tries to connect
to his skittish grandkids

My grandpop (Emilio), Art,
& my sister Joyce
Conowingo Dam, MD
July 29, 1961

Today my dream is to spend more time in Asturias while I still can. Although part of me continues to wrestle with the puzzle of how to swap the baseball cap of my life in Maryland for the old man's boina, another part is packing for a visit!


If you'd like to know more about how my art relates to my childhood, or how I think of my work, please visit, where there are Artist Statements and additional About the Artist essays.

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