Journey ends for Charlie Stagg

Artist Charles Stagg lived for art. In fact, he lived “inside” his artwork. Since the early 1980s, Stagg worked and lived in a house-sized sculpture in Southeast Texas. Over the course of 30 years, he built a unique home out of cement, wood, cans and bottles on his family’s land off Main Street in the woods of Vidor. He filled the structure with twisting, DNA-like wooden sculptures made from the trees on the property. Stagg called the house, never meant to be finished, “a process” or “a journey.”

On Monday, Feb. 20, that journey came to an end. Stagg, 72, died at a Galveston hospital after a long illness.

Raised in Vidor, Stagg graduated high school, joined the Army, toured the world and finally received art degrees from Baylor University and the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Pennsylvania.

In 1981, he moved back home to Vidor to begin his life’s work — the “A.V. Stagg Art and WildLIFE Preserve,” named after his mother. The name did not mean that the property preserved native wildlife, but rather was a safe place for Stagg to pursue his life in the “wild.”

The structure started as a place to live: rooms made of found materials and created with his own hands. One cement room featured a half-domed wall made entirely out of discarded green glass bottles.

“It was like looking at stained glass,” said friend John Fulbright, “It was amazing.”

Stagg said of the genesis of his work with recycled and found materials, “I found myself gravitating to wanting to know how to build ... and the deep meaning of sculpture. (Sculpture) relates to everyone in the form of architecture. I look at present-day architecture as ‘sculpture gone bad,’ because so much of it is so inefficient. I can only express (how I feel) by just doing this.”

Over the years, the Preserve evolved into an inter-connected compound of organic, ever-changing environments that featured tall towers, masses of wooden stick-sculptures, windows made from discarded traffic lights, shelving units/windows made from glass pickle jars, all housing a cat, various dogs and a herd of goats.

Committing to a life without running water, electricity or conventional comforts was not a simple situation for Stagg, and it could be fraught with dangers. In the summer of 2006, the majority of his living structure burned to the ground. After an extensive cleanup, Stagg started to rebuild using discarded drink cans and concrete. When asked why he chose not to use wood, Stagg replied, “Cans don’t burn.”

While his neighbors considered him a quirky oddity or an eccentric friend, the art community in Southeast Texas and around the world embraced Stagg and his work. Film crews, authors and curious art enthusiasts from Kansas, Canada, Germany and throughout Texas made their way to Vidor to trek back into the woods to take in an odd artist who insisted on forging his own path in his own way.

“The thing that hits me the most is that we’ve lost a local living treasure,” said Lynn Castle, executive director of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont, where several of Stagg’s twisting pine sculptures are on exhibit. “He was nationally important. People came from all over to see and record his work.“He lived his art. It was a way of life.”

Stagg’s family has arranged for a memorial service at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 3, at First Baptist Church, 350 N. Main St., Vidor.

— Janna Fulbright