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Roy Ward Ragle, Top central panel of his six panel masterwork, Self Examination Series, woodcut, 1983-1990, each panel is 24 x 36"
On December 11th, 2014, three days after his 70th birthday Roy Ward Ragle made the final crossing over the River Styx. He had been rehearsing that crossing for more than forty years in his battle with Crohn’s Disease and in his artwork which documented that struggle. His masterful woodcuts, monoprints and mail art chronicled his constant companionship with death over those many years.
Ragle was first diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease after he was called up for the draft in 1970. He believed the stress of military life brought on his first episodes of the illness. He returned to civilian life and a job in map making, but did not return to his MFA program which he had begun at San Diego State before being drafted.
In 1973 with his wife Carol, Roy Ragle moved to San Francisco and attended the San Francisco Art Institute. The late artist David Ireland remembered Ragle having his MFA degree review in a hospital bed, from which Ireland assumed Ragle would not rise.
But indeed Ragle did rise and went on for many more years than many thought possible considering his poor health. After receiving his MFA in 1974 he taught printmaking at San Francisco State University for four years before the strains of teaching became too much for his health. He taught long enough, however, to produce an heir to his incredible woodcut technique in his student the artist Linda Lee Boyd.
Ragle went on to a successful career exhibiting his astonishingly detailed and very large woodcut portraits. His work was often mistakingly labelled as lithographs or etchings in exhibitions because no one believed that his fluid, spidery line work could come from the rigid woodcut form. His mastery of craft was matched by the psychological perception of his subjects, which more often than not included himself, as he described the harrowing affects of the disease on his physiognomy.
Ragle’s work obsessively turned to his medical condition and his own mortality. “Self Examination Series” was his final large scale woodcut print, a triptych portrait of himself, his wife, and his doctor dancing with skeletons. His later imaginary portraits were created by making a foil mask of the sitter, then crushing it (by walking over it with his crutches as support) and embossing an image onto paper which he then slowly and painstakingly brought to light with a fine pen and his own darkly spirited vision. The results were death portraits in the underworld. Ragle passed these off as true portraits and labelled them, “Crossing the River Styx Series” in his beautiful and wordy handwritten titles.
Ragle’s work fell neatly, if inaccurately, into an art world trend of Super Realism in the 1980s, and he exhibited widely in museums including a two person exhibition with Wesley Chamberlain at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums at the Legion of Honor in 1988, a 1990 solo show traveling to US Embassies in Eastern Europe, and a one person exhibition at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara in 1994. He also showed at several prestigious galleries including Jehu/Wong, Don Soker and John Berggruen galleries in San Francisco.
Ragle was a member of the California Society of Printmakers, joining in 1983. He served on the board of directors in the 1980s, in charge of recruiting new members, a task for which his gregarious personality was perfectly suited. He increased the membership of the organization significantly. The CSP recognized Ragle’s contribution to printmaking by awarding him lifelong honorary membership in 2005.
Throughout the 1980s his work was exhibited in print competitions, community art galleries and museum survey exhibitions. But his increasingly poor health finally caused his doctor to order him out of the studio in the late-1980s.
The endless rounds of hospitalizations and the darkening vision of his artwork caused him to withdraw from the art world. Over the course of the last twenty years his work has appeared infrequently with a rare one person exhibition at the Fetterly Gallery in Vallejo in 2000 and at the now defunct Collector’s Gallery at the Oakland Museum in 2005.
Despite his increasingly reclusive life Ragle kept in contact with a wide circle of artist friends mostly through his elaborately illustrated mail art cards which displayed all the brilliance of his woodcuts but in self-parody. Often he depicted himself and his beloved wife Carol in light-heartedly morbid situations.
He is remembered fondly, if paradoxically, for his high spirits, good humor and gracious manner, but also for the unstoppable flow of his conversation when occasion permitted him a guest in his San Francisco, Richmond District home. He was a constant optimist and supporter of other artist’s work, endlessly scheming to introduce one artist to another. The fire of his belief in the value of art was unquenchable.
He is survived by his wife and lifelong companion, Carol. He is also survived by a body of work which explored that land he now treads. His feet are no doubt guided on his path by the persistence of his dark vision while he was among us.
Art HazelwoodRoy Ward Ragle, Dia de Los Muertos - A Self-Portrait with Shroud of Anxiety, monoprint, 1993
Roy was the last of the members of the "Artist and His Circle" besides myself. I painted it when all of us were alive.