For 50 years, Eldridge Bagley has chronicled the lives and the rapidly dissipating rural lifestyle of Southside Virginia in a style all his own.
His canvases — colorful, layered and real to life — are instantly recognizable to his legions of devotees who appreciate his ability to capture a unique Southern way of life without being given over to the rose tint of nostalgia.
“Reflections of the Heart: Eldridge Bagley – 50 Years of Painting”
Eldridge Bagley will give a free talk on his life and career at 6 p.m. March 15 at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts in Farmville.
He’ll follow that with another public talk at the center at 3 p.m. March 26, put on by the Lunenburg County Historical Society.
He paints tobacco markets, farm work, Sunday suppers, church meetings, long marches to lay loved ones to rest, all from his own experience. To celebrate this half-century milestone, the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts in Farmville is hosting a show called “Reflections of the Heart: Eldridge Bagley – 50 Years of Painting” through April 16. Bagley himself will speak at two events in Farmville later this month. (See box for details.)
Bagley’s lifelong home in rural Lunenburg County, and its surrounding region, is the nexus of his work. Both talks will focus on his background as a native Lunenburger, his transition to life as an artist and how he approaches painting.
“I’ve lived it,” he said about the hard work of life as a farmer. Bagley, now 77, said life on the family farm outside the small towns of Victoria and Kenbridge prepared him for his career as an artist, which is unpredictable and comes with its own seasons of drench and drought.
Portraying not-so-ordinary ‘ordinary people’
In 1973, Bagley was living and working on his parents’ farm after a stint in the National Guard. He was going through a chest when he came across an old Reader’s Digest. Thinking he must have saved it for a reason, he flipped through and found an article about famed folk artist Grandma Moses. He sat down to read it and was inspired to take up his own hand at painting.
“She was a farm wife approaching 80 and wanted to put down recollections of her life,” Bagley said. “She was untrained and I was so intrigued by the idea that this humble lady was able to do this and be accepted by so many.”
He’d always liked to draw but had never before considered art as a career. He didn’t know where to get supplies, either, so he went to the dime store in Victoria and purchased a paint-by-numbers kit just to have some paint and a board to work on. On the reverse, he painted his first piece — a covered bridge. He placed it for sale at his parents’ antique store, but it didn’t sell. He still has it today, and he loaned “The Covered Bridge” to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts for the show. It begins the chronological look at his career.
He still lives on that farm with his wife, Beth. Their son Wade and his family live nearby on the same property. And while they don’t farm any more, they are deeply entrenched in the community that drives his work. For generations, his family grew bright leaf tobacco, like many farmers in Southside, and his work focuses on the agrarian life he’s lived. Paintings of tobacco markets, in which auctioneers walked up and down the rows of bright yellow leaves, are included in the show, as well as a portrayal of the once bustling Farmers Warehouse in Kenbridge, which is no longer used.
It’s not often that renowned painters remain in their hometowns, and he’s been asked before why he didn’t move to New York to pursue art.
“I told them, I didn’t think about moving for more than 10 seconds,” Bagley said. “I love living here. … I think that I found my purpose in portraying ordinary people — not really ordinary — living their lives.”
‘Thank you … for capturing your family’s life’
According to Alex Grabeic of the Longwood Center, who curated the exhibit with Jay Williams, it’s that innate understanding of culture and people that has contributed to Bagley’s popularity — and that of the show. Every day since it opened in December, he’s heard people in the gallery interacting with the work and sharing the memories that the pieces evoked.
“There’s a real authenticity to his paintings,” Grabiec said. “They’re honest about the struggle of being a farmer — drought, death, how the land changes in a generation. But there’s real joy, too.”
The guest book, too, is full of these stories.
“It reminds me of visiting my grandparents in Lunenburg Courthouse,” one visitor wrote.
“Thank you, Eldridge, for capturing your family’s life — and mine,” said another.
Spanning the gallery are 91 pieces. Fifty-three of those are large canvases, and the rest are small paintings that Grabiec affectionately calls “Baby Bagleys.” The chronological flow of the exhibit shows how although Bagley began as a folk artist, his style developed into something that defies description. Some are part of the center’s permanent collection. The museum, which was chartered in 1978 and moved into its physical space in 1993, came up through the art scene in Southside along with Bagley and has a long history with him. Other works are on loan from private collections, as well as the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, and the McKissick Museum of the University of South Carolina, both of which own Bagley’s work in their collections of important Southern art.
Grabiec describes the approach the museum takes as “horizontal, rather than vertical.” It doesn’t show art as just the pinnacle of achievement, but strives to portray the pursuit of it as a lifelong endeavor. To that end, the museum has youth shows that include work as early as pre-K, senior exhibitions from Longwood University and more. That way, the long span of this show — 50 years — fits into the museum’s mission, to show the evolution of an artist as well as something authentically Virginian.
In early March, a class of fourth graders from Cumberland County visited the exhibit. One of their conversations with Grabiec surrounded the painting “Reunion Table,” which portrays a table of food at a family reunion in summer. The figures are less in focus. What is detailed are the plates, lovingly prepared, and picked over by the group. The children noticed some of the foods they knew: chess pie, deviled eggs, bread and butter pickles, fried chicken, potato salad speckled with green and red peppers, cakes, aspics and more. It was a touchstone for them to discuss their experiences.
Bagley described the painting as “symbolic of relationships.” He had big family on both sides, and the image of the table is entrenched in his memory.
“It was a sight to behold when everyone got together,” he said. “Cooks really gave a part of themselves.”
Storytelling on canvas
Another painting that shows his early life is “Ann at the Old House Window.” It depicts his sister Ann seeing a family processing to their cemetery plot from a window in their home. She told him about that day in great detail and in this piece, he worked to show death in the mind and eyes of a child.
“In the Early Morning Rain” attains a similar, somber mood. Dour skies, umbrella-carrying mourners and a black hearse set the scene, which centers around a home illuminated in the dark and casting the shadow of a figure through its front window. He considers it one of his more powerful pieces.
Similarly powerful is “This Land is Our Land,” which depicts a family living in poverty but using every inch of their space.
He said, “It’s a look at a side of life people don’t see, or don’t look at. It’s actual house from the county. … They seemed to live simply, not have much. But ‘this land is our land,’ they made the most of it, and were proud.”
These paintings all tell stories, and take a moment to unravel, like “Off Broadway,” which he described as the returning home of a man whose dreams of the stage didn’t pan out. Another is “Stand By Me,” in which a community rallies around an older woman who lost her home to a fire.
A more personal story is “A Christmas Journey,” which has been a favorite of locals in the gallery, he’s been told. It’s a specific memory of Bagley’s, coming back home for the holiday from his National Guard station, and stepping off the Greyhound bus in South Hill, where a rare snow was falling. People remember that snow, “the station, or just relate to the experience of coming home,” he said.
A quote of Bagley’s adorns the entrance to the exhibit, and for Grabiec, it shows how though the artist might not have set out to be a historian, Bagley’s work is so authentic to a place and time that he’s a historian at heart.
It reads: “I can’t live in the past, but I do know … that there are traditions, convictions, and values that never change and are worth preserving.”
Correction: Eldridge Bagley will speak at 6 p.m. March 15 at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts in Farmville. An earlier version of this article included the wrong date for the event.