There are several words in the English language that I associate completely with specific individuals I have known. Words that have become synonymous with those who often said them. But these words were not merely said. No, there was something about the way these words were spoken that indicated their respective speakers did not just know the words, but owned them, bending them to their will like no other could.
The word in this case is “marvelous.” The friend was a man called Bags. He said the word without irony, without jest. He wielded it with precision and sincerity, and it came with the full weight of his heart. Delivered in such a fashion from a man who was so full of eye rolls and cutting wit, the sentiment was palpable. It validated and nourished, and burned away any doubt.
“Marvelous” was not good — such a thought is an insult. It was not merely great, either. It transcended these things. It was simply… marvelous.
I knew Bags all my life and our paths often wandered away from each other’s only to take quick, sharp turns to intersect before drifting outward yet again. He was a friend. He was a guide. He was my first art teacher.
As the story goes, when I was very young Bags' home and all his worldly possessions were destroyed in a fire. My neighbor, who worked with him, invited Bags to move into his family’s home until Bags could get himself back on his feet. In fact, to aid in this effort, my entire neighborhood chipped in to resupply Bags with all the creature comforts he had lost. My father, as I understand it, even emptied his closet to provide Bags with a new wardrobe (though I suspect that there was actually a trip to the store involved as their statures were too dissimilar). And so, in short order, Bags was brought into the neighborhood fold and became a fixture there.
That he was my first art teacher is only appropriate as that’s exactly what Bags did for a living — he taught art at a high school a couple towns over. He was a thin man, and from what I can tell never actually sported a full head of hair. I don’t even recall so much as a photograph proving otherwise. What little hair he did have was white as far back as I can remember — as was his moustache. He spoke slowly and softly, and clearly took a lot more in than anyone might have guessed. While I would never go so far as to say that he was a snoop, he was certainly aware of the goings on around him. He was an artist after all, a consummate observer of man and nature, and the owner of a trained eye for detail.
Unlike many art teachers I have known, Bags practiced the very things he taught — not the craft-based lessons that dominate so many art programs today, but traditional fundamentals like drawing and painting. Though skilled in many mediums, his weapon of choice was watercolor — a medium as unforgiving as he, himself, could be.
My earliest memories of Bags involve Betty Boop cartoons. He was fond of them and I remember watching them with him in his makeshift apartment that was really just my neighbor’s finished basement. It wasn’t long before I gave drawing Betty Boop a go in a childish attempt to impress, but the results were sub-par. He gave my efforts an honest critique, pointed out where I was going wrong, and encouraged me to try again. As kind as his words were, the critique soured me on drawing old cartoons, but somehow failed to sour me on drawing in general. And just as I never stopped drawing, Bags never stopped critiquing.
Bags was used to dealing with older kids and I was still shopping at the little tikes section of the department store. But, how he critiqued my work changed over time as he learned to deal with the raw emotions of grade schooler, just as my responses to his critiques began to mellow in turn. It wasn’t a regular thing, mind you, but it was one of those situations where he’d always ask what I’d been up to every time we saw each other. He was genuinely interested and saw in me enough potential to encourage.
The lessons Bags reinforced in me were the most fundamental anyone can learn when it comes to their profession — though these lessons also tend to bleed into life as a whole. I say “reinforced” because they were lessons that my parents were busy trying to instill in me, as well. What made it different was that I was hearing the same things from someone who essentially had no vested interest in my upbringing, and the lessons were being directly applied to art. Among the most important of these were to take my time and not give up.
Though unintended, Bags taught me even more through the artwork he did — some of which came to hang on the walls of my childhood home. As one paints, one is constantly making decisions and breaking things down into their component parts. Among the pieces that hung on the walls of our house were four paintings of my Grandmother’s farm. Being familiar with the place in real life, it fascinated me to see the more abstract version that he had created. I’ve spent more time staring at those four paintings over the course of my life than I have any other images, and I remember as a kid walking around my Grandmother’s farm trying to find the vantage points of the paintings, studying the details I saw before me, then revisiting the pieces when I got home in an attempt to understand his process.
That watercolor was among the first mediums I tackled should be no surprise. I likely wouldn’t have ever touched the stuff if it weren’t for Bags. Truth be told, most of what I know of watercolor was from studying his work. And Andrew Wyeth. But then, Bags did a little of that, too.
As I mentioned before, Bags’ path eventually wandered away from my own. He moved away, along with my neighbors who’d given him shelter. They all ended up in the same place, my neighbor occupying an old house about an hour away from our home, and Bags occupying the apartment over the carriage house. It would be a long time before I saw him again.