I recognized that I could use some guidance, and an objective opinion. In a desperate attempt to steady myself, I decided to reach out to an old friend. In August of 1996, a full decade after I'd last seen him, I found myself knocking on Bags' door.
I want to break in here quickly to point something out: for some reason, I never questioned Bags' name. I just accepted the fact that Bags was Bags in the same way that Madonna was Madonna and Prince was Prince. It seemed perfectly normal that this might be the case — I'd lived through the '80s, after all. When I finally reached out to him, however, this gap in my knowledge was pretty embarrassing. How could I not know such a thing? Where did the name "Bags" even come from?
In my defense, as I've already said, everyone just called him "Bags." My parents did, the neighbors did. It's just what was done. Turns out, however, that the mystery of his name was pretty simple. His full name was William Bagley. Obviously, "Bags" just came from his last name and was something that could be seen on just about every painting he ever did. To my knowledge, there were some who called him "Bill." In fact, I think if you didn't call him "Bags," that was his preference. Certainly not William.
So there I stood on Bags' doorstep. He answered, and despite the years that had passed, he recognized me instantly. He was frailer than I remembered. The lines on his face had deepened and there was clearly some pain in his movements. Mind you, he didn't look bad. It was just the normal age that piles upon you whether you try and fight it or not. Bags wore it with relative ease, or at least gave you that impression. Still, his keen eye was there and sparkled with delight.
He had reached his seventies and had been retired for quite some time. Judging from the walls of his apartment, it had been a busy retirement. Some of the walls were lined floor to ceiling with watercolor paintings. Everything from paintings of children playing, to friends gardening, to weeds overgrowing fences. It was a wall of the mundane things in each of our lives we see in passing. The fleeting things that rarely register as being noteworthy. In some there was joy, in others melancholy. In all, there was a peace that I have always associated with him. And in that peace was a certain satisfaction. His retired years displayed upon his walls for all visitors to see and appreciate. It was like the pictures some carry in their wallets of their children, only instead of children a parade of moments.
Bags took me through his place and showed me everything. It was a museum of his life and was full of things I'd never before seen. I remember one painting in particular that struck me. It was an oil portrait of a firefighter — one of the men who'd fought the blaze that had left him homeless. What amazed me is that I'd so closely associated him with watercolor and this piece flew in the face of that. Even it's subject matter was unique when compared to the body of work he showed me. What fascinated me above all else, however, was that it was an incredible painting — certainly far better than I was capable of at the time and if memory serves, better than I am capable of today. This is not to say that the rest of Bags' work was rubbish. No, it's just that this one piece was the closest to what I was attempting to do in my own work. Once again, Bags had taken me to school.
After my tour, he delved into the work I brought to show him. He gave me an honest critique of each piece, and was probably more complimentary than I deserved. Still, he saw the potential and nudged me towards things I was getting right. Once we'd run out of work to look at, we chatted a long time about school and life, and caught up with our respective worlds. And much too soon, I had to go.
Over the coming months Bags and I began to exchange letters. We sent them to each other about once a month or so. Mine were full of the angst I was dealing with, his with comforting words and humor. We wrote about all manor of things and I can still imagine him at his desk replying to my silliness in tidy sentences with neat handwriting. Sometimes they even came with a Bags original to decorate the envelope. The days those letters arrived were always among the best of that given month. I cherished each, and saved them all.
|©1996 William Bagley|
I went to visit him again at Christmas, when he gifted me his copy of Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life by Richard Meryman (a book I highly recommend if you're so inclined). He was a big fan of Wyeth's work and I am humbled and honored that he passed this book to me. It's a book I have to this day, and one that I shall likely have until I die.
As 1996 passed and 1997 rolled in, our letters eventually became postcards. Then the postcards began to come only on holidays. And then, eventually, they stopped coming at all. Also during this time, I met and started dating Amy. I became a lot more serious about my work, and I began to find some peace of my own. I still thought of the old man, my friend. But I had things to do
I didn't go home the summer of 1997. I stayed and worked two jobs so that I could have the summer in New York with Amy. And so I never got to visit Bags. I like to think that he would have understood and had a snappy comment about this new force in my life and the impact it had made. But the truth is, he didn't even know. I never wrote to tell him. I kept telling myself that I'd do it later. There'd be time. I'd go out and visit him the next time I was in Pennsylvania. This turned out to be a mistake.
I heard about Bags' death from my parents. Amy and I were visiting their house when I mentioned that I'd like to drive out and see him. They assumed that I had heard the news, and of course I hadn't. The indirectness and matter-of-fact nature of the news stung. Indeed, it still bothers me today. I missed many chances and assumed many things. The "could haves" and "should haves" lined up to take turns slapping me in the face. But what hurts even more is this passage from the first letter he wrote me after my visit:
After you drove away I picked up little pieces you left behind and rather wished you had surfaced earlier in the summer — that we might have gone painting...I cannot explain how much I regret waiting in the first place. I cannot tell you how much I wish I could have gone out with the man on some beautiful summer day. What we might have talked about, what I might have learned...
I miss my friend, Bags. Still, the beauty of what we do as artists is that when we are gone, there is something of us that is left behind. There on the walls of my parents' home, a little piece of Bags remains. A piece I revisit every time I see them, and a piece that still has a lot to teach. And I find that marvelous.