BOBBY BAGLEY: Painting his own story

"Come Sunday" 36x36

Bobby Bagley seems a bit uncomfortable. It is the grand opening of Gallery 10 – an exciting new collective space in City Market where he is one of twelve artists. 

Having met him a few days earlier to discuss his work, I can tell that he’d rather be quietly painting than making small talk to a plethora of well-wishers. Regardless, this quietly spoken, thoughtful man is grateful to have landed in this location.

Gallery 10 is at the head of the stairs above the ground floor studio occupied by Haitian-born artist Alix Baptiste.

click to enlarge BOBBY BAGLEY: Painting his own story
Bagley in Gallery 10 at City Market

In City Market for over 35 years, Baptiste recently rented a second floor space when it became available and called upon man-about-town Calvin Woodum to fill it with artists.

Woodum, president of Telfair Museum’s Friends of African American Art, is one of Savannah’s greatest “connectors” and a true cheerleader and advocate for fellow artists. He sprang into action and today, Gallery 10 showcases work by jeweler Annissa Roland, collage artist Ashley Rainge-Shields, mixed media artist Angela Roe, photographer Linda Andrews, painters Calvin Woodum, Julia Roland, Ellen Xiang, Jonathan G. Keller, Tony Artemisia, JoAnn Grafton, Nancy Acosta, and, of course, Bobby Bagley.

click to enlarge BOBBY BAGLEY: Painting his own story
"Juneteenth" 36x36

Turns out, Bagley had rented a tucked-away space in City Market a decade earlier. When it didn’t garner much foot traffic, “I went to the art center on Hilton Head and asked them to tell me the best art gallery on the island. They said Morris & Whiteside. I had a car full of paintings so I drove straight there, and Ben, one of the owners, took them. We had a great relationship for almost ten years.”

Showing at Morris & Whiteside, now the Red Piano Art Gallery in Bluffton, was an artist’s dream…Bagley would paint from home, and Ben Morris would come to his house, pick them up, photograph them, wire them, sell them, and the cycle repeated. “My wife is a schoolteacher and we have a seven year-old, so I was home with him and never left the house.”

click to enlarge BOBBY BAGLEY: Painting his own story
"Black Pearl" 36x36

However, the relationship with Red Piano fell apart about a year ago, and Bagley felt the need to get back downtown and be in a working studio. “And that’s how I ended up here. I’m not necessarily a people-person, but I thought it would be healthy to be around other artists. It’s given me an energy that I didn’t have.”

Despite a rather basic high school art education, “I always knew I was going to be a painter,” Bagley says. “I could always draw, but my first painting wasn’t until my freshman year of college.” 

Bagley graduated with a BA in Painting from the University of Central Arkansaw and has been a working artist ever since. 

“I was showing at the Joysmith Gallery in Memphis, TN in my early 20’s and I was doing traditional ‘black art’ - jazz musicians, cotton fields, and so on - and this older Black lady walked in and asked me what I knew about cotton fields and jazz music.”

click to enlarge BOBBY BAGLEY: Painting his own story
"American Mule" 36x36

“I’d never really thought about that,” Bagley continues, “I was painting like the artists I admired – Benny Andrews and the Memphis blues painter George Hunt for example. But I’d never really stopped to think about telling my story. My dad is 30-years retired Air Force. I grew up on an Air Force base in Arkansaw with Black kids and Chinese kids and White kids from Iowa and Cincinnati. We were all thrown into this pot and my childhood was wonderful. Looking at “Black” art was always a struggle for me because I didn’t a traditional kind of upbringing.”

Not having his own African American neighborhood memories to draw on,“I felt like a craftsman. I was working on my craft, painting what I felt I should paint. So, when that Black lady in the gallery said, ‘Young man, I’m not telling you what to do, but it’s always good when you paint your own story,’ I started painting my story.”

As an example, he shows me a painting of a checkered tablecloth-draped picnic table and grill in his back yard.

“My story is the world as a perfect bubble. Everything in it, the hedges, the grass are perfect. There is no conflict in this world. Everything is peaceful and bright.” 

On closer inspection, there is a tiny Juneteenth flag on the picnic table. 

“So, there is always some Black history that I try to tuck in. To show that I come from a different perspective. You would never look at this painting and think ‘Juneteenth’.” Similarly, Bagley’s unique interpretation of the infamous promise of “40 acres and a mule” to the formerly enslaved, is simply an exquisitely rendered painting of a mule standing in a green pasture.

These story-based works excite him and are what ultimately ended his relationship with the Red Piano Gallery where he had been pigeon-holed as a Jonathan Green-type Gullah artist. 

“Now I have complete freedom.” Showing me a painting of a perfectly proportioned house and one boy which he “painted right after some Black boy got shot,” he says that his former gallery wanted no part of art that could be seen as politically controversial. Ironically, the viewer would never know the inspiration for such a gorgeous painting until Bagley explains it.

Another painting of a flag-draped coffin was inspired by “watching the news one day about a soldier who had been in Afghanistan. He came home and he got shot around the block from his house. I think his mom said he had been on three deployments.” 

Despite the happy, vibrant colors, Bagley says with a laugh, “When I work I listen to very depressing music.” He goes on, “The paintings come from a song, a feeling, a title. They are generated from a dark place, a sadness, a melancholy. ”

The paintings are born from this somber emotional space, “but when I sit down and work, it’s all technical. The sketch can take longer than the painting.” 

Bagley’s skills in drawing and draftsmanship are evident – every line on his paintings is first drawn out. “There is no guesswork in the composition and perspective. I must get it perfect.” 

Showing me a painting of a lady with a purse at a funeral, he talks about Googling old-time purse latches; showing me a painting of an Easter basket (inspired by a childhood photograph of his sister standing outside of church on Easter Sunday) he talks about Googling various styles of basket weaving, and going down rabbit holes of internet research.

The technical quality of Bagley’s oil painting is phenomenal, the simplicity of his finished canvases feels fresh and contemporary, and the messaging is subtle, yet powerful when revealed. 

With goals to be represented by an additional contemporary southern gallery, Bagley says, “I’m more excited than ever to be painting.” 

Check out his work for yourself at Gallery 10 upstairs at the Art Center at City Market, 204 W. St. Julian Street, and follow him on Instagram at @bobbybagleyfineart.

About The Author

Beth Logan

I am originally from Portrush, Northern Ireland, and emigrated to San Francisco after attending the University of Belfast. My photographer - and ex - husband brought us to Savannah, and it has been my passion to get to know and to be involved in the local art community ever since. I look forward to profiling artists,...
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