Happy to be Here: A nostalgic viewpoint

Published 8:49 am Thursday, March 9, 2023

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 hadn’t been to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts (LCVA) since before COVID became a household word. Some neighbors suggested it was time for another visit. They spoke highly of the Eldridge Bagley exhibition, “Reflections of the Heart.” Under the influence of their contagious zeal, I went.

The experience was a delight. The paintings would have been enchanting under any circumstances, but their focus on rural and southside Virginia lent them a special significance. Familiar landscapes. Recognizable buildings. Everyday people. 

Bagley’s depictions reveal an authenticity that comes from experience. According to LCVA notes, he grew up on a farm in nearby Lunenburg County and began his painting career by repurposing two panels from a kit he bought at a dimestore (remember those?) for $1.98. The current exhibit spans 50 years of his work. It features his perspective on the ambiance of an earlier era. With his paintbrush, he preserves the values he esteems.

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Individual scenes tell stories about life in rural Virginia: barns and livestock; a milking bucket overturned, much to a cat’s delight; the tragedy of a housefire. Many images feature cooperative hard work. There’s the urgency of getting hay in before the arrival of an oncoming thunderstorm. Diligent hands labor together to harvest pears. The arduous task of picking tobacco takes place in blazing summertime heat.

Change is evident. A tobacco field is repurposed for strawberries. An old clapboard church is relocated. Buggies and wagons stand idle as cars and trucks take over. Some buildings are abandoned, and construction for a new superstore begins.

Family life also plays an important role. Bagley shows us a bountiful table at a reunion. He depicts coming home for Christmas. He lets us watch a group of children playing in the front yard and another group combating the summer heat with popsicles. His families embrace a simple lifestyle that includes push mowers and second-hand equipment. They seem content to live in humble homes and house trailers.

As I walked through the exhibit, I felt immersed in its peaceful, bygone world. I enjoyed the opportunity to experience memories of days gone by. Bagley’s evocation of nostalgia left me with a yearning for simpler, more harmonious, times.

This nostalgic viewpoint is reinforced in weather-related themes. Many scenes with rain and snow are beautiful and serene, but they also serve as a reminder that memory can be shaped by affection. Eyes focused on pleasant things in the past tend to overlook discomfort and strife. As a result, Bagley’s paintings do not depict ugliness. They wash it away in the rain or cover it up under a blanket of snow.

At the same time, Bagley demonstrates his awareness of the era’s problems, which include poverty and racial tensions, but he offers a gentle hope that reconciliation will come. For example, his painting “Soul Colors” shows people walking through the rain toward a rural church. The scene, viewed from high above, includes umbrellas of many kinds and colors, representing the diversity of the gathering congregation. A more recent painting, “Can’t We Talk,” with a fiery urban background, seems out of place among so many peaceful rural portrayals, but its focus on conversation in a multiracial group draws attention to the importance of talking and listening.

One of my favorite paintings was “A Virtual Life.” In it, the luminous colors of a natural landscape appear on a computer monitor and a mobile phone. The real world surrounding these electronic devices is faded. The depiction serves as an invitation to disconnect from artificial illusions and re-engage with family and nature.

If you haven’t yet been to the LCVA to see this exhibition, you still have time. It runs through April 16. LCVA is located in Farmville at 129 N. Main Street (the corner of Main Street and Third Street). Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (closed holidays). If you’re interested in hearing from the artist himself, Bagley will give a talk at LCVA on Wednesday, March 15 beginning at 6 p.m. The program is free and no registration is required. For more information, visit https://lcva.longwood.edu.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.