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Spartanburg Abstract Artist Captures Energy From Vintage Photographs

A photograph of a cat on art supplies by Elizabeth Bagwell.

Spartanburg artist Elizabeth Bagwell will exhibit her latest collection — The Southerner Abroad: A Modern Lifestyle Installation — at the West Main Artists Co-op in Spartanburg May 17-June 16.

The new collection is a vibrant mix of 40-plus paintings on canvas, paper and metal based on the energy and movement drawn from vintage photographs of Paris from the late-1930s to early-1940s.

A public reception will be held from 5-9 p.m. Thursday, May 17 during the city’s monthly ArtWalk. The exhibit will be open to the public from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Bagwell, known as an abstract expressionist, will present work that invokes raw emotion through the use of thick and thin lines, often using a single color in subtle, varying shades. As a professional artist, this is her first solo exhibit.

Bagwell’s work is often described as bold, raw and mid-century modern with a sense of energy and drama through her use of dark versus light. She works in a variety of mediums including acrylic, latex, ink, charcoal, vintage and found papers, pastels, and hand cut or torn paper.

“This exhibit was inspired by souvenir photographs my paternal grandfather, Clyde E. Bagwell Sr., picked up in Paris, France, during World War II,” she said. “He showed them once or twice to me as a young child. He was quiet about his time in the military but those photographs have always stood out in my memory. They captured a moment in time — a glimpse of daily life and its many stages — a time gone by.

“I went through over two dozen photographs and selected six to eight that were visually very strong — energy seemed to be jumping off the page — whether due to the lines of buildings — thick and thin — or due to individuals looking like small ants scurrying about their daily life through bustling city streets,” she continued. “It is from these photographs that I set to work creating my lines and many layers. I stripped these images of buildings, landscaping, and people down to the bare bones — their most basic shapes — rectangles, circles, squares, half-circles, and clean, uncomplicated lines. From there I worked to capture the vivacity of each snapshot and translate it through mark-making and color placement to create vibrant, strong, raw works of art.”

Bagwell, 33, is a native of Spartanburg and a graduate of Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. She holds a degree in history and a minor in art administration. She has been creating her entire life and pursuing her creative pursuits professionally for several years now. She is a juried member of the Artists’ Guild of Spartanburg, a member of the Guild of American Papercutters, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and the Spartanburg Downtown Association. In the winter of 2017 she was a guest artist at the SC Governor’s Conference on Tourism & Travel held in Spartanburg, where she did a live, freehand cutting of pineapple silhouettes. Bagwell is continually inspired by post-war contemporary artists Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Perle Fine, and modern masters Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, as well as South Carolina silhouette artist Carew Rice.

Much of the work in this exhibit hints at a playfulness seen in Matisse’s later in life, large-scale paper cuttings or blue nude series.  Dramatic gestural lines as often seen in the work of Motherwell, Kline, and Fine come to the forefront ushering in an understated complexity. Many of the pieces are abstract verging on being non-representational. Yet, there is a sense of seeing something for the first time, life stripped down to the bare bones. Bagwell’s work brings about an appreciation for and a new understanding to life in its most primal form.

“This collection of work is characteristic of my abstract work in many ways but is also a further exploration of light vs. dark and the push and pull of shape and form in composition,” she said. “You can expect to see lots of texture — whether it’s handmade watercolor paper or layers upon layers of paint, charcoal, pastel, and ink. Texture and truly a rawness to my work are what you will find. I have a deep fascination with lines, shapes, and the push and pull they create with one another. I am drawn to deeply saturated colors and finding a soft, quiet counterbalance with white, pale shades of blue, and tan/ off-white. It’s a shock to the system — but a delightful shock — one that will keep you thinking long after you view the painting in person.”

Bagwell outlined her method for creating this collection, “Many people are probably curious as to how I begin each piece. My process is pretty similar regardless of the surface I will be working on. I begin by looking at photographs and asking myself, ‘What do I see?  What shapes? What energy is jumping off the photograph to me?’ Then I do several quick thumbnail sketches to capture my initial reactions to the lines and action in the image. After that, I look at my sketches and really zoom in on a small portion of the sketch that I think has the most interest — the most life to it. From there I grab one of my favorite tools, charcoal, and lay down lines on the canvas based on my initial sketch. At that point, manymany layers begin to form and build upon one another. As the layers begin to build, I then start to scrape them back to expose the many levels of paint, pastel, charcoal, etc. until I feel the piece is done. Often I strip back layers and then add new layers. It is a constant game of balance until I find the right stopping point.”

All of the work will be for sale, ranging in price from $30 to $4,700.

“I appreciate the opportunity that an organization like WMAC offers me — a venue to exhibit and sell my work, the chance to connect with fellow artists and collectors, and the Spartanburg community at large. It’s priceless!” she said.

“Another very important part of this exhibition is my goal of creating a home-like setting to showcase my art — allowing viewers to understand how local, original art can be displayed in their own homes,” Bagwell added. “I will be including touches like live plants, a gallery-style wall grouping featuring a variety of new and vintage frames with small to medium works. Fabric featuring designs from my paintings are also in the works.”

In her artist’s statement, Bagwell says, “I am fascinated with creative use of negative space in my work. In particular, I love circles and bold, thick, super-dark lines that ooze energy and movement. I like to work with contrast, that push and pull of quiet versus movement and energy in a piece. And you’ll see that I frequently work in black and white with subtle shades of tan, cream, and gray to soften the palette. Laying down that first instinctual mark or making the first cut of a silhouette brings excitement and fear but teaches me to slow down, enjoy the experience of creating, and to discover beauty in the small details – some planned, some unplanned.”

Bagwell works in several mediums and focuses on abstract expressionist paintings, freehand cut silhouettes, mixed media works, and watercolor illustrations.

For more information about Bagwell’s exhibit, visit WestMainArtists.org or ElizabethBagwell.com. Follow her daily practice on Instagram @elizabethbagwellstudios.

(Photograph by Elizabeth Bagwell.)