Being an artist, writing short stories and years in love with the theater are the least of Henrietta Mantooth Bagley’s qualities that strike those fortunate enough to cross her path. Those are, rather, the light in her eyes, the quickness of her mind, the openness of her heart and the authenticity that precedes her everywhere. She is an American original.
I met Henrietta, a friend of my daughter Susan, in a small restaurant in New York City’s Chelsea district. Nothing in my journalistic background had prepared me for the frankness of our conversation. I remember asking her – I don’t remember why – what she, a widow then 88, most missed about marriage. “The sex,” was her immediate answer. When I responded by asking if she hadn’t gotten enough sex in her life, she said: “No one gets enough sex.” There was much more to our conversation, but I knew I’d met someone with whom to reckon. Several months later Susan and I interviewed her in anticipation of publishing this online magazine. You’re encouraged to read the full text. The link at the bottom will take you there.
For those who would settle for a shorter and more conventional version, Henrietta Bagley was born on December 7, 1924, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her grandmother was part Cherokee, and the Mantooth name was prominent in the family, so Henrietta took it, an annexation that on other occasions she did with the names Jane and Ann, among others. She has a thing about names, as you’ll read in the unabridged account.
Henrietta somehow made her way through California enroute to the University of Missouri at Columbia and its renowned journalism school, where she not only learned the rudiments of the trade but had her first love affair with a fellow she later followed to Venezuela, after receiving a McCarthy era letter asking questions about a supposed leftish meeting at college. There she won her reporting spurs and learned Spanish before moving on to Brazil to take on Portuguese and meet the man who would add Bagley to the list.
It’s time to talk about her art. She and her sister had self- taught each other as children, when they were decidedly if not desperately poor. “We had mulberry bushes and we learned that we could boil onions and make yellow, and then we had bluing.” For paper they used Big Chief writing tablets.
(There’s a strong streak of practicality in the Mantooth line. When her sister was born prematurely at seven months, Henrietta recalls the doctor said: “Don’t count on this baby surviving.” Then: “My grandmother wrapped her in gauze and put her in the roaster on the door of the open oven. She fed her with an eyedropper dipped in milk until my mother could nurse her.” When I asked where that wisdom came from, Henrietta said: “I think it’s in all of us. We manifest it in different ways depending on what we need to do, but I think it’s all there if we don’t interfere.” It was only one of the words-to-the-wise attributions that come out effortlessly when you talk with her.)
By now Henrietta’s art has been recognized enough to win a grant from the Joan Mitchell foundation, which spent two years archiving her work. She has had a number of exhibitions, the most recent titled: “Jail Birds & the New Jim Crow.” As she describes it, “one section of the show was this 28-foot-wide installation painted on found corrugated cardboard shapes and brown paper. On the perpendicular side walls, separate pieces continued to tell the story: a floor-to-ceiling bas relief of painted black bars, naming in white and silver writing all 69 prisons in New York State. Next to that was a painting on cardboard of two amorous white ducks with the words ‘Conjugal Visits Are Being Curtailed’ and ‘Future Inmates,’ a painting of 20 bird’s eggs.” The former is pictured with this story along with other examples of her work.
Henrietta backs up her artistic expression about the state of our justice system with her own point of view. “I was asked: ‘Why did you use birds as stand-ins for prisoners and guards; birds are so free?’ Yes, but some birds are caged. In our society the birds caged as household pets are doted on – well fed and watered and talked to with pleasure. Our jail birds are in their cages, some in solitary confinement for weeks, even years, faced with derision, threats, harassment and sexual abuse, beatings and other physical violence, in some cases leading to death. And among the guilty are the falsely accused, juveniles and mentally disabled.” The high point of the show came for her when one woman wrote in the gallery book: “Bless you for your activism at 90,” signed “Karen, an inmate’s mom.”
“Yes,” Henrietta admits freely. “I am 90 years old with a trail of work behind me and an exciting road ahead, melding art and social issues. My great-grandmother in Tennessee lived to be 113, smoked a corncob pipe and had a shot of corn whiskey every morning. Those hillbillies made their own installations. Since they couldn’t afford a church building they dragged tree limbs and branches and piled them high, making what they called a ’brush altar’ for worship.
So improvisation and longevity are in my DNA. I was a Missouri depression kid. I saw the dust-wrecked land, foreclosures, stunted lives, Black ghettos and discrimination. During my 18 years in Latin America I was influenced by ancient Indian ruins, African rituals and folklore and sometimes traveled on almost Biblical pilgrimages where people came in trucks like covered wagons, horse and mule back, with children and their herds of zebu cattle and camped on the plains by the rivers.
In Brazil I collected ex-votos in wood, clay, wax and even plastic. Back in New York as a performer and artist I created experimental theater with poets, dancers, musicians and other actors, and constructed and painted visuals that became part of the elemental action on stage. If I come back again,” she says, “it will be as an actor.” To close the loop on those many names, there
was still one more. It came from her father, who disappeared early on. “He didn’t abandon us, but he messed up. He didn’t come home anymore and he married someone else, but he was always running between the two families and I loved him. He never passed by without some caress. He called me Amelia though that wasn’t my name. That was in the time of Amelia Earhart. So he must have seen something in me that was adventurous.”
To which we all say: “OK, Amelia, bring it on.”
While an artist-in-residence at the University of Illinois in the 1970’s.