Morris Zwagil paints vivid images of Jewish life on slices of marble and stone — Orthodox rabbis of wise countenances and long beards, Torah scrolls, constellations of David’s star and other classic depictions of the Chosen People.
A schtick perhaps, including the Shema painted in bright, Hebrew lettering on kippot of black velvet. But it’s a successful gig, popular at Jewish festivals and craft shows.
And it brings nachas, fulfillment and recognition to Zwagil, a 93-year-old resident of Owings Mills (by way of Pikesville, by way of Oswego Avenue, by way of East Baltimore).
Although he’s been creating art since childhood, it’s been unsung work — the sweat of chase-a-buck-to-put-food-on-the-table work — that has defined the bulk of Zwagil’s career.
“I’ve had a pretty tough life,” says Zwagil, born in February of 1926 at the old Sinai Hospital on Monument Street. “I grew up on Broadway, just below Baltimore Street. I quit school when I was 14 because I couldn’t take being poor any more. I had to make a living.”
Before Zwagil bailed from P.S. #46 at North and Central avenues, a teacher who recognized his talent arranged for Morris to take Saturday classes on scholarship at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
At the time, the boy was working in pencil — the everyday, No. 2 kind lying around any household, drawing whatever passing scenes caught his eye. “Couldn’t afford color,” he says with a laugh.
Zwagil’s gift for depicting the world around him has been a balm throughout his life, but often took a backseat until he was able to retire.
“I was an installment man. You know what that means?” he asks, eyes twinkling with the mischief of a clever kid right out of “The Adventures of Augie March” if Saul Bellow had set his masterpiece in Charm City instead of the Windy City.
The installment work of which Zwagil speaks is not the kind where you hook up stoves and refrigerators. It’s a door-to-door sales and payment plan by which customers — primarily housewives of a bygone era — pay off bedspreads, bath towels, pots and pans (all now made in China and sold from stores the size of airplane hangars) a little bit at a time.
Morris sold the goods out of his car — the 1960s version of a street peddler with a cart — on a route that included Highlandtown and neighborhoods across the city line in Dundalk and Essex. It was a mean and dangerous business, and he hung in there longer than most.
“Some of the Polish people were anti-Semitic and put in a word edgewise once in a while, but they bought from me and I didn’t care,” he says. “But after I was robbed for the fifth time, I had to get off the street.”
He then drove a cab for the Belle Isle Co., and volunteered for the local Jewish community’s efforts in the late 1980s and early ’90s to resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union. Along the way — raising four children with his first wife, the former Rosalie Tenner, who died in 1989, and remarrying Aline Speesler — Zwagil was able to devote more and more time to his first love, art.
It is no surprise that many of his rabbis resemble his beloved paternal grandfather, Louis Zwagil, a ritual slaughterer who worked out of a garage near the original Shaarei Zion shul at Park Heights and Hilldale avenues.
One of his strongest memories is of holding Zayde Zwagil’s hand as they walked to Shabbat services at an early 20th-century synagogue on Cottage Avenue. Though Morris speaks and understands Yiddish, biblical Hebrew was beyond the boy. He told his grandfather that he didn’t understand, and the elder Zwagil replied, “Say it in English, God understands …”
Even the most devoted artisan tires of making the same thing over and over. One day, simply to amuse himself, Zwagil broke free of his pattern, selected a thin slab of marble and painted a bearded prophet known as the Red Headed Stranger from the Lost Tribe of marijuana-besotted minstrels.
“It’s Willie Nelson!” he says with a big smile, showing off the portrait with pride.
Given his passion for Judaica, it’s a wonder that Morris didn’t choose to paint Willie’s fellow troubadour, Kinky Friedman of Texas Jewboy fame.
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.