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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

West Virginia Art

B & O Class M1 in West Virginia, William Gardoski. The railroad "made" West Virginia,                     
even though western Virginia before the Civil War was seen as little more than a                     
scenic obstacle in getting from Baltimore to Ohio. Coal changed all that.                      
If Andy Warhol had been born a
fifty miles south of Pittsburgh,
he might have painted this.
A little over a week ago I wrote highlighting the art and artists of my home state of Ohio. We live about ten miles from the Ohio River, across which lies John Denver's "Almost Heaven, West Virginia..." (from his 1995 hit song Take Me Home, Country Roads). If that's the case, then southeastern Ohio is almost "almost heaven." Our family has close ties to the Mountain State. My wife was born there, her family is from Wood County (Parkersburg), West Virginia, and I've done more than my share of arts and crafts shows in that state. I've also painted a fair number of landscapes depicting the hills and valleys, rivers and streams that have caught the eyes of artists for almost two centuries. Yet strangely, insofar as art is concerned, the medium of choice for West Virginians seems not to be painting but photography. I'd venture to guess there are two to three times as many professional photographers in the state as there are painters.

Smoky Mountains Twilight, Teresa Pennington
(I know, the Smoky Mountains aren't in West Virginia, but Teresa
is; and perhaps she's describing them rather than naming them.)
Not surprisingly, West Virginia artists, regardless of their media, overwhelmingly choose, above all else, to depict the hills and valleys of their state. (Few who have ever seen real mountains would consider the Appalachians to be among them, though West Virginians proudly do). Likewise, high on the list of typical subjects for West Virginia painters are, wildlife, rural genre, history, trains (top), and the mixed blessings of the state's coal fields (below). Such scenes as Gerald Carpenter's Aging in West Virginia do not endear him to those promoting state tourism, but one need not even leave the interstate highways winding up, over, around, and sometimes even through the so-called "mountains" to see hundreds of such blighted landscapes.

Aging in West Virginia, Gerald Carpenter.
Although some of the state parks in West Virginia feature what might pass for mountaineer art galleries, most native painters, and artisans live and die by the summer arts and crafts show around the state. Unfortunately for painters, most of the outsiders visiting and buying at such shows do not consider painting to be an authentic native art. Thus, painting sizes are often relatively small, prices ridiculously reasonable, with style and content tending toward what easterners would consider "folk art." Watercolor landscapes are quite popular, if for no other reason than they suggest to the purchaser that they were painted "on location" (whether they were or not). Once more, the art of photography dominates.

At West Virginia arts and crafts shows, painting is necessarily considered
a performance art. (I once did the same scene he's painting, only larger.)
Winter at Glade Creek Grist Mill.
Without a doubt, the most painted, most trite, most overexposed, scene in West Virginia is the Babcock State Park Glade Creek Grist Mill. Even if you've never known it by name, it probably looks familiar. It may well be the most photographed mill in the United States. And before you marvel at how well preserved it is, the picturesque landmark is only forty years old--its a total reconstruction--based upon a similar one which had once ground corn and other grains elsewhere along Glade Creek. Bill Holkham's watercolor (below) is one of the more original depictions I've seen. Winter at Glade Creek Grist Mill (left), leaves me in a quandary. It's a beautiful, eye-catching image, but I'm unable to decide if its a highly realistic painting or just another (but not-quite-so- tiresome photo of the grinding tourist attraction. By the way, (in the interest of full disclosure) several years ago, back in 1976, when the mill was brand new, I succumbed to temptation and painted it.

Babcock State Park,  Bill Holkham
Being a landscape painter in West Virginia is not a path to world renown or from rags to riches. The Internet and some obviously do-it-yourself Websites help, but even when the artist goes out of his way to try and place the scene geographically in a potential buyer's mind, the reaction is likely to be, "huh?" West Virginia landscape artist, Keith Johnson, in displaying his Germany Valley, (below, 2013) writes: "Germany Valley, Rt. 33 near Riverton, West Virginia, Pendleton County. Okay, I'll take his word for it. Even on a map, I had trouble finding Pendleton County, much less Germany Valley (it's on the far eastern border, due west of Washington, D.C.).

Germany Valley, 2013, Keith Johnson
Pale Horse, 2013, Keith Johnson.
All of this is not to imply that West Virginia art and artists lack sophistication or expressive works apart from landscapes, waterfalls, and reconstructed grist mills. The same Keith Johnson of Pendleton County, West Virginia, who painted the remote Germany Valley (above), also rendered the Pale Horse (left), which wouldn't look out of place in any big-name, prestigious, east-coast art gallery more easily found on a map.

Extreme finger painting--the next generation of West Virginia artists.



  1. Reminds me of the bucolic paintings of Isabelle Truchon!