Abandoned Gas Station in Robertsville, Missouri
Despite another night’s restless sleep, I somehow found the energy and enthusiasm today to push out the remainder of this watercolor and declare it a fait accompli. As stated in prior posts, the abandoned service station is located at Robertsville, Missouri, west of St. Louis near historic route 66, six miles southwest of Pacific. I created an earlier version titled “Cold Desolation” which is a frontal view of the station.
Though my body is ragged from lack of sleep, I feel compelled to write about this satisfying day in the classroom. My topic in regular Art History covered the Neo-Classical, Romantic and Realist periods of European and American painting. As I lectured through these areas, I found my personal life and my art connecting more intimately with these periods than ever before.
The Neo-Classical era of painting, corresponding with the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, focused on discipline, precision, draughtsmanship and composition. It was an era of painting beset by rules and clarity of presentation. Speaking of my own artistic endeavors, I have always been more of a draughtsman than a painter. My painting professor from Vienna always told me that I created “colored drawings.” I suppose that has something to do with my settling on watercolor as a means of expression, since I pursue it as an extension of drawing, and while creating a composition such as the one just posted, I feel that I am drawing 90% of it, and making an effort to paint the rest. Moreover, as I worked at this piece, I was constantly stepping back to view it from a distance and make decisions concerning contrast, area of focus, warm vs. cool colors, and high vs. low intensity. Compositional questions dogged me throughout this work. So yes, I feel a Neo-Classical strain as I work at my art.
After the Neo-Classicists had their day in court, the pendulum swung to a movement we call Romanticism. This group of painters rejected the structural “Apollonian” disciplines and rule-following of the classical style, and preferred instead to explore the spontaneity, the dark side, the emotive side of the human experience. Dionysus seems to be the patron deity of this movement, as Goya, Gericault and Delacroix launched excursions into the turbulent side of life. When I showed my students the watercolor and pencil rendering of the ruins of the Medieval cathedral at Tintern Abbey, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, I tried to convey to them the dual sense of loss and presence one can feel when regarding an abandoned subject. My own company Recollections 54 (
) focuses on abandoned subjects, and the more I study and paint them, the more I feel that dual experience. I was glad when school finally ended today. I was ready to re-enter the garage studio and finish this painting, seeking to inject into it some sense of loss, abandonment and opportunities missed. I feel the Romantic strain when I focus on these kinds of subjects in painting, and I know the overwhelming feelings expressed by Wordsworth in his “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”
Realism followed on the heels of the Neo-Classical and Romantic movements. G. W. F. Hegel has left us with a philosophy of history that focuses on dual movements (thesis and antithesis) that become locked in dispute, and when a resolution arises that somehow finds a consensus between them, we call it a synthesis. That is what the Realist school of painting seemed to do. The artists could acknowledge that life contains rules and structure on the one hand, and the opposite extreme of romance and risk on the other, but life for the most part is Aristotle’s Golden Mean between the extremes. Life involves going to work everyday, paying bills, eating, sleeping, and navigating through the extremes of success and failure. The school of Realism wants to show slices of everyday life as they really are. They thought history was for the past and romance was for dreamers.
Sometimes, I feel that my paintings reflect more the school of Realism than that of the Classics or Romance. They are paintings of bland, dull, quiet, discarded subjects from daily life that the majority will pass without a look. And the more I labor to turn them into works of art, applying disciplinary compositional techniques (Neo-Classical) or injecting them with drama (Romantic), the more I come away saying, “These are just subjects from the real, gray world, nothing more.” Interestingly enough, I have never been able to separate my art from my profession, any more than one can separate the creation from its creator. The reality is that I am a public schoolteacher, often with ideas and talk that exceed my accomplishments. That alone could render me a Realist. But my final word is this–I am, in the final word, an unfrustrated artist who always finds the act of creating a source of genuine joy and satisfaction, even when the work of art falls below expectations. Like a satisfied fly fisherman returning from the stream with an empty creel who says, “It was still beautiful being out on the stream, breathing, relaxing, and listening to the 4-count rhythm of my fly casting.”
Another watercolor in the hopper. A very satisfying day in the classroom as well as in the studio. And a chance to think through some large issues that inspired the genius of Enlightenment thinkers and artists. Thank you for reading and taking time to share this one with me.