Gravitational Forces

All artists have ancestors. Mine are numerous and varied. As a young painter setting out in the early 80s, I came under the gravitational pull of Edward Hopper. No influence has ever been as powerful for me  as was the Edward Hopper retrospective at the Whitney in the late 70's or early 80s. The great late work I had known, but I'd never seen his early work, or his student paintings: small palette knife paintings of the rocky coast of Maine, streets and houses, stairwells and alleys, bridge overpasses, city rooftops, railroad yards... I knew these images! They were images of my hometown, Lynchburg, Virginia. Why hadn't I seen it before?  Great art teaches the eye a way of seeing.  I started painting in Lynchburg's seedy, down-at-the-heels downtown in 1980. Growing up there, I'd inherited the general prejudice against that quarter of town, seeing it as a squalid, dangerous, and tragic place. Thanks to Hopper, I saw it with new eyes, literally. It was here, on the streets, bridges, and parking lots of downtown Lynchburg, that I did my first plein-air urban landscapes. 

This painting was done in the long shadows of an early Sunday morning from the top level of a parking lot. From there I could look out at the red brick building across the street. Lynchburg's topography was unusual. The city was built in the 18th century, on sculpted terraces rising up from the James River. From one street you could look down on the rooftops and facades of the buildings on the next street. 

At that time, the basic problem of painting for me had boiled down to the challenge of simply seeing the color and shape of things, and learning to mix equivalent colors and relationships in paint. I learned that painting small and quickly was the best way to learn certain fundamentals of painting. It was liberating to be free of my earlier preoccupations and anxieties about developing a "personal style," and just give myself to the "suchness" of the world, my own little piece of it.

I did this painting in the Spring of 1982 from the window of a frame shop, Halley's Antiques, where I was working. It was a kind of talisman for me. The James River lies beyond the buildings on Commerce Street, with the bluffs of Madison Heights rising up as a backdrop. The building on the right was a hardware store where I used to go with my Grandfather when I was younger.

I modeled these early efforts after the simplicity and directness of Hopper's early paintings. I was thinking a lot about his Parisian studies that spring and certain ways that he conveyed the transparency of budding branches against the sky using opaque paint and optical mixing. Also, Hopper's statement appealed to me: that his only aspiration as a painter had been "to paint sunlight on the side of a house." With this little 8" x 10" canvas, I felt for the first time that I knew what my life as a painter was going to be about. It still is a touchstone when I get too far off base. 

Other landscapes from the 80's in Lynchburg, my first paintings after college:

One might say that light is the true subject of all visual art, since light is the necessary condition for seeing anything at all. It certainly is what I consider my subject. If you paint outdoors, it doesn't take long to realize that the extremes of day are more fertile than midday. This was done in the early morning, an old gas station with a serpentine stucco facade. The building behind was used as a hospital in the Civil War. Like many of Lynchburg's historic buildings, it has gone the way of Joni Mitchell's famous song.

A railroad culvert and the derelict Piedmont Mills that face the James River and the Madison Heights bluffs. The riverfront sported many defunct industry buildings and warehouses in the 1980s. Most of them have disappeared in the past twenty years.

In the early part of the 20th century the iron foundry along the James River and the railroad collaborated to build the Williams Viaduct, a beautiful arched bridge that spanned the James. It used to figure in the Guiness Book of World Records as the bridge having the most complicated system of off-ramps of any bridge in the world. The ramps serviced the Glamorgan Pipe Foundry and other industries along the river.

I used to wander around beneath the Williams Viaduct in all kinds of weather. On this particular winter day, it was like Chartres, or some other European cathedral, shrouded in fog. 

When I started out teaching, I held some of my first landscape classes near the Williams Viaduct. At the time my students had mixed feelings about painting such "ugly," urban subjects. Now, the riverfront is the site of an annual Bateaux festival, numerous restaurants and walking trails, plus a public fountain in the river that looks more like a water-main break than the public monument it's supposed to be. Unfortunately there's little left of the original architecture.

At some point, the powers-that-be decided that the Williams Viaduct was simply too beautiful to keep (my own theory) so they tore it down and replaced it with a larger, wider, more "efficient" structure. The earth moving it required to accommodate the new bridge's massive scale completely altered the landscape of downtown Lynchburg. It was never my intention to celebrate these changes by painting them. I just felt compelled to witness and put down what I saw happening.

This was my last painting of the Williams Viaduct after the new bridge was completed and the process of demolishing the old bridge had begun. The piles of rubble in the sunlight reminded me of Giuseppe Abbati's small 19th century painting of Tuscan marble blocks. It took about 6 months to put up the bland, prefabricated steel and concrete of the new bridge. It took over a year to knock down the Williams Viaduct. I was there when the massive wrecking ball slammed into its graceful arches. Despite all the photo-ops over the preceding years, with the local Congressman wielding an icepick to show how dangerously decrepit the Viaduct was, all the wrecking ball's impact managed to do was scuff off a  few tiny pieces of concrete.

The old bridge was a unique and magnificent work of design, tailor-made to fit the unique topography of Lynchburg. The new bridge might as well have been lifted from any American interstate. Some of us felt the old bridge should be kept as a monument, or as a public space for a farmers' market perhaps, but the liability costs were too great, I was told. The Lynchburg Museum has in its collection a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, who kept a home not far from Lynchburg. Business, and money, are all that Lynchburgers care about in the end, Jefferson wrote. I left Lynchburg not long after this.


  1. I love these painting. The combination of city-mountain-landscape. Makes for most interesting compositions and the loose free quality of your paint with the subtle shifts in color--inspiring.

  2. Thanks, Marcia. Quite the contrast with my present setting, Delaware, OH, with the ever present horizon line dividing earth from sky. Still, I think we paint best when we're trying to learn something, and I'm trying to learn what I can do with this new landscape.

  3. ..History ,biography,reflections .. it is interesting to read how an inspiration and/or someone inspiring can guideone on their path. loved it!!


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