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Railroads, perhaps more than any other form of transportation, have been a fundamental part of the American story. They gave us coast-to-coast travel, standard time and Grand Central Terminal.
But there's something about trains themselves - machinery chugging along a track - that has gotten under our collective skin. We sing about them, write about them and build models of them.
Robert Hauschild, a New London artist who died last year, painted them by the dozen. They were his passion, said his widow, Margaret Palmer.
Forty of Hauschild's train paintings are on display this month in "Whistle Stop," a show at the Studio 33 gallery on Bank Street in New London. The collection is a study in context as the artist places the iron behemoths in a variety of settings that alter both the viewer's perspective of trains and the personalities they project.
Most striking by far are three bold, head-on views of steam locomotives that lack all extraneous detail and are in effect portraits. The canvas is all boilers, bolts and cowcatchers, and the message seems no more complex than "I am a train."
Other paintings explore trains' relationship to people. In one, an engineer climbing into the cab is dwarfed by the massive maze of metal, and in another an approaching train is small and distant but still looming as it bears down on a passenger waiting to board at a station platform.
Palmer, who considers it her mission to promote her late husband's voluminous work, and Sara Munro, the owner of Studio 33, decided to display his work in the shop where he often gave demonstrations in watercolor, his preferred medium. They found enough train paintings to fill four shows, both said.
Trains rumble past the back wall of the gallery regularly, and by chance, the opening of the show, on June 1, coincided with the announcement of additional Shore Line East service to New London.
For Hauschild, who grew up along the Hudson River, in close proximity to the rails, trains were an early fascination that lasted a lifetime, Palmer said. He belonged to many railroad historical societies and subscribed to "Locomotive Quarterly," a magazine that featured period photographs of old steam engines. The cover of the magazine was always a painting, and when the cover artist died in 1998, he applied for the job and was hired.
"He was really thrilled to get that," Palmer said.
Hauschild produced 32 covers for the magazine over the next eight years until it folded in 2006, and 22 of the original watercolors are featured in the show.
The editor of the magazine would supply him with a handful of old photos of a particular engine, and the two would discuss what kind of painting Hauschild should create from them, Palmer said. He might sketch in a depot in the background or add snow if the cover was for the winter issue.
The cover paintings fill one wall of the exhibition, and while the details of the locomotives and settings vary, the paintings themselves follow the same general form, most showing three-quarter views of engines in motion with the rest of the train often not visible at all.
It is Hauschild's other train art that is the heart of the exhibit. Created for shows or just for the artist's pleasure, they reflect in considerable variety the changing relationship of trains to their surroundings.
When nature is emphasized, the trains are sometimes swallowed up by a mountain range or a gorge, or they can blot out half the sky with a plume of brown smoke. In other views, trains are in harmony with their world as they move along a sea of tracks or ease through a grade crossing.
Sometimes Hauschild brings a sense of architecture to the scene, and it tends to dominate. He loved to paint old buildings in New London and did four posters for New London Main Street. The same feel he brought to those projects applies here, where a train is inconspicuous under the wide, sloping roof of a station or enclosed by a towering coal dock.
The show runs through June 29, but Studio 33 will keep several of his works on display after that to honor his connection to the shop, Munro said.
WHAT: "Whistle Stop: The Art of Trains by Robert Hauschild"
WHERE: Studio 33 Art and Frame Gallery, 140 Bank St., New London
WHEN: Through June 29
HOURS: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Wed. and Fri.; 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Thurs., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.
INFO: www.studio33pictureframes.com, (860) 442-6355