The people, the buildings, the tracks and the trains themselves make a powerful and common visual representation of the railroad.
Artists throughout several decades have been capturing the culture and history of the railroad on canvas, paper and sculpture, among other media. Some of the artwork has focused on the railroad itself, while often the railroad has become a natural part of the landscape of a place making its way into the artwork.
In celebration of the connection between art and the railroad, the Hockaday Museum of Art is presenting Hear the Whistle Blow! Art of the Railway. The exhibit opening this fall at the Kalispell museum will feature nostalgic and contemporary works featuring the railway as seen through the artists’ creative eyes.
Whitefish artists Rob Akey and Jack Dykstra have served as guest curators of the exhibit, which was born out of conversations they’ve had over years about the connection between the railroad and art.
Dykstra is a railroad enthusiast who has detailed knowledge about the railroad’s history throughout the world, but also how artists have depicted the railroad throughout history in their work. Growing up in Whitefish, Akey has a connection to the railroad that is familiar to many people.
“When you talk about the cultural narrative of the railroad it’s interesting, but as artists for us it’s natural to visit that through art,” Akey said. “The railroad is part of my fabric. I spent three summers as a gandy dancer working on the railroad, and I grew up listening to trains in the rail yard. The railway is part of who we are and it’s also a part of the landscape. The idea of the show is that the railroad has been interpreted through and has had an influence on art.”
The exhibit is set to feature roughly 45 pieces of fine art images along with supporting historic railroad material. The Stumptown Historical Society is one of the sponsors of the exhibit and has agreed to loan railroad items to the museum as part of the exhibit.
The exhibition will run Sept. 27 through Dec. 7 as part the Hockaday’s 50th anniversary celebration. Sponsors are still being sought for the exhibit.
Dykstra and Akey point to a painting entitled Rain, Steam and Speed, by 19 Century British painter J.M.W. Turner, as one of the first artworks influenced by the railroad. The oil landscape painting shows a railway engine moving along the tracks.
The painting, Dykstra explains, came at the dawn of the railroad in Great Britain, and serves as a representation of the beginning of the relationship between an artist and the railroad. A poster of the painting will serve as the opening artwork to set the stage for the historical journey of the exhibit at the Hockaday.
“The painting was the collision of art and the railroad,” Dykstra says. “It was the beginning of the steam-powered industrial revolution.”
Locally, the railroad has influenced the development of the Flathead Valley, along with art. That connection may resonate most strongly with the connection of the Great Northern Railway to Glacier National Park and the art that came as a result.
The Great Northern Railway regularly contracted artist to paint for promotional purposes. These original paintings of Glacier Park and Native Americans were displayed in depots and major cities across the nation resulting in Glacier as a top destination on passenger trains. Notable pieces include work by Charles M. Ruseell, John Fery, O.C. Seltzer and Winold Reiss.
A large fine art painting by American painter Oleg Stavrowski will be on display as part of the exhibit, and alongside it will be displayed a 1969 wall calendar on loan from the Stumptown Historical Society depicting the same scene.
“This is a great example of commercial artists benefiting fine art,” Akey says. “They were hired as commercial artists, but their work evolved into being considered part of the fine art category, in part, because of the beauty of the work. Art throughout the ages has been a mirror to society and this is shown as images of the industrial area turned into beautiful fine art.”
The exhibit follows the history of art and the railroad in different genres, but also looks into the present day with artists currently working focusing specifically on the railroad and those that have included the railroad as a part of their broader work. Historical artwork has been loaned to the museum for the exhibit and artists have created pieces specifically for the show that will also be for sale.
“We have scoured looking for work in the historical and contemporary art that depicts the railroad,” Akey said. “We’re looking at railroad artists, but also artists who have painted art including the railroad, and how the railroad has continued to influence us.”
Dykstra says the railroad has become part of the landscape, whether that’s the trains themselves making their way along a track in a mountain gorge or it be a grain silo set aside railroad tracks on the plains, making it nearly impossible for artists working in any genre to not include the railroad in their work. Looking beyond the artists themselves, there is a romantic nature to the railroad through transportation and for many a family connection.
“People identify with the railroad,” Dykstra said. “The railroad at one time was the largest employer in the country. Even today if you ask most people they have a grandfather or uncle who worked for the railroad.”
In addition to the Stumptown Historical Society, sponsors of the exhibit include the BNSF Foundation, the Whitefish Community Foundation, and Scott and Jane Wheeler.
Talks and docent tours will take place throughout the exhibition at the Hockaday at 302 Second Ave. E. in Kalispell. An opening reception of Hear the Whistle Blow! is set for Thursday, Sept. 26 from 5-7 p.m.
For more information, visit www.hockadaymuseum.org or call 755-5268.