Aimee Erickson

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En Train Air : A Painting Adventure on the Southwest Chief

May 7, 2019 - Clarke Condé of Alibi

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Larry Moore got tired of writing emails to Amtrak. He had this idea that a group of painters could ride the length of a route, get out for the day to paint at various points along the way and then travel on to the next stop until they reached the end of the line. They could show what the little towns along the way were like in their paintings. All he wanted was a response from Amtrak. All he got was nothing.

Moore then reached out to fellow plein air painter Charlie Hunter who he knew painted trains. It turns out Hunter not only painted trains, but had made a career out of booking train excursions. Two days later Hunter had put together an itinerary with all the details and a pop-up show in Santa Fe to top it all off. “I’m not a logistics guy,” said Moore, adding that he didn’t know anything about Hunter’s other career. He just knew he painted trains. “I couldn’t have contacted a better person,” he said. With that, the framework for En Train Air-1 was in place.

The voyage itself began on Saturday, April 13 at Union Station in Chicago as six celebrated American representational outdoor painters boarded the Southwest Chief to begin the 2,265-mile journey. The plan was to make stops in La Junta, Trinidad, Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy and then do a show [in Santa Fe]. The traveling painters—Aimee Erikson, Charlie Hunter, Shelby Keefe, Larry Moore, Randell Sexton and Jason Sacran—would then continue on to Winslow to stay and paint at La Posada through Easter, then on to Los Angeles before finally ending their trip with a panel discussion about the trip at the eighth annual Plein Air Convention in the San Francisco Bay area.

Part of the purpose of the trip is to have an adventure, part is to have dedicated time to paint in new surroundings, but another part is to raise awareness about the problems that Amtrak management is causing for the historic train line. Hunter is fanatical about trains and evangelical about these problems. “The Amtrak board, which is mostly Obama-era appointees, are very focused on the Northeast corridor, Boston to Washington. They want to divert as much funding to the Boston/Washington corridor as they can.”

Last year Amtrak management proposed stopping the service in the middle of Kansas and bussing riders to Albuquerque. The purpose, Hunter says, is to shift the costs of western trains onto the states. “In the law it says any run of under 750 miles has to be state supported.” Hunter says, “Their proposal to truncate the Southwest Chief in Dodge City and in Albuquerque would make both those services state supported. Not only would they be rid of the expense of running a long-distance train, they could bill the states through which those trains run for the expense of running them.”

The plan was halted after a bipartisan group of eight senators representing states along the Southwest Chief’s route sent a letter to Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson expressing their concerns over the proposed suspension of passenger service. Hunter sees this as a bipartisan issue. “In this era of hyper-partisanship it’s kind of wonderful that [Senator’s] Moran [R-Kansas], Udall [D-New Mexico] and Heinrich [D-New Mexico] have all gotten together and written a join letter that says ‘stop threatening the long distance network.’”

Hunter believes that Amtrak management just doesn’t grasp the importance of the train to the rural west. “The thing I don’t think they understood is that to these little towns that are struggling to survive, Amtrak is the lifeblood. It’s one thing that sets them apart from a whole bunch of other places. It’s the only public transportation to a lot of these towns.”

The plan to end Southwest Chief service may be halted for now, but Hunter says raising awareness among the general public is critical to keeping it at bay. “The train is what knits these little towns together.” It is his hope that this painting trip will not only inspire other plein air painters to try the train, but spur interest in the Southwest Chief and the communities it serves. “It’s considered flyover country, but I think that’s bullshit.”

Jason Sacran came from his home in Arkansas to make this, his first trip on a long-distance train. He joined the trip in part for the camaraderie, but was surprised by the wealth of subject matter. “Us plein air painters love painting little towns with grit,” he said. “A lot of the towns we go to [on the plein air circuit] they’ve really fixed them up. The town is beautiful, they want us to go to these gardens and all this stuff. When we come through these kinds of towns that are kind of broken down, this is exactly what we paint.”

To some degree, the painters are under a deadline pressure. The work that they will be showing on Friday is the work that they are creating on this trip in, these Colorado and New Mexico towns. But Sacran says the pace of the train has been as rare as the subject matter. “We’ve been able to take our time and rest, then we come to these towns that are just pots of gold for what we like.”

The work these painters are doing is itself unusual. “The kind of journalist approach to painting is not widely respected in the fine art world, whereas it is totally respected in the photography world,” says Hunter. He sees this trip as an opportunity to be part of the revitalization of realism. “In terms of aesthetics and beauty in this cynical era that we live in, I think this is a way to realize that there is beauty all around us in that which is considered mundane or even trashy.”

Sacran agrees. “It’s kind of rare that people are trying to paint the everyday, the simple, the mundane that speaks to today. A lot of people paint things of the past,” says Sacran. “We are documenting real life that is happening right now, that is most likely going to disappear.

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