Little Falls – John Cosby and Joe Paquet, two nationally known plein air (open air) artists, have been traveling some of the roughest areas of the Northeast for over five years now in an attempt to capture the industrial roadside of America. Last week, that journey put them in two different locations – painting the same structure from different angles – in Little Falls.
Their Rust and Roadsides project began five years ago while both were discussing what they most enjoyed painting. According to John “we were just sitting around drinking martini’s one night” and remarking on the rapid disappearance of both the industrial and roadside America we had grown up with.
Almost simultaneously, they said “we should record it before it completely disappears,” and thus a “trip to the American dream” was begun. They’re busy painting what’s left of the industrial areas from the west end of Lake Superior all the way through the rust belt of Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania.
According to John “the rust is starting to wear off as the buildings come down and the roadsides are all changing, so we’re trying to capture that thing that we grew up with.” He continued “it’s very romanticized in our mind but the romanticism to us is the hidden beauty within it. The beauty that we see as artists.”
They’re only covering specific subjects, including rail, coal, the steel industry, mills, grain silos, shipping and the Erie Canal. They’re painting exclusively on location without the need for photographs.
“The nuances of all the grays and the beautiful reds of the brickwork just doesn’t come out in a camera,” according to John. “You can’t get the same experiential side of it from being out where you hear the sounds of the train going by. It takes all the senses and both eyes to measure the shapes to get them accurate in your mind to turn them into a painting,” he says.
What’s been the most interesting part of the journey so far? According to John “the personal stories that we hear – they’re remarkable. I met a gentleman on the other side of the river here this morning while I was painting his neighborhood. He and his three brothers live in the house that I was painting. He came out and told me all about what it was like – how his brother died falling off the bridge, the river took another relative…things just develop on the scene in these towns and you hear the entire story,” he said.
They’ve been learning so much about America, as they stand in a spot just painting, while people tell them their life’s story. The pair has been taking notes, doing interviews – as much as they can while painting. In some cases, they meet people in a bar or other location after they’re finished painting to hear the full story.
“We get moments when we’re scared” because we’re in a location that’s not the best, but then we “get the gift of a lifetime” when that person understands just what we’re doing and we get the protection of the gang lord, according to John.
These stories will be placed in written documents alongside the paintings when they’re on display. The pair is also trying to get interest in a documentary style film on what they’ve discovered so far.
The pair has been showing together in different galleries and museums for fifteen years. Their goal for this initiative is to have the sixty or more finished paintings they’ll complete over the seven year span of their travels to be a permanent display at the Smithsonian or a traveling show in major galleries and museums.
According to Joe “it’s an important story because it’s the American story. This is the remnant of the great generation that built the country. Our parents, grand parents – everything here was built by hand.”
Yet, the spirit of the people – the people who are still here, is fantastic. It’s a story that has to be told and in the end, through the paintings, we’ll be able to make that story real for generations to come.