Tuesday, April 17, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

The town has a Famous Son now. It wasn't the one they might have chosen.

True, he hailed from one of the oldest local families, but not from one of the most distinguished. In fact, if the family was distinguished for anything it was for being in commerce here for so many generations without getting rich and without having spawned anyone prominent -- a Congressman or surgeon or clergyman.

Till now. It produced an artist. He's been dead for a while now, but in the way of these things his reputation just grows and grows, and sometime in the past decade he cracked the top tier of the American art pantheon.

He was born and raised here, but left as soon as he could. Pale and specter-thin, with big dark eyes, he caught the fancy of some of the local girls. But he never found girls interesting. Mark that against him, along with being an artist in the first place. I'm thinking locally, now.

Instead, he lived in Paris among the exiles and in beach resorts favored by burned-out poets. He loved circus trains, and often that's where he found his subjects. When he finally painted an iconic local picture of his hometown, he titled it "My Egypt." People profess to be puzzled by the title. But this is a Bible-reading town. The painter would have known that his people knew what "Egypt" means in the Old Testament.

And what an icon: Not the Soldiers & Sailors monument or the courthouse cupola or the fancy Star Barn or something a local audience would expect to attract a local prodigy. He painted in oils the grain silos at the back of a food processing plant!

Other local scenes turned up in his work over the years -- once, even, the courthouse cupola. But always askew, jagged, and in his odd palate of colors.

Now, his birthplace is a museum, marked by a plaque and open for tours. His painting style is widely imitated locally by aspiring artists. His face (from a self-portrait) is on pennons that hang from streetlamp posts in the downtown business district. His color palate has become the town's colors of choice. More and more buildings are painted over in those colors. Murals by his imitators cover the street-facing walls of public buildings. There's a bid to link his origins here with the local convention center and the house of a Civil War legislator. The notion is to generate enough critical mass of tourist interest to create a vortex into which curious outsiders will fall. To do so, the town has made itself over in his image of the town.